Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan — In late March, I rejoined the platoon whose maneuvers I described in the March 7 edition of National Review. To reach the platoon, I first checked in at the operations center of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. While there, I watched the deaths of two insurgents. A real-time video feed from an overhead aircraft showed a motorcyclist and his passenger, carrying a pickaxe and bulging sack, driving past a crowded market in Sangin District. They stopped on an open strip of road, where one man hacked out a shallow hole. The other then placed an improvised explosive device (IED) in the hole. Minutes later, a Hellfire missile killed them both.
While the air strike was routine, the location was disturbing. In Sangin, the United States and its coalition partners had spent millions of dollars to provide electric power, schools, clinics, and roads. Yet the bombers on the motorcycle had driven brazenly through the market, unafraid of betrayal by those the coalition had aided for years.
The next day, when I reached the 3rd Platoon of Kilo Company, the troops were still living in cave-like rooms inside an abandoned compound. The big news since my last visit was the blimp tethered above Kilo Company’s outpost down the road. Its cameras streamed video night and day into the company’s two-desk command post. The Taliban, wary of the all-seeing eye in the sky too high to shoot down, had pulled back a few miles, to the annoyance of the 3rd Platoon. After half a year of steady combat, the men were wearing down, most having lost 10 to 15 pounds. They joked that the Taliban were inconsiderate.
“We have to walk farther to get into a fight,” Lt. Vic Garcia told me.
Before we left on patrol, the platoon gathered for a group photo. The picture showed a tight-knit band of armed warriors, stolidly purposeful of face. Since October, the 3rd Platoon had evacuated an average of one casualty per week — and they had one more week to go before deploying back to the States.
As we left the wire, Cpl. Colbey Yazzie unslung his Vallon metal detector and moved ahead to take point. An unassuming Navajo with a warm smile, Yaz was the platoon’s talisman, having discovered and detonated over 40 IEDs buried in the fields.
“How do you do it day after day, Yaz?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he grinned. “Just habit, I guess.”
“That’s not it, dude,” Sgt. Philip McCulloch said. “You’re awesome, man, the best in the battalion.”
As Yaz began to sweep back and forth, a dozen Marines fell into a single file behind him. Across Helmand Province, hundreds of similar patrols were on the move. Home to about 1.3 million Pashtuns, Helmand is a vast, flat desert interrupted by a few rivers fed by snowfields to the north. Most of the population lives in the Green Zone, a system of canals that sustains fertile farm fields along the banks of the rivers.
Near the patrol base, shepherds were tending cows and sheep, a sign they expected no attack by Taliban gangs. Several men rushed up to us, demanding payment for vague claims of battle damage. Every American battalion has millions of dollars to spend on local projects, and most farmers wanted a cut. We have created an Afghan culture of entitlement rather than self-reliance.
We walked past a farm compound that had been shattered by a bomb strike. Three waifs stood solemnly in the rubble. In a small field next to the compound, their father was scattering seed among poppy plants. He refused to look at the Marines.