The canals, ignored for years, are now heavily silted and don't flow with enough water for fields that have multiplied over the years. In a sign of how broken Marja is some 60 miles of canals have been identified for dredging and cleaning but the specialized equipment isn't readily available and the price of such a project is exorbitant because of security concerns.
Despite the progress in Bravo Company's area of operation, security remains a constant concern. Once or twice a week a squad on patrol or Marines manning a remote checkpoint will come under a coordinated assault from small teams of Taliban fighters. On a recent patrol to a village just north of COP Turbett a squad of Marines set out in the early morning hoping to build relations with residents who they believed were still under sway of the Taliban. As Marines set out children and residents flocked to them looking for water, pens, or just to say hello.
Marines walked north from COP Turbett into a neighborhood they call "the porkchop" because of its shape. Mud-walled compounds and narrow passageways quickly gave way to broad farm fields with fewer large compounds. After 20 minutes Marines took a left down a tree-lined road and toward a collection of homes. As they walked it was clear they weren't welcome. Doors slammed and were barred, the streets were uncharacteristically empty and, unlike just minutes before, no one came out to greet the Marines. Finally a small gaggle of children peered hesitantly around a corner. The Marines coaxed them over with stuffed polar bears and colored pens. The kids quickly disappeared and again the Marines were alone.
The Marines had brought one blanket which they hoped to present to a village elder. They did eventually find an elderly man to whom they gave the blanket. The man fingered it for a moment then rolled it away; either fearing or resenting the gift. When he looked up and noticed Marines watching his actions he slowly brought the blanket back to his side. Such is the nature of fear and mistrust here, if found by the Taliban the blanket could be a death sentence.
Marines eventually happened upon another elderly man and his grandson. In a low voice the interpreter, whom the Marines call "Jet Li," asked the young man "is the Taliban nearby?" The young man, afraid to speak out loud, motioned up and down with his eyes. The interpreter leaned in and asked in a whisper "where are they?" The boy indicated the direction with a slightest movement of his head. "Down at the end of the road?" asked the translator. Again the boy nodded using only his eyes.
Fearing a trap, Sgt. Travis Dawson, the squad leader, decided to make an unhurried exit from the area. For 10 minutes the Marines walked back along a canal next to a large dirt road. Then all at once the Taliban opened up. The first shots came from the area Marines had just departed; then another volley from the left; finally more shooting from the right. "That's the way they roll," said Dawson coolly. "They try to shoot as us one way then hit us from another when we're all directed toward the area where they originally fired on us from."