U.S. and British troops in southern Afghanistan are facing another formidable danger in Helmand Province: well-trained foreign snipers, who are beginning to rival roadside bombs as a significant threat.
Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the top Marine general in Afghanistan, told National Journal that the sniper threat was particularly acute in contested regions of Helmand like Sangin and Garesh, where NATO forces are battling Taliban fighters trying to reclaim some of their former strongholds. Despite a counter-offensive from insurgents, the military said coalition troops control most of Helmand and the level of violence there is declining.
Toolan, who runs NATO’s Regional Command Southwest, said many of the snipers attacking his troops speak Farsi or Arabic, meaning that the fighters likely come from Iran and other neighboring countries. Other U.S. officials in Afghanistan say Iran has significantly escalated its support for militants there, providing long-range rockets, money, and technical assistance. Tehran denies the charges, but Toolan said some of the snipers appear to have been trained outside of Afghanistan.
“It does effectively get inside the head of the soldier and the Marine when they know that with every step there is the potential for an IED to go off or that there is some sniper or sharpshooter waiting in the wings,” he said. “There are natives of other countries out here looking for a fight and bringing some of their marksmanship skills with them.”
Snipers have killed approximately 20 troops in Helmand this year, according to a military official at the Pentagon familiar with the data. Coalition forces have lost 84 troops in Helmand in 2011, according to icasualties.org. Lt. Col. Riccoh Player, a Marine spokesman in Helmand, said the command was reluctant to provide more precise details about how many casualties have been caused by insurgent snipers to avoid “providing Battle Damage Assessment to the enemy.”
The threat posed by the snipers was on vivid display in early February when a patrol of British and Afghan troops left a small base in Helmand. The troops were conducting a foot patrol in Nad-e-Ali, one of the province’s most violent towns, when they came under fire. As the troops crouched for cover, a Taliban sniper killed two of the British paratroopers with a single shot. British officials later said the bullet blew through one soldier’s head before smashing into the neck of his colleague. The dead men, both in their early 20s, were described as close friends.
Toolan, who assumed command over the U.S. and British forces in Helmand in mid-March, said he was cautiously optimistic about the overall security situation in the province. He said his forces were successfully interdicting significant amounts of drugs and squeezing the Taliban’s ability to recruit fighters or carry out large-scale new attacks. By this time last year, for instance, militants had carried out 54 successful IED strikes while coalition forces had found and dismantled just 76. This year, by contrast, there has only been 42 IED attacks while coalition forces have safely dealt with 120 of the bombs.
Toolan said many Taliban leaders are remaining in Pakistan to avoid being killed or captured by coalition forces, who have mounted a concerted campaign of targeted raids against key militants in recent months.
“They’re doing leadership by cell phone,” Toolan said, adding that intercepted conversations suggested Taliban fighters in Afghanistan were beginning to question why they were putting themselves at risk when their commanders were living in relative safety outside the country. “The Taliban are not able to mount any real attacks of real significance.”
The improving situation in Helmand has cleared the way for some U.S. troops to begin leaving the province. The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, a unit of about 800 troops, will leave Afghanistan this fall as part of the Obama administration’s first troop withdrawals from the country. Later this month, the coalition plans to begin transferring control of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah over to Afghan troops.
Afghan militants have long lacked the battlefield prowess of their counterparts in Iraq, many of whom were former members of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. Iraqi militants have attacked U.S. troops with technologically sophisticated magnetic bombs, so-called "stand-off" weapons like rockets and mortars, and well-placed sniper shots designed to hit troops in their heads, necks, or other unprotected parts of their bodies.
In Afghanistan, by contrast, militants have traditionally employed crude roadside bombs that rely on sheer size rather than advanced design. Afghan insurgents have rarely employed rockets or other artillery pieces, which require significant amounts of training. The militants have also historically shown little ability to pick off coalition troops from far away with accurate machine-gun fire.
The situation is changing in some parts of Afghanistan, posing new risks to U.S. and British forces. Earlier this month, for instance, five coalition troops were killed in a rocket attack north of Kabul, one of the highest single-incident death tolls to date from the weapon. In Sangin and other parts of Helmand, meanwhile, unseen attackers are striking down coalition troops from a distance and then melting away into the surrounding countryside.
“It’s an important area for them and now they’re seeing if they can come back and get it back,” Toolan said.