SIRAQULA, Afghanistan (AP) — Shortly after the call to prayer resounded over the harvested poppy fields near Salaam Bazaar, two Taliban commanders were heard on their radios asking how their forces are doing.
The number of Taliban fighters who respond varies, but in the last month a squad of U.S. Marines at a small patrol base here in northern Helmand province counted 80 to 100 different radio call signs. The fighters usually thank God for their fortunes, report their casualties and track movements by the Marines.
Then, using secret numerical codes, the commanders deploy fighters to the mud-walled farming compounds surrounding the Marines' base.
Radio chatter picks up whenever Marines go on their daily patrols. On one recent day, the sound of men speaking in Pashto crackled over the Marines' scanner five minutes after the troops left the base to conduct a patrol.
"We see the Americans," a Taliban spotter said. "They have 15 people."
In fact, six Marines, eight Afghan soldiers and two Associated Press reporters were on the dusk patrol.
As Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah marked the official start of its transition from NATO to Afghan control on Wednesday, the fierce fighting in the market town of Siraqula served as a reminder that the war is still on in what remains the country's deadliest province for coalition forces.
Lashkar Gah is one of five provincial capitals and two provinces that President Hamid Karzai deemed ready for Afghan control in the next several months.
The transition to Afghan control will allow international military forces to slowly start withdrawing from Afghanistan. NATO intends these transition areas to be the leading edge of an emergent sovereign state capable of quelling the insurgency and providing for its citizens by the time the coalition completes the withdrawal of combat troops in 2014.
It remains unclear, however, whether the modest security gains achieved in the provincial capital will expand to Taliban strongholds in northern Helmand, where U.S. Marines are still trying to pacify prime poppy growing areas that are the insurgency's profit center.
The Marine patrol base in Salaam Bazaar is in a blocking position at the junction of three roads connecting the northern district centers of Nawzad to the northwest and Musa Qala to the northeast and Gereshk to the south. Although Marines improved security in many of Helmand's main population centers last year, motorcycle-borne Taliban still control roads with checkpoints and mines. The result has been a scattered archipelago of Helmand towns that are cut off from one another, a hobbled economy and provincial government institutions that cannot extend essential services.
With its 100 stalls, Salaam Bazaar was once a regional commercial center for farmers and small businesses until opium and arms dealers took it over and insurgents used it as a base to disrupt traffic on the Gereshk road. In May, Marines set up a patrol base less than a mile from the bazaar and tried to clear it for the second time in a year, but somehow the insurgency learned of the plan.
During the next several days, surveillance cameras mounted on an 80-foot tower at the patrol base monitored Taliban fighters planting a belt of mines around the bazaar.
Marines are building a new 10-stall bazaar along the main road to give traders an alternative to the Taliban-controlled marketplace and are trying to contain the insurgents so that roads to the north and south stay open. But the Taliban still use the old bazaar as a base.
Just as the Marines closely watch the Taliban with frequent patrols and constant electronic surveillance, the insurgents view the Marines, using spotters at scattered farming compounds and from roving motorcycles near their patrol base.
As Afghan dignitaries walked a red carpet to usher in autonomy for Lashkar Gah, U.S. Marine Capt. Mark Paige led a joint patrol of Marines and Afghan soldiers through fields of powdery sand and harvested poppy stalks toward Salaam Bazaar. Minutes after leaving the gate, Pashto speakers were heard on the scanner.
"Do you see the Americans?" asked one.
"Yes, they are west of us," said another.
"Pay attention to everything they do," said the first voice.
Thousands of dried poppy bulbs, each one of them meticulously scored by razors, crunched underfoot as Paige led the patrol across several fields to a residential compound. Opium, Afghanistan's richest cash crop, is the financial lifeblood of the insurgency. A Marine engineer walked ahead of the troop line sweeping a mine detector along the ground near the walls of the compound.
Marines monitoring the radio scanner back at the patrol base told Paige he and his men were being watched and that an attack was likely imminent.
"If you see the Americans, shoot them," said a Pashto speaker over the radio.
Two Marines and two Afghan soldiers set up mounted machine guns to face another building southwest of the patrol and waited.
"We got two guys at that compound in front of you," said a Marine on the radio.
"I got them," Paige answered, seeing figures along a wall on the other side of a field.
"They've got a weapon," said the Marine back at base. "Shoot them."
The Marines fired deafening bursts and then ordered their Afghan trainees to shoot as well. Several Afghan boys chased a small herd of goats across a field and away from the Marines.
The other Afghan troops, including their commander, 1st Sgt. Ismatullah, stood behind the machine guns along the compound wall. One held a bag of FM radios he hoped to pass out to residents. Another sat on the ground with his rifle in his lap. Ismatullah later said he and most of his men held their fire because they were conserving ammunition until they could actually see the enemy with their own eyes.
Marines would later complain about their Afghan partners' lack of motivation to fight.
Taliban gunmen shot back from the compound to the southwest of the Marines. The two parties exchanged fire for several minutes across a distance of about 200 yards, until other guns were heard shooting at the Marines from the south. Two Taliban fighters on motorcycles had flanked the patrol and the insurgents fired at the troops from two directions. The Marines and the Afghan soldiers who were standing against the wall dived to the dirt and began blasting rounds toward the sound of the Taliban's second position.
As the gunbattle continued, an elderly farmer named Aqatar Mohammad emerged from the house the Marines were using for cover. Mohammad smiled at the Marines, but he was trembling.
"If the Marines come here, the Taliban shoot. If the Taliban come, the Marines shoot," he said over thunderous rifle reports. "We are between two mountains."
Mohammad said the area has become increasingly dangerous since the Marines set up their base this summer, but he is staying because he is too afraid of the bombs lining the roads to Lashkar Gah.
Mohammad also said he was unable to leave because — like every other farmer in the area — he is obligated to grow opium for the insurgency.
"Every farm has to produce 6.5 kilograms (14 pounds) of poppy for the Taliban," he said. "If we do not, they will take us away and kill us."
Almost in mid-sentence, his wife pulled him into the house and away from the flying bullets.
Residents routinely tell the Marines that they detest the insurgency but fear retribution if they cooperate with NATO forces. And all of them were aware that the Taliban would be around long after the coalition leaves.
Of the 30,000 coalition troops in Helmand, a number of Marines stationed in the province will leave by the end of the year and others may shift to eastern Afghanistan where NATO officials say more international terrorists are based.
During a different patrol, an opium farmer named Shahazada begged Marine snipers who had taken up positions on his roof to leave his property. He showed the Marines bullet holes in his wall and said the troops' presence was scaring his children.
"We don't have any other place to live," he said, pointing to a small vegetable garden. "This is our meat. This is all we have to live on. If you don't leave, the Taliban will say I am a spy and they will take over my house."
As the gunbattle continued Wednesday, Marines back at the patrol base sent four armored personnel carriers to the Taliban compound. Taliban spotters dutifully called in the new development.
"We stopped firing because tanks are coming," a Pashto speaker said over the radio.
By the time the Marines unleashed .50-caliber machine gun rounds into the Taliban's hide-out, the insurgents had stopped firing and the joint patrol was returning to base.