published Saturday, July 18th, 2009

'We will prevail' in Afghanistan


by Lauren Gregory

The anti-Taliban offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand Province is slow going -- but it is going, says a Chattanooga native stationed at the front lines of Operation Khanjar.

Marine Cpl. Brent Bergmann, 26, told the Times Free Press via e-mail that he believes U.S.-led forces are maintaining "OK" morale despite heavy losses, because they see ultimate victory in their grasp.

"We will prevail eventually in pushing down south, but it will take longer than I thought because these guys know how to fight and they know the lay of the land," said Cpl. Bergmann, a radio operator with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

The corporal is among 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers who charged into southern Afghan provinces earlier this month as part of Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," an offensive into the area where the Taliban runs large drug operations.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell acknowledged earlier this week that Khanjar has led to "an extraordinarily difficult month" in the war. With nearly 50 casualties recorded so far among U.S.-led international forces, July is on pace to be the deadliest month yet since Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan nearly eight years ago.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took over NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan in June, told reporters in a recent briefing in Kabul that high casualty rates likely will continue "until insurgent fighters decide that they cannot force us out."

It may take months for the strategy to play out in Helmand Province, the general said.

There are about 57,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press, and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009.

The Marines who are part of the push are trying to stay hopeful despite blistering heat, dwindling supplies and the threat of improvised explosive devices everywhere they go, Cpl. Bergmann said.

"In the past few days we have had, let's just say, too many casualties," he wrote in an e-mail. "In my battalion, we have had only one KIA (killed in action) in our initial push. It is a pretty surreal feeling though and kind of makes you numb to feeling."

U.S. forces have suffered many cases of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, according to Cpl. Bergmann, who said troops have no air conditioning in temperatures that top out above 100 degrees.

"It is normal to drink about 30 20-ounce bottles of water a day because you have to," he said. "You often wake up in a pool of sweat and are more exhausted than you were before you went to sleep."

Most combat-related fatalities and injuries are from IEDs, Cpl. Bergmann said, because Taliban fighters don't seem to be very skilled in small-arms fire.

"The Taliban is horrible at aiming their weapons and are not trained to fight like the Americans, so pretty much what they are doing when we are confronted by them is spray and pray," Cpl. Bergmann said. "Their best defense and offense is cowardice -- IEDs. They can't beat us in an all-out brawl. We have bigger guns."

Military officials have recognized an increased threat of IEDs in Afghanistan and are sending more heavily armored vehicles in response, according to Mr. Morrell. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates already has pushed to move 3,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to the war zone and plans to add at least 5,000 more on top of that, Mr. Morrell said.

As U.S.-led forces beef up their ranks, they are trying to expand Afghan national security forces for an ultimate takeover, he said.

The Georgia National Guard's 1/108th Cavalry Regiment -- which includes the Dalton-based "Charlie Troop" -- is playing an integral role in that, according to unit commander Lt. Col. Randall Simmons.

Speaking to the Times Free Press by telephone from the battle zone in May, Lt. Col. Simmons explained that his unit is part of Joint Task Force Phoenix, which is charged with training and mentoring Afghan police and military through early 2010.

"The sooner the Afghan forces gain that basic competency to operate on their own without coalition help, the better," he said.

The Tennessee National Guard, meanwhile, is concentrating on mentoring average civilians in Afghanistan. The Tennessee Guard dispatched a special "agribusiness" team last January that is helping teach residents how to better support themselves through agriculture.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

AFGHANISTAN CASUALTIES

July is shaping up to be the deadliest month in Afghanistan yet, with at least 48 international troops -- including 24 Americans -- killed so far. That matches the highest full-month toll in the nearly eight-year-old conflict and averages about three casualties per day. In comparison, two U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq this month.

As of July 16, total U.S. deaths reached 735 in Afghanistan and 4,328 in Iraq.

Sources: Associated Press, U.S. Department of Defense

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