A Marine from 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, stands guard March 15 as Marines build a barrier around their base in Marjah, Afghanistan. Insurgents are turning more frequently to IEDs in Marjah, weeks after U.S. and Afghan troops cleared the Taliban from the town. (DUSAN VRANIC / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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MARJAH, Afghanistan — Explosions rumble through this former Taliban stronghold three or four times a day — an ominous sign that the insurgents have not given up despite losing control of this town to U.S. and Afghan forces about two weeks ago.
This week, Lt. Gen. Michael L. Oates, the U.S. general in charge of a Pentagon program to combat roadside bombs, told a congressional committee that the number of homemade explosives in Afghanistan had nearly doubled in the last year and "the number of casualties has reflected that."
The disturbing trend is starkly clear here in Marjah, which had been the biggest community under Taliban control in the south until a major military operation was launched last month to push out the insurgents.
Taliban fighters scattered but have not abandoned the fight — and they are using homemade bombs as their weapon of choice.
New bombs are planted every night, even though Marines say they find and render safe more of them than explode. The bombs are often placed in spots where the Marines stopped on patrol the day before, or into holes from previous explosions so the upturned earth doesn't look suspicious.
Since U.S. and Afghan forces seized control of Marjah about two weeks ago, they have been working to build up trust in the community. They hope the strategy will pay off with more and more tips about where the Taliban have planted IEDs.
But the process is slow. Lt. Col. Calvert Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, said his troops found or hit more than 120 homemade bombs in their first 30 days in Marjah.
"We've found most of them, we've hit some of them and we've taken some casualties," he said, adding that his battalion had suffered no fatalities from the bombs.
Still, coping with the daily blasts and hunting for bombs takes up time that could be send helping set up a local Afghan administration, which NATO considers essential to keeping Marjah from sliding back under insurgent control.
Whenever the Marines meet with Marjah residents, they make the point that the Taliban bombs pose a threat to Afghan civilians in the town too.
"It's not really stopping us because we're still going out and talking with the people," said Capt. Carl Havens, commander of Alpha Company, whose unit has had three vehicles hit by bombs in the last week. "We talk about how the Taliban don't care about you or us."
Nevertheless, the fact that militants can still plant a significant number of explosives serves as a reminder that the Taliban are still around, making it harder to convince Afghan civilians that the insurgents will never return to power here.
As the Marines improve their bomb-detection skills, the insurgents have begun to adapt to Marine tactics.
Units have found decoy bombs planted in the middle of the road. That forces Marines out of their vehicles to make sure the bombs are fake. Real bombs are planted along the roadsides in hopes that some of the Marines may step on them, according to Capt. Michael Woodie, intelligence officer for Alpha Company.
At least one bomb was floated down a canal. Someone detonated it remotely, likely by cell phone, when it got close to a military vehicle.
"There's a lot of eyes and ears watching," Woodie said. "On patrols, there's guys ‘turkey-peeking' on top of roofs. Sometimes you see a guy pointing and counting. They're watching what we do when we find IEDs."
On Thursday, two Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles struck bombs within a couple of hours. No one was seriously wounded because the hulls are so strong. But the vehicles were damaged and need to be replaced.
"They'll just expect us to do the same with less," said Lt. Shawn Miller, the executive officer of Alpha Company. Soon after he spoke, a bomb exploded on a vehicle belonging to another rifle company.
With the Americans using more heavily armored vehicles, the Taliban are increasingly planting smaller bombs to target foot patrols.
In one attack this week, a bomb filled with shrapnel exploded near a patrol, wounding several Marines. Then snipers started shooting at the Marines, Havens said. The Marines gave chase and killed the man they believe was the shooter, he said.
The hit-and-run bomb attacks show that the Taliban have limited types of weaponry and resort to more indirect, low-risk attacks, Worth said.
"The IEDs are cheap, easy to make, and that's why they use them," he said.
He said he's encouraged because more and more Marjah residents are tipping off international forces to the location of bombs, and he hopes this will soon lead to tips on bomb-makers' hideouts.
"That's when we'll really know, when we start being handed some of these folks on a platter: ‘He's here; they're making the materials right now if you get to this spot,' " Worth said. "That's really where we want to get to. We're not there yet in Marjah."