Growing Taliban use of marksmen worries U.S. military

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 2, 2009 

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters increasingly are deploying precision marksmen to fire on U.S. troops at greater distances throughout opium-producing southern Afghanistan, according to the top two commanders for the southern region.

The increased use of marksmen is the latest Taliban shift to asymmetrical warfare and away from confronting U.S. troops in conventional fights, the commanders told McClatchy.

Instead of gathering in company-sized units to take on foreign troops, Taliban forces also are resorting increasingly to explosives and bombings, attacks that require fewer people and pose less risk to themselves, the commanders said. Explosives attacks rose by 33 percent last year, as did deaths of coalition troops, according to the International Security Assistance Force, which leads the coalition forces stationed here.

"They are reverting to tactics that tell us they are suffering heavy losses," said U.S. Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander for the southern regional command. "They are trying to minimize their exposure."

The expanded use of precision marksmen comes as the fighting shifts from eastern Afghanistan to the south, where the Taliban are trying to protect opium production, which is reputed to be their economic base. The number of coalition troops killed in southern Afghanistan has increased sharply in the past two months.

So far, shooters have made use of long-barrel rifles, not specialized sniper weapons, and Nicholson said there was no indication that they had trained snipers. Instead, they take advantage of the rough terrain to shoot at troops safely from afar, he said.

If the Taliban develop a corps of snipers, it would mark a major shift for U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. When snipers began appearing in Iraq's once-restive Anbar province in 2005, U.S. troops had a difficult time protecting themselves from attacks and began wearing more armor.

At one point, Iraqi insurgent groups began filming their sniper attacks, and the images of Marines falling to them became a rallying point for the insurgency.

There may be a limit to the effectiveness of snipers in Afghanistan. They tend to be more effective in urban environments, where they can hide more easily, and Helmand province and neighboring Kandahar have a limited number of towns and cities.

Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked for three more brigades for the south, most of which will move into Helmand or Kandahar province. During a visit to Afghanistan last month, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Pentagon probably would meet McKiernan's request with as many as 30,000 troops.

Coalition officials said they didn't have statistics on how much more often the Taliban were employing precision shooters, how far they were expanding their distances or casualties related to the change of tactics. A Marine officer who's faced Taliban fighters said he'd seen them shoot from as far away as 400 yards. Statistics compiled by the International Security Assistance Force show a 25 percent increase in direct-fire incidents last year, which could include shots by marksmen.

Most of them are Afghans, not foreign fighters, the officials said. The Afghan use of marksmen goes back hundreds of years, in a country in which fighting is commonplace.

The use of precision shooters "is more a kind of intuition that I have. But sometimes we see high-quality enemy in the area of central Helmand. . . . It shows we have a very capable enemy," said Maj. Gen. M.C. de Kruif, the Dutch commander for Regional Command South.

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