Marja: The New Afghan Battleground

Micah Garen / Four Corners Media

On a routine May 2010 "presence patrol" to the dusty bazaar just outside a Marine base called Camp Hill, in the Afghan area of Marja, about two dozen soldiers of Col. Brian Christmas's company come across an artillery shell, wires poking from it, hidden under empty yellow plastic containers at the back of a small shop—the simple ingredients for an improvised explosive device. A few steps away, the Marines narrowly miss stepping on a pressure plate, rigged to explode a second buried bomb. The shop owner next door tells the Marines that the half-dozen stalls next to his were used by the Taliban once but have been unoccupied for about a month. The experience is typical for Marja, a rural community in the southwest of the country where American soldiers are battling with the Taliban for the hearts and minds of everyday Afghans.

It's not the first time Americans have found themselves in the region—during the 1950s, they helped build Marja up by digging a latticework of irrigation canals reminiscent of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The area was once fondly called "Little America." But in the decades since, the nation has been torn by warfare, decimating the infrastructure and leaving a population desperate for stability. Now, the U.S. military estimates, 60 percent of the inhabitants of Marja support the Taliban. It is up to Col. Christmas and his soldiers to try to persuade residents to trust Americans and, more important, the Afghan government.

Christmas has been in Marja for 60 days now; he and his Marines are trying to win over the population by creating a sense of security, working on improvement projects, and convincing locals that the American-backed government in Kabul is their future. It's a tough sell.

The security bubble provided by the Marine patrols extends only to a small section of Marja. Within that artificial bubble, shops are slowly reopening and tribal elders are engaging with Marines. But that's along only a few of the main roads, where the U.S. military maintains a constant presence. In the surrounding countryside, which has barely passable roads or none at all, there's little safety. And at night, all over Marja, anything goes.

The region is crumbling—buildings, roads, and the American-built canals are falling apart—and though the Marines rebuild mosques, schools, restaurants, and roads, and sometimes do win the locals over, it's rarely to the side of the government. Afterward, the residents come straight to American soldiers with their needs or wants rather than relying on government officials. Col. Christmas and his soldiers say that the biggest challenge is the time frame. For their efforts to work, it will be a long-term project, a matter of four or five years, they say, comparing the situation in Marja now with Iraq in 2006. And it will still take some time for Afghan security forces to be well-trained enough to be able to take over from American and allied troops. But will the American public have that much patience? Christmas and other U.S. soldiers say they're making progress incrementally, but also that they're being played by the locals, who will make a deal with them one day and with the Taliban the next.

Back in a field adjacent to the shops where Christmas's soldiers have just found the IEDs, an explosive-ordnance-disposal team carefully detonates the two bombs. Shrapnel cracks the windshield of a van parked nearby, and the shopkeepers, quietly watching from a distance until now, become agitated for the first time. They inspect the damage to the car windshield, complaining to the Marines. One Marine grumbles that they should be concerned about the IEDs that could have destroyed their shops, not about a broken windshield. Christmas defuses the situation by telling the growing crowd that he will pay for the damage.

The following day, the owner of the shop where the IEDs were found appears at Camp Hill. Sitting down with Col. Christmas, he says this is the first time he has been back since the offensive, and that the Taliban must have used his shops while he was away. The man, who appears to have some authority in the region, clearly wants money for reconstruction, and Christmas offers to fund the rehabilitation of a mosque and a local restaurant in the bazaar. The man leaves with a renewed sense of purpose.

Asked later how he knows whether or not the man is Taliban, Christmas makes clear that he's less concerned with the past than with the future. Everyone is given a clean slate, and if they are Taliban, now is the time to change direction and "rejoin society."

Such give-and-take is the difficult bargain at the heart of the U.S. Afghan strategy, a strategy that met with some success in Iraq. But it remains to be seen whether it will pay off in Afghanistan. In the crisscrossed labyrinth of canals that make up northern Marja, true intentions are as easy to hide as weapons.

Micah Garen is an independent multimedia journalist and co-founder of Four Corners Media. He is currently working on a documentary about the war in Afghanistan.