Starting this month, a final surge will see another 30,000 US troops arrive in Afghanistan. Ben Anderson, who spent four weeks with marines in Helmand, finds that numbers are just the beginning of the problem.In the early hours of 2 July last year, around 4,000 US marines landed in southern Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province. Khanjar, or "Sword strike", was the first major military operation carried out under the presidency of Barack Obama, who announced it with a speech that could have been made by his predecessor. "Al-Qaida and its allies – the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks – are in Pakistan and Afghanistan… I've already ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops. These soldiers and marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east… And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you."
As Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss, the commanding officer of the marines in Helmand, told it, the mission was simple – as the sun rose, the Taliban would "wake up to find marines everywhere". They would then call for reinforcements, only to be told that they, too, saw marines everywhere. They would have "no stomach to stand and fight, and disappear", enabling the marines to "target the population, not the enemy". Sadly, it's necessary to point out that in this case "targeting" meant winning over the local population so they would reject the Taliban altogether.
The first convoy I joined was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device). I heard the boom, but when I looked out of the tiny rocket-proof windows, all the vehicles in front and behind looked fine. Eventually I realised that the lead vehicle had been hit. The front left tyre had been blown about 80 metres into a nearby field, and the bonnet was crumpled. But the main body of the truck, like the seven marines inside, was unscathed. Even Blue, the explosives-sniffing dog, jumped out wagging his tail.
The MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle), a huge truck with a V-shaped hull to deflect bomb blasts, was dragged back to a nearby base and I followed the marines on a foot patrol to recover any parts of the IED or truck from the bombsite. We passed one crater ("No, this is the one from three days ago") and eventually came to two craters, one right in the middle of the road, the second just past it, at exactly the spot a vehicle would pass in order to avoid the first. Barely 30 minutes had passed since the explosion, but every scrap of metal had been cleared.
"There are fresh motorcycle tracks here," said a marine from the other side of the crater. "Motherfuckers."
Alongside the road was a canal, built in the 1950s by USAID (United States Agency for International Development). Across the water, two men on a motorcycle rode past staring at us coldly. On our side, a man and his wife approached on another motorcycle, and the marines went down on one knee and studied the couple through the sights of their guns, before ordering them to stop and dismount. The man lifted his shirt to show he wasn't wearing explosives, before walking toward the marines, who still had their sights trained on him. He said he didn't have any information about the Taliban.
"If you've finished with him, let him go," shouted someone behind us. "Just because we have to get blown up doesn't mean he has to as well."
"You think he'd be standing there if there were more explosives, you fucking idiot?" shouted the lance corporal crouching next to me. "He knows where everything is. They all know."
We walked back to the base and the convoy was ordered to return to Camp Delhi in Garmsir, the operational headquarters that is now home to 2nd MEB, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. We'd been trying to get to Echo Company, one of three platoons based farther south than any other foreign troops had been, in a town called Mian Poshteh. We would try again in a few days. By the time we did, five out of six convoys had been hit by IEDs, and the two roads from Camp Delhi to Echo Company were closed. This left the desert, where the massive MRAPs, which can weigh more than 30 tons, often sink into the powdery sand. This happened twice, and we had to wait for lorries to come to tow them out. The journey of 16km took 13 hours.
As we waited for the first lorry, I was ordered into a new vehicle. When I climbed into the back, I was surprised to see two Special Forces soldiers. I looked at their darker camouflage, elaborate weapons and long beards. No one was allowed to ask about what they were doing, so the conversation was awkward. The driver started talking about a house ahead that a few days before had been used by a sniper. "I hope he shoots at us again," he said, "then we can set you guys on him." He turned around and smiled. The two Special Forces soldiers just looked away.
It was dusk when we finally made it to Mian Poshteh. Echo Company had arrived a few days earlier and almost immediately been involved in a seven-hour gunfight. One marine was killed, the first American to die on an operation approved by Obama. By the time I arrived, the Taliban had realised the marines were there to stay and, although small teams were still launching hit-and-run attacks, they were mostly using IEDs. Convoys were finding at least one every kilometre.
Mian Poshteh is a small market town straddling the canal. Its shops had been abandoned hastily – goods were still on shelves, vegetables on display outside, now rotting in the sun. Marines helped themselves to cigarettes and sweets, leaving behind generous payments in dollars.
There was a government building, where most of the marines slept on the concrete floor. I was told to sleep with the medics, in a courtyard that I would share with about 15 others.
"Have you seen what's next door?" one marine said. "A gynaecologist's bench, with a dustbin at the end – how apt for this country."
There was one casualty at the medic's centre – a paraplegic boy who, despite being "somewhere between 16 and 30", can't have weighed more than six stone (38kg). He had been discovered in a nearby house, which was on fire after being hit by a Hellfire missile. His family had fled, along with everyone else, a few nights before when the marines first landed. Unable to move, the boy had almost starved to death.
I couldn't sleep that night, and heard the medics asking for help to carry the boy to the helicopter waiting to take him to Kandahar hospital. Nobody moved, so I got up and grabbed one corner of the stretcher. We jogged outside, treading on several sleeping marines in the darkness. "Is that the cripple?" "Is he even alive?" "Is it true his family just fucking left him there?" "He probably crippled himself making bombs."
That afternoon, the Special Forces soldiers, who everyone knew had gone out on an operation the night before, appeared again, covered in mud and dripping with sweat. A few younger marines shouted out compliments, but they went unacknowledged. Soon, everyone was saying they had made 12 confirmed kills and many more unconfirmed. The hero-worship they inspired seemed to annoy some of the more experienced marines: "They're nothing but Rangers with a few skill sets and some extra assets," grunted one. "They ain't special."
Some of that resentment could have come from the fact that while the Special Forces got to go out and kill people within hours of arriving, Echo was now rarely even seeing its enemy, let alone fighting them. Locals were also starting to return to their homes, and most marines were sure that the Taliban were posing as civilians, and studying Echo's movements and positions.
The men finding themselves in this tricky position were often no more than 19 or 20 years old. Mostly from Florida, and North or South Carolina, (their base is Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) many had never before left their home states. They had been trained to kill (and openly fantasised about "dropping" people), but were now being told to hold back and instead build relationships with the local community. This was made especially hard by the fact they'd seen a close friend shot dead within hours of arriving.
I joined Lance Corporal Brady Bunch (his real name) and 2nd Platoon as they went out on patrol to a compound from which they had been attacked. As they approached, they saw a man in dark clothes running out from behind the back wall with a bag on his back. Bunch got down on his belly and lined up the man in his sights. "That's the house that we keep getting shot at from."
After a few tense moments, Bunch's commander decided they would try talking to whoever was inside, so Bunch wasn't allowed to take the shot. The man with the bag crossed a footbridge and disappeared into another compound. "Fuck. Every fucking open shot I get. Fuck." Bunch stomped towards the house, then turned around grinning, "I could have waxed his ass."
As we approached, a boy of about 12 came out. "No, I don't want a kid – where is his father?" asked Bunch. The boy said he was alone, and he and the interpreter kept talking, without translating for Bunch, who was getting frustrated. He was told about suspicious activity on the road ahead, so looked through the sights of his gun again. Then another child appeared, a girl. Three men had gathered on the other side of the canal, and the boy kept changing his story. "This kid's about to cry and all these people are trying to talk to him. Something's definitely going on," Bunch said.
Believing the family and the suspicious man had all left, Bunch walked into the house, followed by the interpreter and the boy. There was a sudden movement, and the boy and interpreter darted back out. Another small girl had appeared, startling Bunch into a firing position. "That little girl almost got blasted."
"Now there's a woman in the house. What the fuck is going on? There wasn't supposed to be anybody here, now there's a whole family. Tell the kid to stop lying and tell us the truth."
Eventually the boy said there were three women in the house, that his brother had "escaped the Taliban" and his father was in hospital, sick.
The marines told him to get the women into one room, so they could search the others. They told the boy to go into the first room before them because "they won't shoot if he goes in".
The only place left to search was a side area where animals were kept, but the boy tried to block the entrance. "What's he so worried about?" Bunch demanded.
The marines pushed past, and one of them shone a light into the chicken coop. "I found a rifle, wrapped up."
"You did? You're fucked, kid." Everyone gathered at the doorway, but no one entered in case the gun was booby-trapped.
Bunch ordered the boy to go in and pick up the rifle, which he was reluctant to do. "Right there! I know you see the rifle, kid." Eventually he picked it up. "Don't fucking touch it, put it down, put it down. Get away from the rifle."
The interpreter picked it up, carried it outside and unwrapped it. Bunch took it. His shoulders dropped. "It's a fucking BB gun."
"I just use it to kill some birds. I can't kill somebody with it."
They told the boy not to cover things up, because it caused suspicion. "Tell him thank you for his time, we're going to leave now, sorry."
Outside, the three men by the canal were still watching. Then the man dressed in black, who'd earlier run away, joined them. One of the marines spat on the ground. They asked who the local elder was, and were given a name they hadn't heard before. "They give a different answer every time you ask them," Bunch said. He pointed subtly at the men across the canal and said to the boy, "Talib? Talib? Taliban?" The boy just stared.
"He ain't telling me shit," Bunch sighed as he turned back towards the men, who were being asked for help by the platoon commander. "If we help you," said one of the men through the interpreter, "the Taliban will kill us."
Bunch was sure the man in black was Taliban, and was intimidating the others into not talking. "I wish the bad guys had uniforms."
It was almost dark, so the men were told that if they had any information, they should come to see the marines, who then started the long patrol back. They didn't find out what was in the bag.
The following day I joined 1st Platoon on a patrol to an abandoned compound a few kilometres from the main base. While one of the marines was trying to talk to an old man using a Dari phrase book, a few rounds from an AK-47 popped above our heads. Everyone moved in the direction from which the bullets seemed to be coming, and leaned up against a wall that was low enough to peek over, but no one could see anything. Staff Sergeant Funke studied his map while listening to someone on his radio who was identifying two men with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and AK-47s not far from the building we were in. Funke suddenly worked out where they were and laughed. "They're right fucking there, gentlemen, right there," he pointed to our right "they're about… Ha! Less than 100 metres from us."
An RPG fizzed over our heads and everyone except the old man dropped to the ground. The grenade didn't explode, but everyone stayed down, which seemed to annoy Funke. "Can we fucking move on these people, God damn it."
Someone else screamed, "Does anyone see anything?" just as we heard a heavy and constant burst of gunfire coming from close by. The marines ran into the next compound, kicking in doors and searching rooms as AK-47 rounds continued to pop. We were all running and crouching, which further exasperated Funke. He was standing up straight, looking down at us impatiently. "The rounds are going to go over your heads. Let's go."
Everyone jogged towards the next compound except Funke, who walked casually behind, until they started going in the wrong direction. "Gentlemen, the enemy is to the south, we are to the north, we need to get through this" – he pointed to a compound that was in the right direction. "They are there, we need to kill them, let's go."
Someone shouted "Incoming" and we all went down, but, again, whatever it was didn't explode. We ran into the final compound, which had much higher walls and one door leading out on to a field. Beyond was a tree line from which we were being attacked. Nobody wanted to be first out the door because they would be an easy target. Funke marched into the middle of the courtyard. "Gents, listen up, they are waiting for us to expose ourselves. I need a three-man position on this corner, I need a three-man position on that corner, I need two marines at the door and one person doing overwatch on this fucking ladder. It does you no good being inside. This is what you wanted, you fucking got it, now go get it."
Lance Corporal Gomez was ordered up the ladder first. He climbed very slowly, expecting it to collapse under his weight, but also so that his head didn't suddenly pop up above the wall. I asked if he could see anything. "I see the weed, man." There was a huge field of marijuana on the other side of the wall. "I want to jump in. But I see nothing else."
Then he started firing, showering dozens of hot bullet cases down on to me. Other marines started firing as well, although when they asked for an exact location, all anyone said was "on the tree line".
Gomez fired a grenade. "Come on, baby, hit, hit." I heard it explode on the other side of the field. He fired another, but the grenade launcher came apart from his gun. "Motherfucker." He climbed down the ladder as marines around us kept firing. Funke ordered some men into the field. I ran out after them. The mud on the ground was so hot it burned my elbows. Marines either side of me looked through their sights to the tree line but I couldn't see any movement. I got up and ran back inside.
Gomez was drinking water and wiping sweat from his face. "I love this shit. This is what I re-enlisted for. Four deployments now, you can't keep me down."
All the marines sat in a small patch of shade and a few looked as though they were about to pass out. One started throwing up. He vomited three times, took a deep breath and jumped to his feet, strapping his helmet back on. "Let's go, y'all. Let's go, Bravo. GET ON YOUR FEET. LET'S GO."
"You sure?" his platoon commander asked.
"I got it." The two men bumped fists and ran back outside. "Let's go, gentlemen. ON YOUR FEET. FUCK THESE BITCHES."
But the battle was over. Our attackers had either been killed (at least three marines claimed to have hit them) or fired everything they had and vanished. They could have easily dropped their weapons and walked right past us. The marines searched the tree line for blood and corpses, but found neither.
All three platoons went out on daily patrols, and most of the time nothing happened. I started asking if this still felt like the "war on terror", even though the phrase is no longer used, and some of the marines would have been just 11 or 12 years old on 9/11. Some said it did. "And there are 3,000 reasons why; 3,000 names who aren't with us any more." One private, who had signed up the year before, five days after his 18th birthday, said, "I guess… I don't know. Where I was, the economy wasn't good, you couldn't get a job, my stepdad was suffering, he had a hard time finding a job. I knew this was a good organisation, regular pay cheque, they take care of you. Sitting here now, I'm helping out my parents a lot."
One of Echo Company's captains still believed he was fighting al-Qaida, but, more importantly, "We abandoned these people after the Russians pulled out, just like we abandoned the Iraqis after we kicked Saddam out of Kuwait, so we owe it to them to help now."
But even the strongest sense of moral obligation doesn't guarantee success, and I still didn't understand how this mission was going to succeed. Of the 21,000 extra men Obama has already sent into Afghanistan, most were in supporting roles – engineers, medics, intelligence experts, military police. Only 4,000 were actually fighting, in a relatively small area of southern Helmand. And as one senior marine confided, "We control only as far as we see." So before I got a helicopter back to Camp Bastion, I sat down with the commanding officer of the entire battle group, Lt Col Cabaniss, and asked what he really thought his marines could √achieve.
Killing the Taliban, he said, was "almost irrelevant". What I'd seen in Mian Poshteh may have been the "end of the beginning, but it wasn't actually that decisive". What would be decisive was good counter insurgency. Cabaniss was evangelical about counter insurgency, which in military acronym is called "coin" (coin is a verb in Helmand; I heard one engineer say, "I'm gonna coin the shit out of these people", before heading out to work on an irrigation project).
"Some places here had brief periods where the British came into their villages and left, for a variety of reasons. What was going to be different about this was, where we went, we were going to stay. And now, 11 days in, we're still there, and that's where we start to gain some trust from the local population. They'll start telling us what's going on in their community. I think in the past they have not wanted to say anything out of fear. Because if somebody sees them, the Taliban will come back with a vengeance.
"I don't like the term hearts and minds, but their heart is – they have to believe it's in the best interests to be on the side of the government of Afghanistan. Their mind is – they know we're going to win. They can't sit on the fence any more. We're not going to build Jacksonville, North Carolina, in the next six months, but I think we can expect sustainable progress, the people connected to the government, the government connected to the people. Not shove the Taliban out completely, but marginalise them to the point that most of the locals look at them as common criminals." During an earlier conversation, he had described this as "armed social work".
Three years ago, Foreign Office officials and senior British soldiers said exactly the same things – only they called it the "comprehensive approach" (never mind that the Afghanistan Central Government, whose influence everyone wanted to spread, was seen almost universally as hopelessly ineffective and spectacularly corrupt) – and yet the British had just suffered their worst month so far and the Taliban were stronger than they had been since being overthrown. Why would things be different this time?
"The Brits had a good understanding of what was going on down here, but they never had enough combat power. My battalion, we're obviously larger, we've been able to position forces all over the central Helmand river valley and really get out amongst the people. They just didn't have the capability to do it right."
I said that while it was obvious the Taliban couldn't win a military victory, they could keep laying ever more sophisticated IEDs, and taking pot shots, for years to come, costing lives, billions of dollars and eventually bleeding foreign forces dry.
"If we can take a deep hold in the areas that we're in, by winter the Taliban are going to be on their heels, sitting in Pakistan, wondering what to do next. And we'll have the people." He smiled as if this had already been achieved. "When they come back, it's going to be a vastly different community that's ready to stand against them. Once the people decide they won't tolerate the Taliban's presence, there's no way they can stay."
I asked if this was the way the US now fought wars. "Not tooting the Marine Corps horn, but before General Petraeus went to Iraq, the marine battalions there had already come to this conclusion – that working closely with the local population, building relationships with them, had much greater impact on security than just going street to street, shooting. We learned that the hard way in Iraq, and we're starting the right way in Afghanistan."
At Camp Bastion I had a three-day wait until I could fly to Kabul, and bumped into some Afghan interpreters I'd spent a lot of time with. Many had become US citizens when their families fled either the Russian invasion or the Taliban. When I told one what I'd seen, he said, "Man, the Americans are being too soft down there. They need to go into the villages and say, 'If we see one Taliban here, or if you help them once, we'll flatten every building.' The problems would end that day."
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