In Afghanistan, A Battle to Win Confidence
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Garrett sprints through a cloud of smoke and dust raised by the blast from a buried bomb.
Somewhere nearby he hears a Marine cry out: "Casualties! Casualties!" Garrett arrives at the outer wall of a housing compound and finds some of his men sprawled on the ground. Others stumble around, shell-shocked from the blast, temporarily unable to hear their own voices.
No one is badly hurt, but Garrett recognizes that Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines is in for a long, hot day. "Hopefully, everybody gets out of here alive today," he mutters.
A few miles away, but seemingly a world apart, sits another walled cluster of homes. Here, the Marines arrive the next day to a reception that may not be warm, but isn't lethal. Afghans talk with Marines; children beg them for sweets. A villager notices Marines hoisting themselves over a wall, gets their attention, and points out a shortcut.
The contrast between the two housing compounds in Afghanistan's Helmand River valley, a longtime stronghold of the Taliban militant group, illustrates the challenges facing Marines as they implement a new strategy that emphasizes winning the trust of the local population.
Using some of the 21,000 extra troops that President Obama has ordered to Afghanistan this year, the Marines are setting up small patrol bases in far-flung areas that largely had been neglected during the first seven years of the war.
By providing security, rather than just focusing on killing insurgents, the Marines hope to convince locals to turn on the Taliban and eventually hand control over to the Afghan army and police - mirroring the tactics that helped turn the war in Iraq a few years ago.
"We win when the people really believe that the government is here to help them," says Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, the battalion commander. "We can't kill our way out of an insurgency. All security does is create a vacuum. It takes the Taliban out. We'll show them that our brand of security is a lot nicer than the Taliban's."
Yet, some areas of Afghanistan have been so lawless for so long that it's extremely difficult for the Marines to establish that first critical point of contact. They're encountering armed resistance in some cases, and an equally formidable foe - fear - in others.
Hours after Garrett's unit came under attack, an Afghan man in the same troubled compound sought Garrett's help filing a claim for damages that a bomb had caused to his home. It was exactly the sort of conversation that can help forge a longer-term relationship, but it took place deep inside the man's courtyard - because the man fears the Taliban would behead him if they knew he was talking to Americans, Garrett says.
Trouble spots can be especially hard for the Marines to identify because they often co-exist with relatively peaceful areas - as happened with the two unnamed compounds that Garrett's unit encountered near the village of Hassan Abad, about 400 miles southwest of Kabul.
In an insurgency, "every village has its own microclimate," says John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank.
Nagl says control of a particular area - "even (a) neighborhood or street," he says - can hinge on a variety of factors including how long Afghan security forces have been there, whether there are any insurgent bases nearby, and even what tribe the local population belongs to.
At the safer housing compound, locals seem to understand why the Americans are there. Many even feel safe enough to approach them and ask for medical help.
"This is God's will that they come here for our security," says Abdul Ali, 50. "We don't like the Taliban. Whoever can bring us peace is who we want."
Down the road at the troubled compound, the Marines believe the Taliban have been active for a longer period of time, says Capt. Junwei Sun, 31, Fox Company commander.
The Marines are racing to learn more - taking photos, iris scans, fingerprints, and names of the compound's residents to compile a database of suspected insurgents, just as was done in troubled areas of Iraq.
Ultimately, though, the best intelligence likely will come from whatever Garrett and his men are able to glean while headquartered at their new patrol base nearby.
The "Jugroom" base is a fortress made up of fabric and steel-mesh cylinders of packed soil and rock called Hescos. The floor is gravel. Temperatures routinely soar above 120 degrees, drawing Marines in their downtime to cool off in the irrigation ditch that runs through their outpost.
There's no TV, no Internet, and they line up to make brief calls home by satellite phone. There's one hot meal a day, the remainder are packaged Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).
It's not an easy life, and the Marines seem to revel in it.
"We're a refrigerator away from paradise," Garrett says.
Well before dawn, Fox Company and a group of Afghan soldiers under Garrett's command rouse themselves for a march toward a group of homes near the village of Hassan Abad. Intercepted communication from the Taliban suggest they're waiting to attack, Garrett says.
The Marines are particularly exposed during such missions - the paths in this area appear too small for a Humvee, much less Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), the armored trucks designed to help troops withstand roadside bombs.
"At home, we trained up for 50% vehicle, 50% foot patrols," says Gunnery Sgt. Denis Desmarais, 29, an explosives expert. "Here, it's 90% on foot."
At 6:50 a.m., as Marines approach the compound, they hear the first blast from an improvised explosive device (IED).
Bursts of gunfire erupt. Some rounds are close enough for Garrett to order his men to take cover. A half-hour later, the bomb explodes that dazes his men.
In all that day, the Marines find five IEDs, made of fertilizer and fuel and triggered remotely by copper wires buried in hard-packed dirt. One of the bombs, evidently designed to kill Marines scrambling to rescue victims of the first, fails to detonate. It's uncovered by explosive ordnance technicians, hacking through the dirt with hunting knives.
"This place is just riddled with IEDs," says Sun, the Company commander. "Every time we come here we get shot at."
In other areas of Afghanistan - such as Jalalabad, where the U.S. military has made significant inroads and Afghan security forces are better established - locals often provide tips as to where IEDs are hidden.
Until that kind of trust takes root elsewhere in the country, though, the danger will remain high: At least 43 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in July, making it the deadliest month of the entire war. Three more U.S. troops died in a militant ambush in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, bringing the U.S. death toll for August to six, the Associated Press reported.
For Garrett's platoon, the attacks end by mid-morning, allowing Marines and Afghan soldiers to conduct house-to-house searches for bomb-making equipment. Many of the residents say they knew about the bombs, and where they were planted, but wouldn't tell Marines because they feared retaliation from the Taliban.
An elderly man trembles as he tells this to Garrett through an interpreter.
"Yeah, I know," Garrett tells his interpreter. "Nobody sees anything."
'We'll have to kill them'
Some militants will be easier to convince to lay down their weapons than others, Sun says. Some of them are paid by the Taliban to attack U.S. and Afghan troops, he says. In other cases, parents are compelled, through death threats, to have their sons join the fight. Those are the types who often will switch sides if security can be established, Sun says.
"There is a handful of extremists you can't flip," Sun says. "We'll have to kill them."
There are some potential glimpses of a brighter future. When Garrett's unit sets out on its mission to the calmer compound, the troops charged with looking for IEDs with hand-held metal detectors are able to quickly find a clear path. There were times the day before that they couldn't take a step without hearing beeps indicating the buried metal of bombs' trigger wires.
The troops quickly cross fields of corn, flooded paddies of rice and gardens filled with ripening tomatoes, okra and tomatoes. Children drive sheep and goats to pens and pull cows to pasture. A man tends a field with hundreds of chest-high marijuana plants. The Marines laugh and snap pictures. It's hardly the Welcome Wagon, but residents don't seem hostile.
"I like the Afghan soldiers," says Sardar Mohammed, 10. "I don't like the U.S. They fight, but there is no clear effect."
The boy's criticism amuses Garrett. He's pleased the child views the Afghan soldiers positively. "It's their country," Garrett says. "They'll have to take care of it."
Next door, Abdul Ali, the boy's neighbor, clasps Garrett's hand and thanks him.
Meanwhile, work is underway to buttress the improving relationships with economic aid. Cabaniss, the battalion commander, points to a project, funded with $20,000 from emergency funds, that allowed the local government to unplug a sluice gate and improve irrigation around the town of Garmsir.
More Afghan forces needed
Time may be running out for such efforts to take hold, says Arturo Munoz, a expert on Helmand province at the RAND Corp., a think tank.
"In southern Helmand today, the central government has one last chance to get it right and provide law and order to the citizens of this region," Munoz says. "If it fails in this mission, then the ultimate objectives of this (Marine) campaign in Helmand likely will not be met."
There are about 10,000 Marines in Helmand, 4,000 of whom are involved in the offensive. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, says the current U.S. strategy is sound but manpower is still short. "One element that is in short supply is Afghan soldiers," he says.
Cabaniss and Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the Marines in Helmand, acknowledge that there aren't enough Afghan security forces involved as of now. About 650 soldiers took part as Marines swept south into the province July 2, and reinforcements are promised.
The Afghan soldiers who are present often need training. Garrett's men were accompanied by an Afghan unit led by 1st Lt. Saifur Rahman, 22, as they searched houses. They appeared willing to fight, though Rahman complained during the first patrol that his men didn't have time to break for lunch. Rahman says he joined the Afghan army because he couldn't find another job.
On the second day, one Afghan soldier fired warning shots at what turned out to be a family heading to a wedding party. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, has put renewed emphasis eliminating civilian deaths, which he said eroded support for the government in years past.
Garrett barked at the Afghan soldiers: "No more shooting. No more."
Unlike the previous day's 10-hour marathon, this patrol ends before lunch. No shots were fired at U.S. or Afghan troops, and they don't find any IEDs. They return to their base. There, they'll have time to eat and check their gear.
"We'll send them back on patrol later," Garrett says. "No days off here."