CAMP HANSON, Afghanistan — Nearly three years after the largest joint offensive of the war in Afghanistan, a fragile peace has taken hold in the once notorious Taliban stronghold of Marjah.
It took three Marine battalions, an equal number of Afghan forces, and more than a thousand British and Canadian troops to secure this volatile region in Helmand province. Lives were sacrificed and billions were spent.
Today, all that’s left of coalition forces is a single company of Marines; Afghan National Security Forces now fortify the area.
Like many Afghans who live here, Hayatullah Barak is hopeful. The linguist for a private security company says that until recently, Afghans only understood a life wracked by war.
“They know war, not peace,” he said. “People don’t want to kill. They don’t want to fight.”
Barak, 25, believes the security gains over the last three years have given Afghans a new desire for peace and a lifestyle he believes they’re willing to defend, even after the Marines are gone. He knows his job makes him a target, but like many Afghans fed up with the insurgency, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.
In February 2010, President Barack Obama ordered the commencement of Operation Moshtarak, a key maneuver in his surge strategy initiated to clear enemy forces out of central Helmand. The harrowing first week of the offensive was made famous in the HBO documentary, “The Battle of Marjah.”
According to an interpreter for the Marines nicknamed “Roodi,” who was featured in the documentary, the success in Marjah has been hard-won.
“There was fighting every single day. The people didn’t like us,” he said. “Whatever the Taliban told them, they would make that happen.
“They kept calling us infidels,” he said. “I kept telling them, ‘I am a Muslim. I am from Afghanistan, but I am working with these people who are here to help you solve your problems.’ ”
Months passed. The fighting waned. Shops opened. Roads were built.
“Step by step, slowly they would start working with us,” he said. “We built a school for them. We changed their minds. There’s a 90 percent change in Marjah.
“They don’t like the Taliban anymore. Most of these people understand they get nothing from the Taliban except the fight: Death, murder, destruction. These are very good people.”
For the last year, "Roodi" has hosted a local radio program where residents call in to request songs and discuss various topics. He caters to the youth and doesn’t hesitate to take on controversial topics such as female education, the expansion of Afghan security forces, the peace process — even the insurgency.
He’s received threatening messages from the Taliban, and sometimes he fears for his life. Still, he doesn’t consider quitting and plans to stay with the Marines until the last unit pulls out.
Fragile but holding
The Marines don’t kid themselves. The war is still on, and few understand that better than the men of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, who recently returned to Camp Lejeune after a six-month deployment.
“It’s still very fragile,” said Company Commander Capt. Doug Bahrns. Indeed, pervasive corruption and a fledgling government and justice system continue to challenge the success in Marjah.
“But the thing that makes me hopeful is the interaction between leaders. Before things were accomplished through elders. Now we’ve got police leaders, political leaders, military leaders and tribal leaders,” Bahrns said.
He’s also increasingly confident in the Afghan security forces.
“They’re not scared. They’re not running,” he said. “They’re holding their ground, which is impressive.”
While the Afghans lack air power and the intelligence apparatus that coalition forces have, according to Bahrns they bring something far more important to the fight: local knowledge. “It’s a matter of building confidence in their own abilities because they possess so much: A connection to the people, a connection to the culture, their ability to understand the dynamic politically and economically,” Bahrns said.
According to Bahrns, they’re more autonomous than they’re often given credit for.
“They have the ability to conduct security missions unilaterally with very little influence or assistance from us,” he said. “That’s the offensive piece. The defensive piece is that every single day, we’ve got groups of bad guys … trying to probe the periphery of the district, and every single day they’re repelled” by Afghan forces, he said.
That has not been the case everywhere in Afghanistan; reports have cited the lack of basic soldiering and warfighting skills, including mission planning.
When Bahrns arrived in May, his company backfilled what a battalion had held. Because of the decrease in troops, several strong points and battle positions were shut down just as the fighting season kicked off.
“Everybody was bracing for some sort of catastrophic event that never happened,” he said. “People thought things were just going to deteriorate rapidly as we collapsed back. It didn’t happen at all.”
For Akram Akbary, an Afghan National Army soldier from Kunduz who has been stationed in Marjah for two years, the change has been significant.
When he arrived, he couldn’t leave his outpost without being attacked, and the threat of improvised explosive devices, the Taliban’s weapon of choice, seemed insurmountable.
Now he says, the Afghan army’s supply chain is better, wages are paid on time, and their fighting skills have improved. He says he’s learned from the Marines both as a fighter and a humanitarian.
“I study the Marines,” he said. “They respect the law.”
The most notable difference in Marjah, however, has been a change he has seen in the will of the people.
“Before, they never respected the government. Now they’re starting to believe the government,” he said.
Akbary doesn’t want the Marines to leave, and he believes the Taliban will try to retake Marjah when they go. While he’s confident the ANA can defeat any offensive that insurgents can muster, he fears too many Afghans will die in their attempt.
“They can’t take Afghanistan,” Akbary said.
Alia, 14, an entrepreneur who sells energy drinks and cigarettes to the Marines, agrees.
“The Taliban aren’t good fighters. They can only put an IED in the road. The ANA is better than the Taliban in Marjah,” he said. Alia remembers life before the Marines, and like Akbary, he doesn’t want them to leave.
According to Alia, the Taliban controlled what few shops were open, and though Marjah is an agricultural district, he remembers rampant food shortages.
“Nobody had any money. I was really poor. Now I make money,” he said. But who will buy his wares once the Marines leave?
During the 2010 offensive, Alia’s family fled to nearby Trek Nada. They returned to find their home destroyed. The Marines paid Alia’s family for the damage; the payout was a life-changing sum.
While the Marines have adapted to the counterinsurgency doctrine that shapes their mission, they admit they’re not used to giving up the lead. Letting go of the fight has been a new challenge for the expeditionary force trained to take the fight to the enemy.
One young Marine likened it to a stint in purgatory.
“That has been the absolute toughest piece,” Bahrns said. “I have a company of Marines that want to go out and fight and give the enemy hell, but it’s not really our place anymore.”
For Sgt. Edward Donoghue, a platoon sergeant with India Company, pulling back has been especially tough. Marines have died, and he needs their deaths to matter.
Still, he knows it’s time, and compared the process to teaching a kid to ride a bike.
“At some point, you have to let go.”