Marines moving into offensive mode

Thursday, December 6, 2001

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. Marines are moving into an offensive mode for the first time around the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar, helping tighten the siege of the city as Afghan tribal fighters move in, U.S. officers said Wednesday.

The new tactics, cutting off roads and communications to the city, marked a significant shift in the role of the Marines after days of building up a forward base in the deserts outside Kandahar.

"Opposition groups are now closing in on Kandahar," Maj. James Parrington, executive officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit 15th's Battalion Landing Team 1, said, referring to the Afghan forces. "We are supporting them by conducting offensive operations."

The Marines will cut off roads, pathways and other routes that could be used by the Taliban either to bring in reinforcements or escape, Parrington, 37, of Minneapolis, told journalists at the base, called Marine Forward Operating Base Rhino.

Reconnaissance units were identifying key pieces of terrain north of Kandahar. They "are getting themselves in position to cut lines of communication," he said. Both the Marines and their Pashtun allies were getting into "position to defeat Taliban forces outside of Kandahar," he said.

Marines from Base Rhino were called into action on Wednesday after an errant U.S. bomb killed three U.S. servicemen and five anti-Taliban Afghan fighters and wounded 19 Americans and around 20 Afghans.

Some of the injured were flown to the base, which has a Navy field medical unit with 10 doctors. The Americans and some of the Afghans were immediately flown out on C130 transports to hospitals elsewhere.

Reporters at the base were kept away from the medical unit as the casualties were brought in.

The accident occurred when U.S. forces called in a B-52 strike to help Afghan fighters battling the Taliban north of Kandahar. One of the B-52s missed its target and dropped a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb called JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition, near the Americans' position.

Parrington said other troops at the base were aware of the incident and that it has steeled them for the fight.

"This is real. We're not playing around. There are people out there who mean us ill will. It is serious," Parrington said. He added that the Marines were excited at the prospect of taking the fight to the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies.

U.S. jets have been pounding Taliban positions outside Kandahar, trying to soften up their defenses as the ethnic Pashtun tribesmen push toward the city.

U.S. officials in Washington have said the Marines were not expected to take part in street fighting to drive the Taliban from Kandahar, where the Islamic movement was founded nearly a decade ago.

But the Marines' new move to help constrict the siege of the city was a major change for their mission so far.

The Marines first seized the desert air strip and began moving into the base on Nov. 25, and their only combat operation came the next day when Cobra helicopter gunships from the base helped warplanes from elsewhere attack a suspected hostile convoy that passed nearby.

Apart from that, the Marines have spent their time getting the base in shape, bringing in supplies and reinforcements and conducting defensive patrols around the perimeter.

Parrington declined to discuss the numbers or locations of the Marines, but they include the 15th and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Units, equipped with heavily armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons.

Their arsenal includes AH-1W Super Cobra and UH-1N Huey helicopter gunships, CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53E helicopters, light armored vehicles, heavily armed Humvees and fast-attack vehicles within striking distance of Kandahar.

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