Since U.S. Marines launched a major coordinated assault on this agricultural community last February it has been called a "catastrophic success," a "failure," "doomed" and most memorably "a bleeding ulcer." Marja is all and none of these. Marja is a work in progress, the outcome of which is still in question.
Gunnery Sgt. Brandon Dickinson, whose 1st platoon of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, is responsible for winning over the population in southern Marja says, "It reminds me of a big jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces are there but they're all spread out."
Dickinson and Lt. Anthony Piccioni, the anointed counter-insurgency gurus for Bravo Company, have applied the tactics, written by Gen. David Petraeus and refined for Afghanistan by General Stanley McChrystal, aggressively in one of Marja's most densely populated area. They've focused on securing and growing Marja's largest market, bringing security to the villages surrounding Bravo Company's base Combat Outpost Turbett, and getting money in locals' pockets quickly by employing them as day laborers.
The pair has even set aside a small area of COP Turbett, decorating it Afghan style, where they can receive and greet local residents in a familiar environment. "I think the most important thing is that we want people to feel comfortable when they come in here" said Dickinson. Piccioni, from Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, and on his first combat tour, says the work he and his platoon are undertaking is not meant so much to win over the population as it is to give locals the confidence to fend for themselves.
"You're not going to end this war by shooting the Taliban and killing the Taliban," says Piccioni. "You're going end this war by proving to the local population that they can stand up to the Taliban."
Their work appears to be paying dividends. Despite continued fighting and Taliban intimidation across Marja the area directly around COP Turbett is an oasis of calm. The market, Koru Chareh, has not had a major incident, not even a shot fired, in four months; Daftani village, just south of the market, is a particular success with locals supplying their own security; nearly 13,000 working age men, most from Bravo's area of operation, have signed up to have their biometric data taken; and farmers in the area insist that next season they'll look for any crop other than poppy to plant.
But the sort of progress Bravo Company is seeing isn't uniform across Marja, a roughly 12 mile by 12 mile stretch of farmland crisscrossed by a web of canals with a population estimated at around 70,000. That's another Marine chore -- trying to get a better handle on the population -- who lives in Marja and who doesn't belong.
Marja, by Afghan standards, is just an infant. When it was developed in the 1950s and '60s it was dubbed "Little America" because it was engineered and built by the US Agency for International Development. The system of canals and farm jobs it created were one way the U.S. sought to keep strategically-positioned Afghanistan in the U.S. column during the cold war. Today, the ownership of 50 percent of the land here is contested; a result of tribal infighting, landowners fleeing years of war, a lack of legal documentation, and poor management from successive governments.