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Firsthand Look at Firefights in Marja
During the initial American-led assault earlier this year into Marja, the last large Taliban-dominated population center in Helmand Province, Marines in several companies encountered something unusual in the American experience of the Afghan war – insurgent snipers.
For several days, and in several places, competent and deliberate marksmen fired on Marine patrols. A video today presents one such event, a firefight between the Marines of Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, and Taliban fighters, including at least one Taliban gunman the Marines considered to be a sniper. The footage shows the effects of incoming gunfire that is much different from the normal experience of Afghan shooting.
The Ineffectiveness of Taliban Riflery
Now and then over the years, there have been reports of well-trained Taliban marksmen in different parts of the country. But credible reports have been few. Taliban rifle fire, in the main, has been largely ineffective.
How ineffective? Through April 3, the number of American troops killed by gunshot wounds in the entire war in Afghanistan, according to the casualty summaries compiled by the Defense Manpower Data Center, had reached 188. That includes wounds caused not just by rifle fire, but also by the more powerful PK machine guns and any other firearm present in the war.
This number — 188 — merits consideration, for what it tells us about the Afghan war and much of the public conversation about it. To put things in perspective, fewer American troops have died of gunshot wounds in more than eight-and-a-half years of war in Afghanistan than in almost any single month at the height of the war in Vietnam. Many factors contribute to this – better medical care in the minutes after injury (the so-called golden hour); improved body armor and helmets; the prevalence of bullet-proof plates and glass on most American military ground vehicles; the longer ranges of typical engagements in lightly vegetated Afghan environments, as opposed to the short ranges that were common in engagements in tropical jungles and deltas; the Taliban’s shift to a greater emphasis on explosives, including against foot patrols; and others.
Yes, the comparison is imprecise, for reasons both obvious and subtle. Troop-strength levels for both sides were higher in Vietnam (there is no Taliban equivalent of the massing of N.V.A. battalions south of the demilitarized zone, and nothing remotely like Tet), and the lethality of bullet wounds to American troops has declined sharply in recent years, compared with the experiences of past wars. Yet the raw data is still remarkable. It serves to keep this war in martial perspective. And it underscores that impressions created by much of the public chatter about the Taliban as a fighting force – they are natural fighters, the fighting is constant, come warm weather they will be back strong in the “spring offensive” etc. – often do not align with what the war actually looks like on the ground, and need fine-tuning.
Enter the Snipers
Taliban gunmen have been adept at exerting influence over the Afghan population. They are an enduring and effective political force. Their numbers seem large and their support substantial. They are skilled at intelligence collection, and have integrated bomb-making and emplacement into their operations. But their success as gunfighters against the American military has been episodic, as in Wanat, and local, as in the Korangal Valley, and often related to questionable tactical choices by American commanders as much as to Taliban skill. In all, the Taliban’s gunmen have proved to be a modest threat.
Enter the snipers, who are an exception.
In recent months, there have been cases of better Taliban marksmen harassing American patrols and wounding and killing American troops. The operations in and near Marja were a prominent example. The phenomenon deserves closer examination, to try to gain a richer perspective than is often possible while reporting in the midst of fighting.
Let’s look at what is known.
First, what exactly is meant by “sniper”? Like many terms used to discuss war fighting, this is a slippery word. In the context of Afghan fighting, American troops tend to talk about a sniper when they encounter an insurgent rifleman who is obviously more skilled and disciplined than the norm, someone who fires with reasonable accuracy at medium and longish ranges, usually using a rifle-and-ammunition combination that can be effective out to 400 or 500 meters or more. But while the Taliban’s “snipers” are not the usual class of Kalashnikov-carrying Afghan fighter, they typically are not what a conventional soldier might think of in relation to the term.
The available evidence suggests that many of them are not highly trained shooters, with advanced optics, premium ammunition and precision high-powered rifles, who can be reasonably expected to hit a man with a single shot at 700 or 800 or 1,000 meters or more. One way to understand them, based on the experience of Marja, is to say that these better gunmen could usually hit a sheet of plywood at 400 yards, but most of them could not hit a sheet of copy paper at that range. This is very good shooting for Afghanistan. It’s not especially impressive shooting by a higher standard. (Note: A few Taliban marksmen can hit a sheet of paper from 400 yards. One fighter with that level of skill is the Taliban gunman in the video.)
Second, how are they equipped? Kilo Company’s battlefield collections, along with reviews of recent photographs of armed Taliban fighters and information shared by an officer who gathered data from across Helmand Province, offer insights. Among the captured rifles were two variants of the Lee-Enfield rifle line. These are bolt-action rifles with design roots reaching to the late 19th century, when conventional armies favored heavier, long-barreled rifles that fired more powerful ammunition than what is predominant in military use today.
One of the rifles had been manufactured at the Long Branch arsenal in Toronto in 1942. The other was manufactured at the Government Rifle Factory in Ishapore, India; its date was not clear. Photographs of the Taliban have also shown a few of their gunmen carrying old Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifles. These were a similar czarist (then Soviet) arm of the same era.
These rifles belong to class of weapon often referred to as “battle rifles” and differ markedly from the assault rifles in widespread circulation today. They have longer effective ranges, are less concealable and fire heavier bullets than assault rifles. The shooter loads them manually, by manipulating a bolt that ejects the spent cartridge and then slides the next cartridge into place; they have no automatic or semiautomatic features.
Battle rifles have had their champions for decades, in part because their slower rate of fire keeps ammunition consumption low and encourages disciplined aiming, but also because they were manufactured for much of the 20th century in large quantities in several countries. Their abundance meant that after the shift by most conventional forces to assault rifles — which began on a small scale in Hitler’s army and by the 1960s and 1970s was spreading through conventional armies most everywhere — the old battle rifles, which gradually fell from service, became available in huge surpluses and at inexpensive prices. They are also well suited to desert fighting or any other shooting involving open vistas, because of their longer effective ranges. Not surprisingly, Lee-Enfields were distributed to the Afghan anti-Soviet resistance by the C.I.A., via the Pakistani intelligence service, in the early 1980s. They also can still be found on arms markets. In the opening of the Marja assault, it was clear on many days as bullets passed by that these kinds of weapons, or similar ones, were in use by the Taliban. The round makes a distinctly different sound. The battlefield collections then confirmed the hunch.
The Ammunition and the Shooting
Third, the ammunition. Caches in Marja turned up ammunition – dated Mark 7 British .303 cartridges from several different factories — that matched Lee-Enfield rifles. In two caches captured by Kilo Company, some of the British .303 cartridges dated to 1941.
Many held bullets that were jacketed in steel – which marked them as original British World War II-production ammunition from Churchill’s time. (The British used steel for bullet jackets to save copper and zinc for other wartime uses.) A small portion of the ammunition in the sample appeared to have been older still — a few cartridges were round-nosed Mark 6 rounds, which British forces were phasing out before the First World War.
Last, several rounds were 7.62×54R cartridges, which match Russian Mosin-Nagant rifles or the SVD line, the Soviet-designed semiautomatic sniper rifles of the former Eastern bloc that were often used by insurgent snipers in Iraq. (Curiously, there are very few recent reports or images of SVD rifles in Afghanistan. They are not absent from the war. But they seem not to be widely used. This is in some ways surprising, considering the expansive distribution in Afghanistan of the standard arms of the former Eastern bloc – the AK, PK, DshK and Makarov lines, as well as 82-millimeter mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and F1 pineapple-style hand grenades.)
Fourth, the shooting itself. Often the Taliban’s snipers fired near misses, one after another, separated by 30 seconds or more. Mixed with the incoming automatic fire, the firefights in Marja would be punctuated by the occasional single round that would pass by just overheard, or thump into the soil or at a door frame or the surface of a wall beside a Marine. These rounds were attention-getting, to say the least. At times, and the video captures some of this, it appeared that more than one Taliban fighter with battle rifle was firing, which may have signaled not so much the presence of a single “true” sniper, but that some of these Taliban units had multiple fighters who preferred to carry Lee-Enfields. This might make them no different from the American grunts who prefer to carry M-14s, arguing that their larger cartridges have greater range and stopping power than the rounds fired by the M-4 and M-16 line, and thus have a real value in Afghan fighting.
But among whoever was firing on the Marines, there were several instances of skilled and accurate shooting. The officer who gathered data (and asked not to be named here) said there were times during the operation when a Taliban sniper killed a Marine, as well as instances in which Marines survived after being hit on their bullet-proof plates or, once, after a glancing shot that hit a helmet. In Kilo Company, the Marines present in several engagements also felt that at least one of the Taliban gunmen shooting at them in this particular area might have had a telescopic sight. Their feeling was that the distances were long enough that it would be hard to make shots like this with the naked eye. Moreover, the day after I recorded the video footage above, an Afghan National Army soldier was killed while walking in the open during a lull in fighting. He was felled by a single shot, at a range the Marines estimated at 500 to 700 meters, and the bullet struck his neck. Whoever made that shot was, absent extraordinary good luck, not the run-of-the-mill Taliban fighter.
What does it all mean? To gain some distance on this, broader casualty numbers are again helpful. But we’re out of space for today. Tomorrow we’ll publish data that put the snipers of Helmand Province in a fuller context. We’ll for now hint at what the statistics seem to show: Taliban fighters with traditional battle rifles have made Helmand Province more dangerous. They present an interesting phenomenon, and bear close watching. On the national level, they do not appear to mark a profound shift in the war.
That’s not to say that they do not create harrowing moments. As the video shows, Lance Cpl. Travis Vuocolo was a very lucky man.