NOW ZAD, Afghanistan – U.S. Marines are moving quickly to secure this newly liberated Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province from expected extremist reprisal operations that will target the local population as well as U.S. and Afghan forces.
At least three platoon-sized outposts have been built from scratch in less than two weeks in outlying areas to block likely Taliban infiltration routes from nearby mountains. U.S. troops are staging daily patrols into Now Zad District villages to give the people an increased sense of security and gain their cooperation in identifying Taliban in hiding.
Marine officers say more are to come. As in Nawa District to the south and elsewhere in the country, U.S. forces have found daily interaction with the local populace leads to more personal relationships, which lead to actionable intelligence on Taliban activities and infiltrators.
In the town of Now Zad itself, made a muddy ghost town by the Taliban since 2006, displaced former residents are being given paying jobs to help clean away debris so people can return to their homes from nearby villages and rebuild the province's second-largest town.
Some of those men may have at one point joined been Taliban for economic reasons rather than ideological ones, but the Marines believe that the flowering rebuilding efforts will keep them out of the clutches of insurgents.
"If a man has work during the day that puts food on the table, he's unlikely to go out into a wadi (ravine) late at night to go plant an IED for the Taliban for money," said Capt. Jason Brezler, a team leader with the 4th Civil Affairs Group, which has started rebuilding here.
Explosive ordnance disposal teams, meanwhile, comb roads for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while other units from Forward Operating Base Now Zad — operations central for efforts here — visit close-in villages.
There is also talk of unarmed neighborhood-watch groups for Now Zad in the future.
"We have to stay ahead of them (the Taliban)," said Lt. Col. Martin Wetterauer, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. "We are not going to give back any dirt we've taken ... there is more heavy lifting to do in the 'hold' phase of this operation and we're going to do it.
"There are Marines now in places they've never been seen or expected."
Now Zad, in the northwestern Helmand, was the Taliban's major supply hub and command-and-control center for the province's northern and central river valleys, according to Marines.
Within the town's confines were bunkers full of homemade explosives (3,000 pounds have been found so far), rifle ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and hundreds of assembled pressure plates to detonate IEDs.
About 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan soldiers in early December pushed the enemy out in an air and ground assault operation called "Cobra's Anger."
"We came at them in a different way," said Wetterauer. "I believe that the way we came at them caught them off guard and these guys just aren't that good going toe-to-toe with us."
Wetterauer, who expressed surprise that the 100-200 resident hardcore Taliban in Now Zad didn't put up a more of a fight, said Marines in helicopters and V-22 Osprey landed behind Taliban lines to the north of the town and pushed south while additional troops with tanks pushed in from east to west, clearing mine fields as they went.
As many as a dozen Taliban were killed. No U.S. troops died in action.
"There was a handful we got a hold of before they could get out of here," he said. "But a large majority of them broke from their positions, dropped their weapons and blended back into the local population or left via foot or motorcycle to other areas."
The commander said prior to the assault, a small number of Marines held compound on one edge of the city. The troops here then, like the British in earlier years, were too few in number to "hold" areas they cleared, so they controlled only neighborhoods near their base. The rest of the town and surrounding villages basically belonged to the Taliban, who surrounded their own positions with IEDs.
Today U.S. troops and their Afghan counterparts patrol freely in surrounding villages and through parts of the town. Many other parts of the town are still avoided, however, because of the large number of mines and booby traps troops believed planted over the years.
Capt. Brezler said talks are under way between U.S. officials and a non-governmental organization that conducts de-mining NGO (non-governmental organization) for the cleanup of hidden explosives in the residential areas of Now Zad.
There have been no recent attacks against U.S. forces in Now Zad town, but villagers report the appearance of "night letters" — printed Taliban warnings that people should not cooperate with the Americans.
"The more this place improves the madder they (the Taliban) are going to get," said 1st Lt. John Pickup, of Lima Company. "They've lost face with the people. I wouldn't be surprised if some bodies (of cooperative villagers) started turning up soon."