The day is beyond hot, and Dynan's Marines are just starting to unwind from the fighting. "We've been out here 46 days, and it's been intense," says First Sergeant Scott Hamm. "The Taliban just kept coming in against us, and we just kept killing them."
MREs and bottled water are stockpiled against the compound's crude adobe walls. Water has not always been plentiful. On Day 3 of the fight, the company had to call for an emergency resupply. "We ran out," says First Lieutenant Micah Steinpfad, the company XO. "We were moving our lines constantly during the fight to keep them confused as to where we were, and we ran through water incredibly fast."
Captain Dynan picks up the story: "Our snipers killed over 100. We knew they were having problems with re-supply when, after our snipers killed one, they'd run over and try to strip the dead guy of his rifle and ammunition — so our snipers would shoot them also."
We are not living in an Iraq-style forward operating base to which the Marines can retreat for air conditioning, chow, and a shower at the end of the day. Alpha Company has just finished combat as raw as the opening days of the war in Iraq in March 2003, when you fought from sunrise to sunset, and slept in your fighting hole. Now I threw my gear down in the sand against the west wall. "There's a meeting with the village elders in three hours," Corporal Jon Alexander tells me. He offers a bit of ground-level wisdom: "Don't sleep too close to the wall, sir, the bugs climb out at night and will crawl on your head."
This is the war in southern Afghanistan, May 2008.
The Silk Road
Not since the days of Marco Polo and the European and Chinese traders transiting the Great Silk Road has Afghanistan played such an important role in world affairs. The war here was won in 2001, when CIA operatives in league with an insurgent force called the Northern Alliance defeated and scattered the Taliban, a Sunni Islamist sect that had ruled the country since 1996 and provided a haven and training ground for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda recruits. As in Iraq, victory came unglued here, though not as quickly. Now the Taliban has regrouped. The Pentagon announced last month that in May, June, and July the Coalition killed-in-action toll in Afghanistan for the first time exceeded the monthly death toll in Iraq.
In recent weeks waves of deadly Taliban attacks have illustrated just how thinly spread are the American and NATO troops. On 1 June, as the fighting exploded across the Afghan plains and mountains, General Dan K. McNeil, the outgoing commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told the Associated Press that this was "an under-resourced war." He also said counterinsurgency doctrine dictated that it would take 400,000 troops to pacify the country. The reality is that ISAF consists of only 32,000 American Marines and Soldiers, 47,000 other Coalition troops and trainers, and 60,000 relatively well-trained soldiers in the Afghani army. This means McNeil's successor, General David McKiernan, is short the 261,000 troops existing doctrine calls for to secure the peace in Afghanistan.
Boots on the Ground
This is not a simple war. The government of Afghani President Hamid Karzai and the ISAF are struggling to defend the country from the thousands of Taliban invading from their many sanctuaries within Pakistan. These camps are so brazenly supported by elements of the Pakistani military and Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) that American news services reported in July that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader and onetime Osama bin Laden protector, remains alive and well — and well protected — in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan.
But south of Kandahar this remains a simple war. Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when the Soviet Army invaded the country, and by now the villagers mostly want to be left alone, free from the Taliban — and everyone else—in order to live and worship as they please. Despite their poverty, the Afghanis are a proud people and typically want the American/Coalition forces solely to maintain security.
"They don't want our medicine, food, or water," explains Colonel Peter Petronzio, the 24th MEU commander. "They just want security and safety from the Taliban and they say they'll handle the rest."
The 1st Battalion/6th Marines understands this. They are the infantry element of the MEU, and are the force that developed the "Clear-Hold-Build . . . at the same time" strategy that was so successful in winning Sunni support in Ramadi (see " Ramadi — from Caliphate to Capitalism ," Andrew Lubin, Proceedings , April 2008), so switching gears from conventional warfighting to counterinsurgency is nothing new to these Marines. Hamm, Alexander, Steinpfad, Dynan, and others all fought in Ramadi as they, along with the Army's 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division (the famed "Ready First"), and Sheikh Sattar Abdul Abu Risha, transformed the city from the deadliest in Iraq to perhaps the safest.
Within two days of Alpha Company driving the Taliban out of the Garmsir region the locals flock to the Marine command post and request an immediate meeting, or shura . When patrolling in the villages, we watch the women and children leading their animals across the desert returning to their homes.
"The fighting just ended two days ago," Captain Dynan says, "and things seem to be returning to normal already. The local hospital just re-opened, and we've got a shura in three hours."
From their experience in Ramadi, the skipper and his XO, Lieutenant Steinpfad, understand the symbolism and importance of such a meeting, and so inform their battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Henderson, who quickly agrees to attend.
The shura is an important event for both the locals and the Marines. With the Taliban having been driven off, at least temporarily, the Afghanis need to know the Marines' intentions, and the Marines need to know the same from the locals.
Led by the respected Haji Abdullah Adjan, about 50 elders arrive an hour before the shura is scheduled to begin and gather behind the concertina wire strung outside the compound. They come from all the villages in the area; Amir Agha, Vakil Kamal, and Kamal. All are turbaned, bearded, and wearing their best clothes.
Convoying two hours from his headquarters at FOB Dwyer, about seven miles to the north, battalion commander Henderson arrives as scheduled at 1600, passes through the security gauntlet, and warmly greets the elders. Lieutenant Colonel Gulee, the Afghan National Police Chief for the area, attempts to inflate his importance by arriving late; the elders display their disdain for the ANP by starting the shura without him.
Captain Dynan welcomes everyone, and thanks them for attending. Water bottles have been distributed to the villagers, who sit cross-legged, sipping on them, and listening attentively. Speaking slowly and confidently through his "terp," Dynan emphasizes that the Marines need the help of the populace in maintaining security; that the villagers must provide information on the location of IEDs and weapons caches, and identify hostiles still in the vicinity. Peace can only be maintained with their active assistance, he continues. The elders nod in apparent agreement, then immediately launch into a discussion of the issues of most concern to them. Reparations for combat damage, re-opening the bazaar, economic reconstruction, and security are at the top of their lists. Dynan and Henderson take copious notes for follow-up.
The meeting concludes with smiles and handshakes all around as the Marines and elders break into small groups and continue to talk. First Sergeant Hamm drifts over and mentions that a few Taliban sympathizers had attended the meeting, but that the villagers quietly fingered them. "We'll get them later," Hamm says. "This is not the time or place."
First Lieutenant Steven Bechtel is a busy man. The forward observer for Alpha Company, three weeks ago he was calling in the "steel rain" of artillery barrages and mortar fire that was instrumental in driving the Taliban out of the area. But today, the day after the shura , he's in charge of the Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC) and negotiating with the locals to pay for the battle damage to their homes that he unleashed.
"They think I'm a good guy," Bechtel laughs, "but they wouldn't have liked me two weeks ago." Sitting with his terp, he politely interviews each villager about the battle damage they'd suffered. He also uses the opportunity to gather basic intelligence about the area. "How long have you lived here?" he asks. "Who lives with you? What is your job?" He records every answer and allows each interview to run as long as seems necessary.
Villagers, some 60 of them, begin arriving as early as 0600. Bechtel and his Marines commence interviewing at 0700. Repair fees are pre-set to avoid haggling. Bechtel knows that wooden doors cost less than metal doors. He also knows the cost of bricks and labor, as well as that of water pipes and galvanized steel roofing sheets. His objective is to pay for repairs based on local prices for day labor and materials.
Remembering how the residents of Ramadi tried to persuade the Marines to pay for virtually all damage to their homes incurred in the previous 20 years, Dynan and Steinpfad instruct their Marines to conduct an on-site inspection of each structure prior to dispensing any cash. Not only does this keep exaggeration and fraud to a minimum, but it makes the Alpha Company patrols welcome as they walk through the villages chatting with the residents. I join a patrol led by Sergeant Michael Nesmith. The villagers, alerted by their barking dogs, chat easily with us, introduce us to their children (at least their sons), and volubly point out the damage supposedly caused by Marine mortar and artillery fire.
On this morning there is such a crush of villagers that the terps take names so the petitioners can be interviewed in roughly the order they arrive. That procedure soon gives way to a more efficient one, distributing crude made-for-the-occasion wooden "tickets."
"No. 3 . . . No. 4 . . . No. 5 . . . ," the terps call out. When his number comes up, a villager seated outside the wire rises to his feet, submits to a body search, and is escorted into the room where Bechtel awaits him.
Mo, a terp in his mid-50s, was born in Kabul but is now an American citizen whose family lives in Los Angeles. He looks out on the gathering crowd. "They're very entrepreneurial," he says. "Look at this, they're already selling sodas, ice, and cucumbers." A 1.5-liter bottle of Kabul's finest ZamZam Orange (made under license from ZamZam Iran) costs U.S. $1, and business is already brisk under the scorching morning sun. One of the better breakfasts of the week is a fresh cucumber (3 for $1) washed down by a lukewarm ZamZam Orange—an almost healthy alternative to a Jambalaya MRE served with instant coffee.
"Yeah, they're entrepreneurial," chimes in Staff Sergeant Steven Ramga. "This morning we discovered someone had made copies of our wooden tickets which they were selling so the buyer could jump the line. We confiscated them, but they were good copies."
After a few hours of confusion and mock outrage, the legitimate tickets are back in circulation and the compensation effort continues as Bechtel beckons the next villager inside, shakes his hand, and begins the interview.
"General McKiernan is visiting this afternoon," Lieutenant Steinpfad announces one morning. "We're told he's coming to talk about our fight of a few weeks ago."
McKiernan is the incoming commanding general of ISAF, who arrived in Afghanistan just two weeks earlier. Instead of another day bogged down in the minutia and international bureaucracy of his command, McKiernan has decided to break away and visit a dusty compound 450 miles south of Kabul in order to recognize the efforts of the 24th MEU. He arrives by Black Hawk after a long flight from the Afghani capital. He is joined by Colonel Petronzio, the MEU commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Henderson, obviously proud that the performance of their Marines is being ratified by a visit from a four-star.
Introducing the general to his officers and senior enlisted, company commander Dynan briefs McKiernan on their recent fight against the Taliban, and the improving situation with the villagers.
Weeks later, McKiernan will explain how the problem with Pakistan and the ISI was affecting the local ground war. "There is a continuing issue of the very porous border with Pakistan and it has allowed insurgent militant groups a greater freedom of movement across that border . . . . They have the freedom to move across the border unimpeded and can easily resupply and recruit in Pakistan," McKiernan told the Associated Press on 9 July. He added that rocket and mortar attacks launched by militants in Pakistan at U.S. and Afghani border outposts had spiked dramatically in May and June.
But today all the Army general wants to do is talk to "his" Marines. The 24th MEU was deployed specifically to Afghanistan in response to Canadian and British calls for additional American troops, and McKiernan uses it as his Quick Response Force, to be thrown into whatever emergency situation arises.
McKiernan asks Captain Dynan for permission to address the Marines of Alpha Company. Surrounded by Leathernecks, the new commanding general speaks quietly to the young men. "You've knocked the insurgents, the Taliban, out of the area," he said. "They had no idea of how Marines can fight. They do now. You've given the locals the courage to stand up with us, and that's what it takes to win down here."
Pleased by the recognition, the Marines smile and pepper McKiernan with questions, then take turns shaking his hand. As the general and his entourage depart, the men of Alpha Company prepare for their evening patrols, where they will continue to walk through villages, meeting the locals, and letting friend and foe alike know that the Marines have landed.