The commander of international forces in Afghanistan was scheduled to pay a surprise visit to Marines at Combat Outpost Hanson in Marjah this week, some four months after they waged a fierce offensive to break the Taliban's grip. Instead, General Stanley McChrystal headed back to Washington, his job in jeopardy over published remarks that criticize President Obama and senior staff members for hamstringing efforts to turn around the nine-year war.
The trip was canceled "thanks to a Rolling Stone article," an officer deadpanned as word was announced at an evening briefing inside a dust-caked tent on the base. At dinner, a Marine joked that McChrystal, known for his spartan habits, had asked for trouble when he broke "standing order No. 1: no drinking," referring to a booze-soaked evening at an Irish pub in Paris that was described in the article, during which he and some of his aides unwound in the presence of a reporter. "I talk trash about the President sometimes too," he says, "but at least I don't get fired for it." One lesson from the Rolling Stone episode among both officers and grunts: wariness of prying reporters. Almost everyone TIME talked to for this story asked not to be quoted by name.
Most of the low-level troops on the base say they are unaware of any McChrystal-related controversy. A lance corporal from Denver explains that political news tends to trickle down slowly among Marines with limited access to the Internet, newspapers and other creature comforts readily available at rear bases. "Half of these guys don't even know why we're here in the first place," he said with a laugh. "The rest of us aren't gonna worry: we're just focused on today" a point well taken when mortars and gunfire are at times audible in the near distance.
While some blow off speculation that the general may be replaced as "back-home talk," the fact remains that they are fighting in this hostile swath of Afghan desert by the general's design, waging a brand of counterinsurgency campaign that bears his signature. Rich in opium poppy and, until the February offensive, under full Taliban control, Marjah was supposed to be a test case for a government-in-a-box strategy aimed at quickly winning over locals with security, jobs and basic services. Once affairs were consolidated in Marjah, the general's plan was to then push forces east toward Kandahar, extending a belt of security across the volatile Pashtun heartlands.
But Marjah remains a deadly stumbling block. Near daily firefights and the threat of roadside bombs have kept many residents who were displaced by the initial fighting from coming back. While there are nascent signs of progress, shops in the main bazaar are mostly empty, the Taliban ready and able to dispatch suicide bombers from nearby hideouts. Indeed, in a different article published earlier this month, McChrystal was quoted as likening Marjah to a "bleeding ulcer."
Violent as the area still is, Marine Lieut. Colonel Brian Christmas, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Infantry, maintains that gaining the public trust needed to marginalize the Taliban is all-consuming; news of McChyrstal's predicament is, for now, "outside [the] box" that Christmas is tasked with cleaning up. However, if changes up the chain of command start to undermine the counterinsurgency strategy that he's following, he adds, "then that becomes a real concern." Another officer agreed that given the slow progress, "any [potential] loss of momentum" arising from the general's departure would be "bad for the mission."
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.