January 3, 2009 in Nation/World

Taliban turns to snipers in Afghanistan

Fewer conventional fights, more bombs confront troops
By Nancy A. Youssef McClatchy
 

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 Newspapers.

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 is trying to protect opium production, which is reputed to be its 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 Taliban forces had trained snipers. Instead, they take advantage of the rough terrain to shoot at troops safely from afar, he said.

If the Taliban develops 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 provinces.

During a visit to Afghanistan last month, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon probably would meet McKiernan’s request with as many as 30,000 troops.


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