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.
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."
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."
Blanscet and his Marines have taken up position a stone's throw away from the village. Marines at COP Trubett refer to their tiny compound as "the crazy box" because the same small group of Marines has lived there without amenities for nearly two months. Blanscet says it took about 20 days of constant effort to break through and win the trust of the Daftani village. It now appears that trust is complete. Villagers often invite the Marines to lunch or bring them cold drinks and food to their tiny outpost.
The one thing the men of Daftani village have not done is join the local police force. Police recruitment across Marja has been an issue for Marines. They want more than 300 police on the streets here but so far only about 60 have signed up. Captain Ryan Sparks, on his 4th combat tour nine years, chalks up the low recruitment rates to the fractured nature of Marja, home to 30 or more tribes.
"Nobody wants to be the nail sticking out for the Taliban to hammer," explains Sparks. "While plenty of them will say they have young men lined up ready to join the police force none of them are ready to take that first step." The plan at the moment is to get several tribes to step forward at the same time while guaranteeing the security of their villages while the recruits attend training at a nearby Marine base.
Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines are finally departing Marja after a difficult seven-month tour. They fought their way into Marja under harsh conditions, clearing the area of hundreds of Taliban fighters. During the tour 10 Marines from the 1/6 were killed in action and another 214 wounded.
Despite the hard fought progress Marines realize it could all be quickly reversed. Sgt. Dickinson believes Marines are close to a tipping point but not quite there yet. "I think it's going to be rather difficult to know when you've turned that corner," he said. "Once you see elders of different blocks come together and start providing their own security I think that's when you are going to see a kind of tipping point."
Sgt. Dawson considers success in Afghan terms. "Personally I think the locals aren't really that concerned with who wins. They just want to live their lives. If the Taliban wins they'll live by the Taliban rules. If we win they'll live by our rules. I don't know what the definition is for "win" in this place" he says then has a question of his own. "What would you consider a win?"
Producer Matthew McGarry contributed to this report.