COMBAT OUTPOST COUTU, Afghanistan — The stomach turning “thud” of an exploding homemade bomb on a recent hot July afternoon blew into the small villages and across the wheat fields that make up Lima Company’s area of operations in northern Marjah.
Marines based at Combat Outpost Coutu had left several hours earlier on a routine patrol to link up with and resupply troops from another small base nearby.
Thomas Henderson, a Navy corpsman, or medic, was walking in the middle of the patrol. He had just joined Lima Company that morning, replacing another corpsman who had been shot in the arm and leg three days earlier.
As Henderson’s patrol approached a bottleneck on their route, a man hiding in thick foliage nearby watched quietly. Using a wire connected to a directional anti-personnel mine, the man detonated the charge in the middle of the patrol — where high-value Americans, like commanders or corpsman, are usually located.
The blast tore into Henderson. He was badly wounded by the shrapnel. The Marines stabilized him and called for a helicopter evacuation.
Hours later, as the dirty and sweat-soaked Marines walked back into camp, one of Henderson’s fellow marines wearily took off his helmet.
“Well, that was another shit sandwich,” he said.
As a unit under the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, one of two Marine battalions attempting to stabilize Marjah, Lima Company’s experience shows the challenges ahead for what was supposed to be a symbol of the new American commitment to bringing Afghanistan under the sway of the Kabul-based Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai.
But in the six months after 15,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops sought to evict the Taliban from Marjah in Operation Moshtarak (“Togetherness”), the local government here is still weak. Security isn’t much better; Marine helicopters won’t land at Marjah’s district center, the seat of government, because they’ve taken fire there.
In northern Marjah, where Lima Company operates, there’s no government at all, no schools and no police. Only the Marines and the Afghan army. The Taliban ambush them daily and plant roadside bombs at will.
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Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of the 3rd Battalion, and his personal security detail, have been blown up 16 times in their daily missions around the area. The Marines prefer to walk in order to avoid IED-laced roads. And even when walking, they try to stay off the dirt paths that wind through the fields and orchards between Marjah’s collection of small villages.
“The fighting is more intense now than it was in the initial stage of the assault, at least for us,” said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company.
More than half of 3rd battalion’s fatalities have come from Lima Company — five out of nine. The majority of those killed have been this spring and summer, months after the initial assault on Marjah. Among the company’s 150 men, more than 20 have been critically wounded.
The fighting has picked up since the lucrative poppy harvest ended in May. The Marines say the Taliban basically declared a cease-fire during the harvest because local civilians needed the revenue to survive for the year. The Taliban also takes a cut from the harvest, if not actively participates in the poppy trade.
“Now the Taliban have nothing to protect, so they can go all out and not worry about their income getting destroyed,” said Cpl. Brandon Kelly, 23, a Lima Company Marine from Kiowa Falls, Ohio.
Kelly said Marines expect a firefight on every one of their daily or twice daily patrols.
“You’re paranoid,” Kelly said. “It’s a very terrifying experience. You walk out and it’s not if I’m going to take contact today, it’s when am I going to take contact.”
Winfrey estimates that he needs five times the troops he has now in order to take control of the area. That means it’s nearly impossible to protect his troops to the degree he’d like. Even worse, he said, he can’t fulfill the first tenet of the counterinsurgency strategy: protecting the population.
As a result, Afghans rarely support the Americans publicly. They’re largely on the fence, Winfrey said, “because we have not given them any incentive to climb off the fence on our side.”
Winfrey also suspects the man who leases the Marines their compound has to pay off the Taliban. Meaning the U.S. military is probably funding the very people who are shooting at them.
In this environment, building government institutions like the police force is a near impossible task. Winfrey said the Taliban use every tool at their disposal, including the much-publicized July 2011 drawdown date for U.S. forces, to their advantage.
“It gets thrown in our face routinely that ‘you’re leaving next year, and you’re gonna be gone and the Taliban will still be here.’” he said. “So we hear that, and that’s definitely one of the Taliban’s top messages, on top of murder and intimidation.”
And murders are becoming more common.
Just a day after Henderson was wounded, the Marines planned to hold a meeting with local village elders. But that morning the Taliban allegedly killed one of the region’s most important village elders as he attended morning prayers.
Although Winfrey didn’t know for certain if the Taliban targeted the man because he planned to attend the meeting, called a shura, he suspects that was the case.
The shura took place outside, with 35 men wearing turbans and varying colors and lengths of bushy beards sitting on red carpets arranged under an awning made of camouflage netting. But the biggest tribes were not represented.
After introductions and speeches by Afghan government officials in attendance, including Marjah’s deputy governor and the local Afghan army and police commanders, Christmas addressed the gathered men.
“We spoke of security and how with security you’ll be willing to do more things,” Christmas said, pausing for his interpreter to translate into Pashto. “I’m here to tell you it’s not going to get better until you provide some police.”
Christmas also pleaded with the elders to use a local seed program. The seed program is a stunning example of the Taliban’s power here. The Marines bought tons of fertilizer and seed and offered it to farmers for 10 percent of cost — $20 for $200 worth of seed and fertilizer. But the locals won’t take it because they risk drawing the ire of the Taliban.
“That seed is for you,” Christmas said. “No one else gains from it but you. I recommend you take advantage of it.”
But there were no takers.
Later, speaking at his battalion headquarters, Christmas said the seed problem is symbolic of issues confronting northern Marjah.
“It’s going to take time,” he said.
But it won’t happen in time for Christmas and his men to see a turnaround — at least not on this tour. They go home in a few weeks, to be replaced by a new battalion of Marines that will continue the 3rd battalion’s dangerous and challenging mission here.