MARJAH, Afghanistan — In the incongruous way of this nearly nine-year war, a 28-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., told an old man here how to improve his life and the life of his family. He was not convincing.
“We have people waiting to build schools and hospitals. All that’s missing is for you guys to stand up and take care of yourselves,” 1st Lt. Christopher Young, a Weapons Company platoon commander with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, told the man. “Schools will be a reality. All it takes is for each of these villages to say the Taliban are no longer welcome here.”
It sounded simple. The insurgents roam around in bands of four or five. The villages have dozens of young people. And down the road, residents of another village led by elder Haji Bozgul had already taken up arms to patrol their neighborhood.
But when Young turned to three fighting-age males at a cafe not far from the Marjah District Center on a recent afternoon and asked them if they would join the police or a neighborhood watch to protect their own village, all three smiled uncomfortably and shook their heads “no.”
There is no security against the Taliban, they said, meaning there’s no guarantee that if they back the government, it will deliver on promises of stability, safety and good governance.
So it goes these days in Marjah. Five months after a massive joint U.S.-Afghan offensive that promised to clear this rural southern district of Taliban control, many old men in a culture that once considered them patriarchs feel helpless to lead — and young men feel powerless to safeguard their villages.
The February assault had been promoted by U.S. commanders as being a decisive turning point in what now ranks as the longest war in U.S. history. Marines were to join with Afghan soldiers, clear the Taliban and quickly establish a functional Afghan government.
Instead, Marines say the “clear” merely pushed the Taliban underground, only to resurface for a later fight. Marines complain that rules aimed at protecting civilians — the ultimate arbiters of success in this war — limit their ability to show their might.
As the fighting season hits its peak in a raw, daily battle in the fields and bomb-riddled roads of Marjah, commanders warn that it is too soon to determine success.
There are clear signs of progress: Local residents are increasingly tipping off Marines to bombs and ambushes — and some are even taking up the fight. The bulk of the civilians who fled during the offensive appear to have returned. Bazaars are thriving. And some villages are beginning to fight the insurgent stranglehold.
Still, the bloodshed continues. No one has yet explained how a new government can overcome endemic corruption, warlordism and an economy based on opium production. And the Afghan National Army and the civil order police, who are standing in while a permanent police force is trained, remain heavily dependent on their Marine mentors. The new trainees will be even more dependent.
“It is a mistake to think the insurgency would be defeated because of the offensive,” said Lt. Col. Calvert Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.
“It’s not a surprise to anyone. Marjah is now the nexus of the political and the military strategy in Afghanistan,” he said. “Four months is not going to convince [the people] that the government is back.”
In this delayed and crawling process, Marines take sides on the same debate the American people are waging: Can this work? Will this war be won? If it is possible, how long will it take? And is that too long?
“I think people will come around,” said Lance Cpl. Keegan Weckman, 19, of Lexington, Ky. “Locals around here say they like our presence. They feel safe. … It’s just gonna take more time than they expected it to.”
Without a show of military force, the U.S. and its allies will lose, argued Staff Sgt. Stephen Vallejo, 28, of Kansas City, Mo. Until ordinary Afghans see a good reason to bet on the U.S-backed government forces, they will continue to plant poppies and place IEDs to put food on the table.
“Marjah was never cleared,” Vallejo said. “The only way to win this thing is to push back out and reclear it. You are not gonna win these people. They go with whoever helps them the most.”
The Marines dropped into Marjah on Feb. 13, pushing west against initial heavy fighting. Then the insurgents either melted into the population or retreated to the desert on Marjah’s eastern and western edges, waiting for opportunities.
The Marines returned east, dropping off units along the way to build bases and outposts.
The 1st Battalion divided central Marjah into three horizontal sections.
The violence came in waves, said Capt. Carl Havens, commander of Company A, which took the central section, with Company B to its north and Company C to its south.
First, insurgents hooked up bombs that had been laid in advance, blowing up supply trucks heading to the new outposts. Then, once poppy harvesting season ended, they began laying ambushes.
Since then, it’s been a grueling fight. First Battalion lost 10 men, and 135 were wounded. Three of Company A’s men were killed, 45 were evacuated off the battlefield and 19 of those sent home, leaving the company short an entire squad.
Known IED spots, demarcated by yellow thumbtacks, pepper the Americans’ maps of Marjah’s roads. Though Company A disarmed 83 IEDs, another 11 struck, causing injuries and deaths.
Still, as they reached out to civilians, people’s attitudes changed, Havens said.
“They weren’t too sure about us: ‘Are these guys gonna stay or just clear?’ ” Havens said. “Then they saw us build up combat outposts and they warmed up. Then we started building schools, wells and mosques.”
Similar things were happening up north for Company B, where the Marines were fortunate to build their base adjacent to a main bazaar. They opened a hospital and a Civil-Military Operations Center, which ran projects for the community, and hired local contractors to do the work.
In the beginning, people shied away. Many were threatened by insurgents against cooperating with the Americans or the government.
But the CMOC, led by Gunnery Sgt. Brandon wDickinson, 32, of Princeton, Ill., soon became a draw. People came for compensation for battle damages, to apply for work, to enroll in the poppy-alternative program for farmers or to get medical attention. The CMOC helped take a census, registering residents in a national database and assisting in the issuance of ID cards, known as tasqueras.
The CMOC refurbished the mosque across the street, then upgraded the bazaar, which had been a big drug market, pouring $600,000 into the project. Dickinson became known as Gunny D and can’t set foot outside the gate without being mobbed by children shouting his moniker and adults coming to embrace him.
One vendor whose plant shop was damaged in the initial fighting, got a new shop, which he cares for meticulously. On a typical June afternoon of soaring temperatures, the man showered his outdoor hanging plants with a hose as he waved to Gunny D.
“It’s like everything, people start off scared,” Dickinson said. “When we first started making IDs, nobody wanted them. They were afraid the Taliban would kill them. Then it was five, then 10. Now it’s 4,500.”
It was the same, he said, with hiring contractors.
Still, the fighting continued. During its seven-month deployment, Company B lost one Marine, evacuated 58 wounded and sent home 18. They disarmed 51 IEDs while 14 struck, but those were early on. There hadn’t been an IED hit in months up until the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines took over central Marjah operations the last week in June, said Company B 1st Sgt Anthony Pompos, 35, of Toledo, Ohio.
Remarkably, the bazaar has not been attacked once, Dickinson said.
“The Taliban knows we are there and how much success we’ve had at the bazaar,” Dickinson said. “I thought something would happen there a long time ago.”
The day Haji Bozgul first came to see the Marines, Dickinson remembers people “parted like the Red Sea.”
A former mujahedeen fighter, Bozgul has lived in Marjah for 50 years. He is highly respected, Marines say, and a strong uniter of his villagers, who are all from the Dhaftani tribe.
Bozgul was among the first to do business with the new CMOC and set up a security detail around himself to ward off insurgent backlash. Soon, Company B commander Capt. Ryan Sparks prevailed upon Bozgul to expand the force to the whole village.
“He understood from his experience that we will never be able to stop the two- to three-man intimidation campaign from coming into his village unless it’s a unified effort with the people, the police and us,” Sparks said. “Since he’s done it, other villages are looking to do the same.”
The program and others like it are part of a new U.S. strategy to empower the Afghans. While coalition forces hope to eventually have noncorrupt and well-trained police in every village, they know they will forfeit any gains if they wait for trained police and a trustworthy local government. Local neighborhood watch programs can help rally people at the grass-roots level and prepare a base for a police force to ultimately take over.
But most villages are not unified like the Dhaftani, and commanders here complain that no elder wants to be seen as alone out on a limb.
“It’s the whole, ‘When do the people of the inner cities get fed up with the gangs running rampant?’ ” said Worth, the battalion commander. “Do they start Guardian Angels or just put up bigger bars on their windows, or here, just hide behind their walls?”
The elders fear that ultimately the new government will fail them and the Taliban will move back in, Worth said. One was killed just last week because he planned to attend a meeting with U.S. forces, ISAF reported.
Young men want a chance to act. With no options, they are drawn to the benefits, like money, cell phones and motorcycles, that the insurgents offer, Worth said.
“Let’s try and do something for your kids so they can walk to school and hold their heads high and know they could be doctors or President (Hamid) Karzai or a bridge builder and not just chained to someone’s drug money,” Worth told the elders.
But he knows as well as the people of Marjah that the fight outside their homes is deadly and shows no signs of abating. And U.S. forces, for all they offer, will not be there forever.
“The only way this will end,” Worth said, “is when the people decide they are tired of the fight.”
A decisive time
When the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines took over in June, they wasted no time inserting themselves in the fight.
Members of Company F, which replaced 1-6’s Company B, pushed into a known insurgent haven their first full day. The fight took place as predicted and three Marines suffered gunshot wounds.
But their commander, Lt. Col. Kyle Ellison, was not discouraged.
“Those who judge progress on a couple of rounds of gunfire have a skewed vision,” Ellison said. “We need to think critically, where an area was, where it is now and its potential for the future.”
Over the next seven months, Ellison hopes to turn security inside Marjah over to the Afghan police, while the Afghan National Army and Marines will secure the outskirts.
It’s a big vision in an area where neither the Afghan army nor the police have proved themselves.
Marines complain regularly that their Afghan counterparts are not trustworthy. While they say the majority of Afghan army forces are willing to stand and fight, they are a young force, undisciplined and unskilled.
Negligent gunfire is a frequent occurrence, and the Afghans often fail to communicate their movements, increasing the risk of friendly-fire incidents.
But most difficult to reconcile is the attitude. It took U.S. forces nearly nine years in Afghanistan and decades of battlefield education to develop and embrace a counterinsurgency fight.
From the ANA standpoint, not shooting back at the enemy is a sign of weakness, even to protect civilians.
“This buoys Taliban morale,” said Zaikirullah Shinwary, ANA 4th Company Commander, 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 215 Corps. “In the battlefield we have a rule: Anyone who punches you in the face, you must punch him in the face.”
The police are less developed, often seen as corrupt or extorting citizens.
Pinning hopes on them is a big gamble but Ellison is undeterred.
“Progress is slow in coming, but it is coming,” he said.
Haji Zahir, who became Marjah’s district governor in January, said the entire province of Helmand is teeming with agents from Pakistan and Iran training the insurgents, but the situation is improved from four months ago.
“I agree the Marines are doing the job of the people,” Zahir said. “But the people of the government here don’t have a lot of experience and the people did not have good situation with the government in the past.”
In the meantime, he says wishfully, the Americans are friends and partners and they will stay as long as they are needed.
“This is just talk that they will go, but they must win the war first,” he said. “They will bring peace in Afghanistan and in Marjah and then they will go.”
Then he added: “I will be an old man when they leave.”