“Don’t quit your day job, Frankie,” needled First Lieutenant Robert Paulus, Charlie Company Executive Officer and the patrol’s leader. Frankie grunted.
“You know what that means?” asked Paulus.
“Don’t. Quit. Your. Day. Job,” enunciated Paulus. “It means you’re a much better linguist than you are a singer.” Frankie grunted again, and resumed singing.
As the Marines and Afghan national security forces (ANSF) walked through the village, most of the locals paused what they were doing to watch the patrol with casual interest. Some children poked out from tiny metal doorways set in hardened mud walls to gawk or smile. Here and there, a local businessman or elder moved from under a thatched straw lean-to to greet the Afghan security personnel, usually followed by a handshake with the Marines. Within 20 minutes of navigating the narrow tan streets and alleys, the group broke the perimeter of the village, cutting eastward into the incongruous patch of vibrant green farmland that splits the sandy ridges and imposing mountains towering above the valley.
Marines, Afghan soldiers and police, an interpreter, and a bomb sniffing dog make their way into the village of Karamanda, in Northern Musa Qala, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Their destination was a shura (conference) of village elders scheduled to take place at Panda Ridge, a Marine patrol base on the other side of the valley. The meeting’s topic was grim. The previous Saturday, on June 26, the Taliban detonated a buried roadside bomb amidst an American convoy traveling through a section of the village lining the opposite riverbank. No one was injured in the initial blast, but the insurgents set off a second bomb as Americans and villagers gathered to assess the damage. One Afghan boy was killed instantly, at least dozen villagers were wounded, some seriously, and two Marines were riddled with shrapnel, but will survive. Despite immediate aid rendered by a Navy corpsman and the quick arrival of a medevac helicopter on the dry riverbed, two more small children died on the operating table at Camp Bastion. Navy surgeons were able to save three others.
The aftermath of the explosion has presented a stiff challenge to Marine counterinsurgency efforts focused on protecting the population in Karamanda: villagers living closest to the blast have become wary of the Marines and Afghan government forces. Some protective parents on the western side of the wadi have now instructed their children to avoid the patrols.
The small farming community of several thousand is the site of some of the fiercest fighting since the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment took over responsibility for Musa Qala District from British Forces in March. Within days of their arrival, the Marines moved to take the village from the Taliban, some of whom waited in entrenched fighting positions. The Americans successfully cleared Karamanda in a 36-hour gunfight, rooting out several squads of dug-in insurgents with an infantry assault from two directions and the aid of fixed wing aircraft and helicopter gunships. After their arrival, some of the civilians thanked the Marines. According to Americans, the villagers had weathered heavy-handed governance by the Taliban for years, and were receptive to the idea of foreign aid and reconstruction.
“After (the battle) was done, the locals came out and thanked us, offered us chai and chow,” said Lance Corporal Kursten French, who witnessed the battle and the local engagement in its aftermath as the Battalion Commander’s radio operator. “They thanked us over and over again, for getting rid of the Taliban, pushing them away from their villages. [The Taliban] controlled their lives.”
The villagers’ openness presented an unusual opportunity in Musa Qala District: because of the village’s uncontested Taliban rule over the past few years, its citizens hadn’t become jaded by broken Western promises of reconstruction and aid.