Marines and soldiers from the Afghan National Army set in for a fight. For ten minutes both sides traded gunfire. Marines trying to get a fix on the Taliban positions, finally seeing puffs of dust and smoke coming from holes cut in a thick compound wall about 200 yards away. Marines and Afghan soldiers methodically narrow in on their targets as they inch up the firepower. While the incoming shots are numerous they are inaccurate and mainly snap overhead. Occasionally puffs of dust can be seen as bullets land in the field nearby or impact on mud walls.
Then, after about 15 minutes, the shooting ceased. Marines regrouped and started moving south toward COP Turbett. Then again another round of shooting; heavier but even less accurate than before as though the Taliban fighters were in retreat. Again the crescendo of gunfire rose. Rocket propelled grenades exploded in the distance. "It's like a game of chess," says Dawson who aspires to become an officer when he returns home. "A game you don't want to lose," he deadpans.
The engagement finally ends when a 30-ton MRAP with a heavy machine gun mounted on top arrives. Marines in the MRAPs said they eventually saw three vans come screeching to a halt in the distance and suspected Taliban fighters jump in and pull away. But the Marines held their fire concerned about civilians or friendly forces beyond the vans.
Not all neighborhoods are so rough. Daftani village, named after the tribe that inhabits it just to the south of COP Turbett, is a standout for its total security and the uniquely local way it has been established. Marines have essentially allowed local residents to form an armed neighborhood watch. Fifty-nine Daftani men have signed up for the $90 a month jobs, about half what a police officer makes.
They patrol the handful of streets and trails here 24 hours a day, AK-47s nonchalantly slung off their shoulders. Carrying a weapon anywhere else in Marja would draw fire from the Marines. Mulan Bazgool, who Marines call Tony Soprano because of his rapid and animated way of talking, is a squad leader in the program. "If I was here without my AK47 then I'd be scared of Taliban," says Bazgool. "We've had to defend ourselves" more than once he exclaims, hands acting out every scene. "Just yesterday Taliban were shooting at us and we answered them with bullets."
The official name of the program, Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue nor does it correlate to what the program actually does. Cpl. Collin Blanscet, a 25-year-old from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, leads a handful of Marines in implementing the program. It's "a village where a local defense force has finally taken the initiative to stand up against the Taliban," says Blanscet.
On a recent sweltering afternoon Blanscet paid a visit on the home of the village elder, Hajji Bazgool, who struck the deal with Marines. Under the shade of an enormous cottonwood tree Marines took off their protective gear and leaned their weapons against the wall. Given the unpredictability of Afghanistan it didn't seem natural. Speaking in reassuring tones Blanscet said "it didn't happen overnight. It definitely took a lot of trust on our part and a lot of trust on their part for them to let us come in here and sit down and for them to see us drop our gear and set our weapons against the wall."