The Obama Surge began in July of 2009 with the entry of a Marine brigade into southern Helmand Province. For three years, a British brigade had struggled in Helmand, meeting fierce resistance in every district. The surge was meant to firmly establish Coalition control in this province and elsewhere, with the goal of eventually handing the country over to the Afghan army.
The surge has one more year to produce results, and then Obama has promised to begin withdrawing our troops. So how is the Helmand campaign going, and what does it portend about other areas?
Having just returned from my third trip in a year to the province, I’d say that depends on how you assess success. In a sentence, the Marines are doing well, the Afghan army is tagging along, and the people are standing on the sidelines.
Most of Helmand is a sand-and-dirt wasteland, though the Helmand River runs 100 miles from the north to the southwest through the center of the province, irrigating a “green zone” about 20 miles in width. The main crop is opium poppies; this one province produces close to half the world’s supply. The Marine strategy was to seize and hold the river valley, then pounce upon the Taliban and drug stronghold of Marja, located near the center of the province.
This February’s assault on Marja by thousands of Afghan soldiers and U.S. Marines, the war’s largest operation in eight years, received intense press coverage. At first it was overhyped as a success, because the fighting ended in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the new district governor failed to gain traction, and the Taliban began a campaign of murder and intimidation that continues today. Marja left a bad taste, since it showed that the Taliban could adapt its tactics and string out the war.
In late July, I accompanied Lt. Col. Kyle Ellison, the commander of Marine Battalion 2-6, to remote Outpost Justice, deep in Taliban-controlled territory in western Marja. Sgt. Christopher Austin, 23, was in charge of a combined squad of eight Marines and nine Afghan soldiers, with no interpreter. Austin carefully pointed at a row of stout houses a hundred meters away.
“We get hit from there twice a day,” he said. “So watch it. They ride up on motorcycles, pick up cached AKs [rifles], blaze away, and drive off. We don’t bomb the houses.” The Taliban knows our rules of engagement well.
On a bare hill behind the small settlement fluttered the flags of a cemetery. “When we score a kill,” Austin said, “they take the coffin up there in a parade of bikes. It looks like Hell’s Angels, but not a one of them carries a weapon. So they’re safe.” Austin addressed his commander: “We want to ambush them tonight in the vil’, sir.”
“How many?” Ellison asked.
“We’ve counted eleven to 20,” Austin said.
Ellison looked around. “You need four men to man posts,” he said. “Plus four as a quick-reaction force. Set your ambush tonight with eight, but don’t let them cut you off.”
A Pashtun interpreter in his second year in Helmand told me, “The Taliban fear the saman dirian [Marines]. They say samandari have much enthusiasm. They like to fight.” Austin showed that. The Marines excel at raw firefights. In Marja, they will gradually exact a toll from the shoot-and-scoot bikers. As this patient strategy of attrition continues, the trend points toward Marine control across the populated districts of Helmand by next summer.
Checking the Taliban momentum with American power, though, is a midpoint, not a solution. After showing the Afghans that we are in charge, we will need to get them ready to take charge themselves — the army and the civilians. And some of our efforts to win over the populace may be making this goal harder to achieve.
Here’s an example. When Ellison left the outpost, he strode along the dirt road. I suspected he was trolling, hoping the Taliban would engage and lose a man or two, which is how most direct-fire engagements end. He headed toward a mosque where several men were loitering. The mullah hastened across a poppy field to parley. Ellison listened to his complaints about the shortage of work and a Taliban neighborhood gang that had burned his motorcycle. Point out the Taliban compound, Ellison said, and I’ll take care of that. The mullah refused. Okay, Ellison said, I’ll give you ten dollars a day to pull weeds out of the canal and get the water to your crops. It’s not my canal, the mullah replied; it belongs to the community. Give me ten men to clean it.