CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina — “We’re going to go and ask questions, you know. Deushman cherda di? Where is the enemy?”
It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, and members of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) sit restlessly through another hour of intensive language training. The Marines will soon deploy to Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama’s plan to increase troops and civilian personnel to the country, and the crash course in the native language, Pashto, is as integral to their preparation as shooting guns and running attack drills through the tree line at Camp Lejeune, the North Carolina military base where they’ve prepared for their deployment since January.
In the classroom, the soldiers concentrate, framing their foreheads with their hands, as they run through basic questions, greetings and commands: run, shoot, come, sit. The instructor — an Afghan who must remain anonymous for security reasons — asks them to repeat the words, and they emerge in a lone, deep monotone. These Marines have learned to operate in unison.
The Marines’ tongues trip over the difficult verbs (listen, help, enter), and some men shuffle through their lesson books looking bored, confused, tired. Many of them slug back cans of Monster energy drinks or 12 ounce bottles of Mountain Dew.
“People will understand if something you say comes out a little bit broken,” the instructor explains. “But you should write it down if you cannot say it in the native language.”
Each week he provides basic language and cultural instruction to new batch of 40 Marines. The classroom training is part of a shift away from conventional tactics aimed at hunting the Taliban and reflects an administration strategy that combines the use of firepower with the need to reach out to the Afghan population.
"It's not just about firing a weapon all the time … we're not there to divide and conquer," Sgt. Anibal Paz said. "We're there to help people out and make their lives better."
U.S. military officials say the emphasis on language and cultural training provides troops with a better understanding of how to be successful in Afghanistan — and the Marines are confident it’s the right approach for an increasingly complex conflict.
"We definitely have to do both parts of the mission or we’ll be there forever," said Corporal Nathaniel Harris, referring to the need to battle insurgents while also talking with and listening to the people of the country.
Among Afghans, however, the military’s new approach is foundering, with civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombing blamed for bolstering support for the insurgency. Strategic analysts, meanwhile, argue that devoting resources to the Afghan population detracts from the U.S.’s real mission: fighting the Taliban.
Other countries have tried similar approaches in the past and failed, said Paul Jabber, a former scholar for the CIA’s counterterrorism center. He was speaking about Afghanistan’s tangled history of fending off foreign invaders, most recently the Soviet Union.
Two decades of war have left Afghanistan desperate for the infrastructure and institutions that provide the jobs and stability people desire. Although the Taliban do not have widespread support, in the south of the country many villages rely on insurgents for security in the absence of a credible local government or police.
“The Afghans are a beaten down people,” said Corporal Kevin Owens, a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He worries less about the villages that support the Taliban and more about those that question a U.S. troop presence, particularly with an increasing number of civilian casualties tied to the U.S. combat mission.
Obama’s troop surge comes amid sharp criticism from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who blamed recent U.S. air strikes against Taliban militants for the deaths of more than 90 villagers in Farah province. Officials investigating the incident have apologized, but national security adviser Gen. James L. Jones said the air strikes would likely continue.
With troops in short supply and huge amounts of territory to patrol, U.S. military leaders say air strikes are often the best means of rooting out the enemy. But advisers are concerned that bombing villages helps fuel support for the insurgents. "It's easy to say this from New York, but for future credibility, I would back away and see the moment before ever dropping a bomb on a village," said Owens.
The top military brass, led by Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, argues that the military should continue to use the tactics that led to success in Iraq. As the architect of Iraq’s counterinsurgency strategy, Petraeus supported holding areas that had been cleared of insurgents and getting to know people rather than just invading villages.
Much of the training Marines undergo at Camp Lejeune does just that. And despite an increasing focus on non-conventional warfare, many believe in sticking to tried and true strategies.
“We’re going back to the ways we won wars before,” said Paz, speaking about a shift in training that focused on fighting in cities in Iraq to the more open warfare tactics needed in Afghanistan.
Helping to train the Afghan army and police and sharing information with local leaders is also part of the counterinsurgency strategy.
“We’re providing security so other organizations can come in and build roads and build up the economy,” said Maj. Thomas Garnett, part of 2/8’s central leadership. He believes access to jobs and improved infrastructure will boost support for the government, which will lead long-term stability.
Many of the soldiers at Lejeune recognize the difficulty of protecting hard to reach pockets of the country.
“The American people want to see success, and there’s no way to make that happen without the added personnel to see it through,” said Harris, one of the few men in Echo Company 2/8 who has already served in the country. While most of the troops have undergone two or three deployments already, Afghanistan is new territory for nearly 85 percent of the battalion.
The Marines receive general combat training regardless of where they will be fighting, but unlike Harris’ first mission, the troops have had more time to prepare and focus on drills geared specifically toward conditions in Afghanistan.
Pashto lessons are at the heart of the longer training period, but one week of language instruction is not enough to teach the Marines more than the most basic phrases. Petty Officer 2nd Class Dennis Kadel said Pashto was a difficult language and the class was disorganized, which made it hard to stay focused.
Adding to that difficulty is the anxiety most Marines feel about their deployment. Few are used to having so much time on base after receiving their assignments. Petty Officer Kadel had only two weeks to prepare for his first deployment to Iraq, and even after arriving in Afghanistan Harris said he remembers feeling isolated and cut off from what was happening with other units stationed in the country.
Garnett hopes the emphasis on language, improved leadership and communication will not only benefit the troops, but also the Afghan people’s understanding of why more soldiers are entering their villages. With Afghanistan growing increasingly volatile, he understands the anxiety among the troops but said success comes from knowing you’ve been adequately prepared.
“It’s not a natural thing to ask anybody to go do this, and we try not to make light of it ever,” Garnett said. “Trust in your training and those around you. The better we’re prepared the more success we’ll have.”
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