THE laconic marine from Lima Company didn't look up from his cigarette when I joined him in the shade of the tent. He flicked his butt into an old ammunition box and lit another. The convoy that brought me here had just arrived from a forward base in the heart of Marja, a farming district in Helmand province where two battalions of the US Marine Corps are deployed. It was here that the Americans launched "Operation Mushtarak" in February, in what was supposed to be a model for counter-insurgency operations elsewhere in the south. But after the first flush of victory, things have not gone as planned. In May General McChrystal called it a "bleeding ulcer".
About once a month, the executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines does a "road show", travelling to all his frontline outposts to check on the troops and deliver supplies. Morale boosters this time round came in a metal shipping container-turned-commissary stocking a range of prized goods, from protein supplements to smokeless tobacco, to tend to a hard-bitten camp. Something for everyone, it seemed, except this chain-smoker.
Another marine, with a blonde buzz cut and dirt streaked across his face, soon hobbled into the tent. He couldn't have been older than 18, but looked much the worse for wear. "We got fucking blown up real bad yesterday," he explained, noticing me as I stared at his leg. Small patches of dried blood had collected on his fatigues. He explained that there were still pieces of shrapnel from a home-made bomb lodged in his knee and shin, waiting to be removed. He reached over and, in a tender gesture, pulled back the collar of his comrade's uniform to reveal a raw wound. "Still in there?" he asked. "Yep," the smoker replied, with the only word I was to hear him speak. The blonde one remarked that at least they wouldn't have to go outside the wire for a few more days. Some relief.
It has been hard fighting in this bit of southern Afghanistan's opium belt. When American marines first hit the ground in February, on a mission to clear out the Taliban and their narco-trafficking affiliates, things looked different. A relative calm followed their initial, weeks-long operation. But with the start of summer there's been an influx of hardened militants from other areas. Among them are skilled snipers, who strike when odds are in their favour, as well as experienced bomb-makers. Working in tandem, they are targeting the marines' patrols every day, with greater cunning and deadlier results than in the past.
First the Taliban mined the roads with improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—so the marines left the roads and took to the trails. Then they mined the trails, so the marines moved to the fields. Now the marines are coming across bombs in seemingly arbitrary places, like in the middle of crop furrows, where they are rigged with trip wires. Moments before we headed out for a mid-day patrol, Christopher Whitman, an upbeat staff sergeant from Florida, recounted a "complex" ambush. The previous week unseen gunmen had opened fire on a joint patrol of American marines and Afghan soldiers. The patrol quickly reversed direction—and ran smack into a directional explosive device. The blast killed one marine and made a triple amputee of an Afghan soldier. That sort of tactical complexity is typical of recent Taliban operations. Sgt Whitman's new motto: "Always walk where it's least convenient."
The day's mission was to push alongside a road where the marines had already been attacked, interdicting any suspected enemy along the way. Almost immediately after we left the base it became clear that spotters were tracking our movements from distant rooftops, as they always do. Farmers dropped their tools and walked away upon seeing us, some heading into mosques where they'd be left alone. The few that lingered were frisked and allowed to leave. Some three hours into the patrol we reached a deserted crossroads. Looking through the scope of his M-4 rifle, the squad leader spotted a group of men standing farther down the road, suspected militants, their figures obscured by the afternoon haze. This marine had been fired upon the last time he took this road and made no secret of the fact that he was having second thoughts. But as Sgt Whitman said, they had no choice; their mission was clear. Moreover, he wasn't about to let the enemy dictate their movements.
The passage was uneventful. The only trouble was that the patrol overshot its endpoint by a half kilometre and soon found itself walking directly into the sun's glare. Meanwhile, desert winds were kicking up sheets of dust and debris, which interfered with visibility and would complicate any attempt to scramble air support. I was scanning cultivated furrows along the roadside for signs of tampering when the Taliban seized their moment. Gunshots rang out in short, steady bursts. To judge by their "snap", the sound of their impact, they weren't far off the mark. The marines were already arrayed in a zig-zag formation, to defend against this kind of attack. Those who were closest to the edge of the field dove for cover into an American-built irrigation canal. The rest simply dropped into prone positions and trained their weapons towards a nearby ridge, scanning for muzzle flashes among the adobe-walled compounds.
Strict rules of engagement entail that these forces have to identify their targets before returning fire—otherwise it becomes only too easy to harm civilians. The militants are well aware of these rules, and they often exploit them by engaging in hit-and-run attacks, taking a few pot-shots each from a series of positions. But these Taliban were disciplined, not your typical "spray-and-pray" shooters. It was unclear how many of them there were; perhaps only a handful, or even just a pair of riflemen with a spotter. The firefight was over in minutes. Because the marines had difficulty pinpointing the source, they got off only a few shots of their own. Shortly after the shooting stopped a motorcycle bearing two figures in black was seen zipping away. Insurgents in this area tend to cruise about on motorbikes, stashing weapons if necessary before speeding back to hideouts in the desert. The same bike re-appeared by another compound but further pursuit was out of the question. It was getting late and the patrol had already ranged too far.
We trudged back to base through rutted fields, keeping a stone's throw from the road. (If one of the marines stumbled and fell in the mud, twice, he could be forgiven: including the SAW machine gun he carried, his extra gear weighed nearly 45kg.) Less than 15 minutes' walk from base, we passed a deserted cluster of market stalls that had been shut down by the Taliban. Where the owners had failed to comply quickly, the stalls were splashed with paint or had their metal gates torn off. At one point we came across the makings of a small IED, strewn on the ground: plastic bottle, wire, duct tape and a heap of empty D-cell batteries. "We find this kind of stuff all the time out here and just try to stay a step ahead each day," said Sgt Whitman, without betraying any sign of exhaustion.
By all accounts, today was a good day for this squad: there were no casualties. The reward at the end of the six-hour slog was an ice-cold Gatorade.
As I headed to the smoker's tent for a much-needed cigarette, another Lima Company squad was readying itself for a night patrol. It would be the day's third, part of the endless cycle these marines maintain in order to project a vigilant presence among wary locals. The shell-shocked grunt I'd met earlier was still in the tent, taking slow drags. He greeted me with a brief nod and passed his lighter.
THE day began with a boom. Just as the platoon was queuing into a file to march out of their company headquarters, a fortress that looks like the Alamo, on the northern edge of Marja—a bomb went off in the near-distance. The black plume of smoke was seen as a bad omen by some marines—but as a good sign by others, who reckoned that some hapless Taliban IED squad may have blown themselves to bits. That thought mustered a few chuckles among an otherwise grim group of young men.
Another long, hot afternoon lay ahead. The goal of the outing was to clear a route that was becoming increasingly well laden with bombs. It had already claimed the lives of two men from Lima Company as well as several Afghan soldiers. No doubt more bombs would be laid as soon as today's job was done, but the marines could hardly allow them to accumulate. Rather than carve a random path across the intervening fields, this march would proceed directly along the road by the main canal, come what may.
Walking slowly along the hard-packed gravel and mindful of staying suitably spread out—in case of a blast—the marines avoided stepping on the verges, where bombs have a habit of turning up. Leading the way was a two-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, headed by Gunnery Sergeant Matthew Small, a veteran of the high wire. Every time either one spotted a patch of unsettled ground or an oddly-placed bundle of wood, he would raise a hand to halt the patrol. Then both would bend down to examine the surface by hand, working meticulously and often down on one knee. It was slow going. The canal's drab green water rolled along beside us, offering sharp relief to the open desert beyond.
Further down the road, Lieutenant Carl Quist, the platoon leader, stopped to talk to a local merchant. The man had little for sale aside from some boxes of green tea, hard candy and cheap Pakistani-made pound cake. After exchanging the requisite salaam aleikums, the lieutenant asked to see some identification. The man misunderstood him, hearing "IEDs" instead, and protested that he had none. When the translator clarified the lieutenant's request, the merchant produced his card and demanded to know when security would improve. He added that business had been better before the fighting. The subtext was unmistakable: things were better before the Americans arrived. "Well, that's going to depend a lot on you all," Lt Quist answered. "We can't build schools out here if we get shot at every time we show up."
We came to an elbow in the road where the mine-clearing was to begin. The stretch of canal road just ahead of us was another "IED alley", but that was not to be the focus on this day. Some of the marines were instructed to assume a V-formation astride the route, staggering themselves on both sides to watch the flanks while the EOD team took the lead position. While they fell into place, I hung back, taking cover in the shade of some elephant grass. From there I overheard someone yelling. I got up to take a look: a marine was barking orders at three Afghan Army soldiers attached to the unit. These three were Tajiks from the northern provinces, sent down south to the Pushtun heartland to lend credence to the sort of wishful-thinking American press releases that tout "joint operations". They were green to combat and virtually foreigners themselves, here in the Helmand.
The red-faced marine wanted them to go further down the canal road to keep watch—and the Afghans were having none of it. Two of them half-heartedly tried to hide around a corner. The marine had grabbed the collar of the third in one fist and was threatening to "throw [him] into the goddamned canal" unless his compatriots joined him and fast. They were stalling. I speak some Dari, the language spoken by the Tajiks, but very little. It was enough however to piece together some of their defiant mutterings. They went something to the tune of: "You go ahead and be bomb fodder. We know what's down there, and we're not stupid."
It took more than two hours for the EOD technicians to get to the end of their route, leaving no stone unturned. During that time, the marines stayed focused to their flanks and took cover where possible, nursing their water-filled Camelbak canteens to stave off dehydration. One officer questioned an elderly local man about the explosion we had heard earlier that day. The man insisted that a dog had wandered into the wrong area and tripped the wire of some lingering roadside bomb. The marines doubted this account, and their suspicions were soon validated. Indeed, they were surpassed.
As the platoon looped back to base, an alert marine noticed a stretch of orange kite-string hidden in the furrows of a barren field. Luckily, he caught it with his eye and not his foot. A gunnery sergeant was called over to check it out. Almost like a moth to flame, Sgt Small became obsessive about locating its endpoint. "I'm gonna start digging," he radioed Lt Quist, who was hanging back with his men, "so you might want to clear air." In other words, make sure the CasEvac ("casualty evacuation" crew) is on standby, in case I get blown up.
Within minutes, he reported back that he'd found a 50-pound (23kg) bomb. Suddenly an earlier incident started to make sense. We had seen a man dressed in white, some 200 metres ahead of us, take off at a sprint as we neared the field. We were told to stand far away while Sgt Small and his teammate scoured the scene. They quickly located a small, fresh blast site which they determined that the day's first bomb had caused. Yet there was no evidence of any casualties, human or dog. The site's location, near the base of a tree surrounded by bush, was also curious.
That's when it dawned on the gunnery sergeant. The Taliban had intentionally set it off to lure marines to the area, where the larger, secondary bomb with the kite-string pull-trigger had awaited them. The tactical logic was coolly efficient: the marines almost always took that same route into the area, today being an exception. It's a good thing, too, said James Chaney, the other EOD tech and a staff sergeant. A bomb this size, he swore, would have easily killed several men. The secondary bomb's location was chilling too. The insurgents had laid it between two footbridges. They were aware that the marines are trying to avoid the beaten path. "That's why we gotta keep switching it up," Sgt Chaney said.
Once the bomb was defused, Sgt Small summoned his men to inspect a metal cylinder full of ammonium nitrate, spark plugs, nuts, bolts and nails. A nasty piece of work, and a notch in the belt for Sgts Small and Chaney, who had both complained that lately too many of their bomb assessments were done post-blast. Sgt Chaney snapped a picture of the components and then Sgt Small asked everyone to take cover behind a wall across the field. He set up a timed charge to "make it go away". Soon the ground shook with a massive thumping explosion, its smoke rising far higher than the black plume we'd seen earlier. Meanwhile, three kilometres to our west, the air was cracking with staccato reports as a company base fended off another fierce Taliban attack.
Sgt Small told me on the way back that it was the eighth IED he'd dismantled since arriving in Marja in mid-April. He had already done several tours in Iraq, where an EOD technician's life was even worse. Over the course of a single three-week period in 2006, he said he faced down more bombs than in his first two months in Afghanistan. But that was changing. In recent weeks, the bombs turning up around Marja were becoming larger, more complex, and harder to detect: they had become the top killer of American forces here and around the country.
Lima Company had already lost two marines and sent several amputees home. I wondered aloud how Sgt Small coped with relentless stress of the job; he countered deadpan that it was the adrenaline fix and the chance to make life a shade safer for his fellow fighters that got him up each morning. Indeed, he was always tightly-wound, as though he were keeping tune with the threats buried beneath the ground. "This is what I'm wired for," he said. "But I sure as hell couldn't do what these guys do every day, going out on patrols and trading fire under these conditions. It's incredible." I couldn't see the distinction, though. He was doing that as well.
IT WAS not shaping up to be the "monster" shura that American officers had hoped for. But neither was it a bust. For the better part of an hour Afghan elders dressed in the local equivalent of Sunday's best shuffled inside the wire of Combat Outpost Hanson, home base of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines in central Marja. Ghillie-nets hung around the purpose-built tent cut the hard desert sun, casting checkered shadows on the red carpets that had been laid out for the occasion. Apart from complimentary cookies and cold sodas, none of the guests were what to expect. Several weeks had passed since the last gathering on the base. Since then the number of lethal attacks by the Taliban has only risen.
Marja was supposed to be a model for counter-insurgency work in southern Afghanistan. The breathing space created by aggressive military operations in February was supposed to allow "government-in-a-box" to take hold here in the militants' stronghold. The idea was then to expand it to other critical population centres along the Pushtun belt, all the way to Kandahar. But progress, in the words of one officer, has been "not so fast". The companies of marines stationed here are being confronted with near-daily firefights and IED strikes. Some of these attacks require the tacit assent of locals. Even as the Americans' casualties rise, they are expected to ingratiate themselves somehow with the xenophobic locals. The task is complicated by a dizzying array of feuds, which set the tribes against one another. Over the years they have frayed a once-vibrant social fabric.
Enter Haji Zahir, Marja's chief official, who spent recent years living as an expatriate in Germany—some of them behind bars. His lack of standing among the locals has become an extra burden to the American army. Staged public appearances are part of their plan to boost his authority. While an Afghan army colonel and a member of the Helmand provincial council took turns singing the government's praises, Mr Zahir leaned back in his seat with the cool of a Mafia don, surveying the scene through tinted glasses. There are persistent grumblings that Mr Zahir has been less than enthusiastic about institution-building. He is joined by a cast of ministry representatives who rarely show up for work. At one point, he seemed to be near falling asleep—as his habit during working hours, reportedly. When it came Mr Zahir's turn to speak, he called on the assembled elders to set aside their differences and stand with the government, saying that the state would become as strong as the good people of Marja allowed it to be. "Without your support, we are nothing," he said with a flat affect. He took his seat to half-hearted applause and blank stares. The elders were nonplussed.
Nothing like an impromptu release of prisoners to snap a crowd from its stupor. A pair of local men, held for more than two weeks in the camp's makeshift holding cell, had been captured in possession of what seemed to be bomb-making materials. But as the evidence was not conclusive, they were going to be given the benefit of the doubt. There part of the "reintegration" strategy that military planners are gambling will win over sceptical Afghans. The men were staged outside the tent, as the marines' officers were waiting for the just right moment to make a conspicuous display of goodwill. "C'mon, we're gonna let you guys go now," said a short grunt who was guarding them. "You were telling me last week that you either wanted to be released or killed. You're alive. So be happy." The younger detainee, who wore a faint moustache, shuffled his feet nervously, not knowing what to say. The marine surmised: "Yeah, I'll bet you can't wait to get back out and make trouble."
Some of the crowd surged forward when the pair were brought inside. A legal officer took several family members aside and, through a translator, explained that if these young men ever got into trouble again, he'd "come looking for them." Both were made to sign a document confirming their responsible behaviour in future; it was validated with a fingerprint. Friends and relatives of the detainees then queued up to embrace them. Out of nowhere it seemed, another pair of men were hauled out into view, again to be given back to the community. To enhance the symbolism, they were handed AK-47 rifles—minus their ammunition clips—which they passed back to Mr Zahir. One did so too quickly for the cameras, and was told to repeat the gesture. Next they were instructed to touch their foreheads to Mr Zahir's outstretched hand, a traditional sign of respect. "You are sons of Afghanistan," as the un-elected official anointed them. "May God always look after you."
The shura was adjourned. The detainees and their families were the first to leave, as though fearful the decision would be rescinded. Others idled under the tent, reluctant to head back outside into the infernal heat. On his way out, Mr Zahir told me that the event was a "big success" that showed local residents were coming around to the side of the government. "It's difficult," he conceded in broken English, "but the people of Marja know there is only one way [for peace], and we are here." Gul Muhammad, a leathery farmer who came hoping to sign-up for an American-funded cash-for-work project, had a different take. "We don't trust the government at all and must take care of ourselves," he said, "like we always have." Although Mr Zahir is a native son of the same Alozai tribe, the fact that he had been gone for more than 15 years meant, as Mr Muhammad judged it, that he was an outsider, not to be trusted. (Indeed, many others judged him the same way; within days of my visit the Americans had turfed Mr Zahir out of the job.)
Standing in the empty tent afterwards, the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Christmas, was in a good spirits. Fewer than 80 civilians had shown up for the previous shura, where plans had been made to accommodate as many as 400. Today there were perhaps 200: a modest success, by a sliding standard. It was one of a few happy signs in evidence lately, along with a reopened bakery; a new American-funded school that has already enrolled dozens of students, including several girls; promises to distribute hundreds of water pumps to farmers and to build a large community centre with athletic field, right in front of the base.
"'Slowly, 'slowly', that's my mantra out here. I know there are high expectations, but I'm seeing improvements every day," Lt-Col Christmas said, pausing. "There's no telling what could be done out here in a few years' time." His optimism was almost contagious. Except that the marines have months, not years, to produce concrete results ahead of the year-end war review due in December. The fighting, meanwhile, is getting more intense by the week. Time is not on the marines' side.