As McChrystal Stumbles, the U.S. Campaign in Marjah Struggles

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Max Becherer / Polaris

Four months after a major offensive to secure Marjah in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the Marines of Lima Company continue to face resistance as they attempt to win over the population in the rural area

Correction Appended: June 23, 2010

The squad of Marines walks an alternating route, first along rutted dirt roads and then on trails running along the edges of fields, often stopping to squint at farmers through the magnifying scopes of their M4 rifles. Sometimes they skip the trails and tree lines entirely, cutting straight through the fields, sinking in muddy furrows and jumping the irrigation canals in between. Other times, they plunge directly into the canals — better to get wet than risk the bridges where they've been before. The squad's leader, Sergeant Dennis Andersen, explains the strategy: When they first arrived, they walked on roads. Then they started hitting IEDs on the roads, so they walked in fields. Then they started hitting IEDs there too. Now they mix it up and bet on luck.

Not a whole lot has changed in the four months since the Marines of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, swept into northern Marjah as part of the largest NATO operation since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The IED count has dropped off some since the poppy harvest last month — a trend that no one here can explain — but firefights occur with predictable regularity. And the local governance NATO promised to deliver is virtually nonexistent. "The pattern usually is 48 to 72 hours of fairly consistent contact [with insurgents], followed by a day or two of rest and refit for them, [then] move supplies and logistics around," says Lima Company commander Captain Josh Winfrey of the daily grind that Marines here have grown accustomed to. "Shoot and scoot is kind of their mantra."

But Marjah may be in just Stage 1 of another mantra. In the language of counterinsurgency doctrine that sets out "clear, hold and build" as its three main components to stabilizing an area, Marjah may still be in the "clear" stage. In the meantime, the topmost command of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan appears unsettled, with General Stanley McChrystal having been summoned to Washington to explain to the President and the Pentagon brass statements he and his staff made to Rolling Stone magazine. The quotes had more than a whiff of insubordination, an unnecessary distraction while the major combat operations in southern Afghanistan meanders, with goals that may as well be written on sand.

On the ground in Marjah, there is a creeping notion that the Taliban the Marines are trying to clear will never completely go away. "It depends what your metric is for clear," says Winfrey, whose 180 Marines patrol some 50 sq km in northern Marjah and who, like other commanders, likens the enemy to "vapor." "They're obviously not gone. And they're not going to be gone. And I think that the ultimate challenge of counterinsurgency is to get the preponderance of individuals who might choose to fight — depending on the day, depending on what's best for them — convincing them that in the long run, it's more beneficial for them not to fight."

That's the U.S. military's stated goal in Marjah, as it is in other areas of Afghanistan's volatile south: to persuade the local population to side with the government of Afghanistan over the Taliban. But it's a goal easier said than carried out. And in districts like Marjah, it may well be impossible.

To start with, Marjah is a swath of rural farmland, largely devoid of roads, electricity and running water, where government never really existed. The area wasn't even defined as a district — in other words, Marjah, as it is currently labeled, didn't exist — before the February offensive here. "This is Marjah," says Winfrey of the land outside his headquarters at dusty Combat Outpost Coutu. "But as the crow flies 8 to 10 miles away from the district center, [district government] couldn't be further from a reality to [local residents] than if it was 8,000 miles away. It's not something that's real to them yet."

Winfrey has virtually no local political partners to work with, although his mission is to build governance and development as his men secure an area with a population that is largely transient because of the recent fighting, Taliban intimidation and traditional nomadic and seasonal farming practices. He has held dozens of shuras — councils of tribal elders — meant to bring locals on board with governance and development. But Winfrey says most of the meetings yield nothing of substance. And he admits that the very elders he's seeking to accommodate may themselves be Taliban. "It wouldn't surprise me at all," he says. "They freely admit to meeting with the Taliban just as much as they meet with us."

Analysts say struggles like Winfrey's, which are playing out across the south this summer, highlight a set of larger problems that extend beyond the ground-level Marine commanders' control. "There are all sorts of problems with this idea that foreigners can show up and suddenly impose a government from above," says Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Kandahar-based researcher and analyst. "There are all sorts of local structures that were there before, which are now being replaced by something new," he says of the Marines-led shuras and NATO-designated "key" leaders. That's something that's a perennial feature of the foreign military intervention in southern Afghanistan. "What I can make out from Marjah is, it's a confused strategy at best," he says — and one that shouldn't necessarily be left to military commanders to interpret. "Political things are being carried out more or less entirely by the U.S. military, which brings problems on its own."

Many believe Marjah was also meant to act as a litmus test for the larger offensive in Kandahar, which is under way according to NATO but has largely been downplayed in the months since the Marjah offensive. "I think it is partly the result of lessons learned by the U.S. military — mainly, that you can do whatever you want with the military stuff, but unless the government and political dynamics are going to start changing, you're going to have a lot more difficulty portraying it as a success," says Strick van Linschoten.

The political dynamics are changing, but not necessarily for the best. Policymakers in Washington and Kabul have expressed concern in recent weeks that President Hamid Karzai's faith in the NATO counterinsurgency operation in the south is slipping; meanwhile, Karzai's approach to the Taliban is increasingly conciliatory. If reconciliation is to happen, the government and its NATO backers have yet to agree on a specific plan for it — a factor that may be crucial to resolving the on-the-ground redundancy of districts like Marjah.

At Combat Outpost Coutu, where Lima Company has seen four of its Marines killed and 19 sent home in the past four months, Winfrey, like many of his commanders, urges patience with the Marjah effort. But he dismisses "government in a box" as a goal that was unrealistic to begin with. "I don't know where we kind of got off track with thinking that anything here would be easy," he says. "I think there were probably a fair number of general officers and senior executive decision makers that wanted it to be the case too — that we could demonstrate very clearly how successful we could be when we pair military might and State Department — put it all together in this nice little package, throw it out there, and everything would be great. I don't know why in the world people expected, well, we can get everything done in 90 days or whatever time line it was. So hopefully we've learned that lesson."