Afghans Voice Their Fears Amid Marja CampaignFebruary 22, 2010
MARJA, Afghanistan — Since the American-led offensive into the last large Taliban enclave in Helmand Province began nine days ago, local Afghans have faced a dangerous and uncertain world.
Their homes are now in a region where the Marines have established a presence, the Taliban have moved into the shadows as a potent guerrilla force, and the Afghan government insists it will soon provide services and bring Marja into the national fold.
All the while, in northern Marja, the fighting grinds on at a pace of several firefights a day — a climate that has displaced many civilians and kept others hiding inside. Abdul Ajahn, an elder here, voiced a lingering fear.
“If the Taliban shoots from that side, and you are on this side, and I am in between?” he said to the Marines at a meeting arranged by a commander and local elders over the weekend. “Then I am sure you will shoot me.”
One by one at the meeting, attended by the elders of several rural villages and the leaders of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, the elders asked questions and expressed worries, summarizing local reactions to an offensive that so far had frightened and disoriented them.
How can farmers water and feed their livestock or work on crops without risking being shot? When will it be safe enough to visit the bazaar, which has been all but closed? When will searches of their homes stop? Can the mullah move through the village before dawn to open his mosque for morning prayer?
If the meeting was any indication, the Marines face local Afghans deeply worried for their safety and suspicious of American actions, even as the elders expressed an interest in collaborating with development projects once security conditions improve.
But first things first.
One elder, Yamatullah, a man with a long, fine goatee, asked the Marines to respect the people’s possessions. On many days since the Marines landed by helicopter, firefights have led to Marines chasing Taliban gunmen, often into the mud-walled compounds that ring local homes. The Marines have also conducted deliberate sweeps. “We are innocent people,” Mr. Yamatullah said. “We have a lot of expensive things in our homes. Please do not break our things or take them.”
The Marines said they would try not to disturb anyone’s homes or goods. They also told the elders that once the fighting subsided, Marja would enjoy many services and development opportunities it had lacked: police protection, mosque repair, school and medical care.
About an hour into the meeting, long bursts of rifle fire and the thump of a machine gun could be heard a few kilometers away. A Marine reconnaissance unit was in a fight.
The shura, as the meeting was called, continued nonetheless. The Marines said they wanted to keep hearing from the elders.
One man, Izmarai, vented at the Marines for setting up an outpost at a home he said he owned. He demanded they leave.
“If you want to arrest me, arrest me,” he said. “If you want to shoot me, shoot me now. You say you want to make peace and security. Then why did you make your compound in my home, and between my home and my field? Did you ask me? No.”
Mr. Izmarai was so angry that at one point he tossed stones at First Lt. Cory J. Colistra, the company’s executive officer. The Marines promised the man they would not stay on his property long. They offered to pay rent.
Mr. Izmarai was unimpressed. After the shura ended, he at first refused to shake the Marines’ hands. But later he returned, saying his presentation had been a performance. There were Taliban members at the meeting, he said, and he spoke as he did to impress them. The Marines said they were not sure what to believe. Was he telling the truth? Or playing both sides?
By this time, midday Saturday, the company had returned to the current day-to-day fight. Third Platoon set out to set up an overnight patrol base. The Taliban were waiting. A firefight ensued. A Marine was struck by a bullet in the leg; he was evacuated and in good condition.
On Sunday, the fighting was more intense. Second Platoon left its patrol base to clear an area north of a bridge that the company seized last week. It came under machine-gun fire. A Marine was shot in the hip. (The names of both Marines have been withheld pending notification of their families.)
The Marine’s bleeding was difficult to stop. The corpsman who tried to save him lost the man’s pulse, then managed to resuscitate him. He kept the man alive until a helicopter could land and carry him to a military hospital. The platoon continued its sweep. Company K felt a surge a relief.
About an hour later the radio brought grim news. The wounded Marine had died.
In all but one of the nine days Company K has been clearing a small portion of Marja, there have been multiple skirmishes. And at times two or more fights have occurred simultaneously, as patrols in different places have clashed with separate groups of Taliban. Most have not resulted in American casualties. The Taliban have often bounded away as the Marines massed supporting fire or brought in air support.
But eight members of Company K and two Afghan Army soldiers have been struck by bullets in six different engagements. Two Marines and one Afghan soldier have died. The Taliban have suffered much heavier losses. Yet they continued through the weekend to fire at most of the company’s patrols.
The civilians, meanwhile, sought cues as to what to do. So far, the small number of Afghans tending crops in the fields or looking after livestock, or even walking along roads and trails, suggested that local Afghans were not convinced that it was safe enough here to resume their routines.