U.S. Marines Tread Softly in Southern Afghanistan

Can U.S. Marines fight the Taliban and win popular support in Helmand?

July 7, 2009, 9:25 AM

HELMAND, Afghanistan, July 7, 2009 — -- River Liberty was described as an operation. But it had the feel of an invasion. U.S. Marines were moving, as an expeditionary force, into the homeland of their enemy, the Taliban.

At 4:30 a.m. one day last week, the company with whom my writer son, Carlos, and I were embedded, Golf Company, 2/8 Marines, stepped out of the U.S. base at Hassan Abad, in southern Helmand province, and headed south into certain trouble.

The Taliban were determined not to let Golf Company just walk south through the Helmand River Valley unchallenged. Within an hour of the initial push, we saw dirt kick up in front of us, then the crack of automatic weapons fire. We dove for cover in this, the first of eleven ambushes Golf Company encountered during the first two days of the operation.

Remarkably, in the face of the resistance, the Marines, who have a reputation as hard chargers, rarely fired back. They wanted to, but their command had warned the young Marines that even one civilian casualty could negate the No. 1 objective of this operation -- winning the trust and respect of the farmers of the Helmand River Valley.

Also, along our path, the Taliban had set 12 improvised explosive devices -– not on roads, but mostly in the open farm fields in which we walked. Nine were discovered before they could be detonated. Three others exploded as Marine patrols passed. Two Marines suffered concussions. Mark it up to the random chance and luck of the battlefield that no one died.

There was one more enemy out there that the Marines could not push past or kill -- HEAT. The word "hot" doesn't do justice to the temperature. It sucks the life out of a normal person on a normal day. The Marines carrying heavy packs, ammunition, body armor, helmets, food and water are not normal and this was not a normal day. It was war and by the end of each day, it was a victory to just put one foot in front of the other in the difficult terrain.

Marines Need a Soft Touch

On a map, walking south through flat farmlands seemed easy. The map, though, doesn't reveal the difficulty in traversing fields criss-crossed with hundreds of irrigation ditches -- some too wide to leap across. Most Marines marched miles in wet boots and socks each day even though one of the world's driest deserts was only a mile away.

On the third day of the operation, we finally reached our objective -- Koshtay, a farming village on the banks of the Helmand River and at the heart of the poppy and opium trade that funds the Taliban. Golf Company expected a tough fight here, but the Taliban either retreated or hid their weapons and melted into the local scenery.

So far, the Marines can count the trip south as a success. Now the hard part begins, convincing the Afghans to reject the Taliban and embrace a U.S.-supported Afghan government.

A lot is riding on the young shoulders of U.S. Marines. Young men reputed for their brute force must now display a soft touch.