Musa Qala District, Northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan
A dozen Marines streamed from Patrol Base Griffin about two hours after dawn on Thursday, July 1, descending a rocky gravel slope leading straight into the village of Karamanda. The Americans were joined by two Afghan police officers, two Afghan soldiers, an interpreter, and a black bomb-sniffing dog named Bandit. The men walked in rigid single-file “Ranger formation,” each mimicking the footsteps of the person to his front to minimize the chance of stepping on a pressure plate IED. They moved in relative silence broken by greetings to villagers, occasional commands, and the odd joke. “Frankie,” a young Afghan interpreter from Kabul, began to tunelessly sing a song.
“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.
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.
“Karamanda is our most successful village because they have known nothing but Taliban control,” said Lt. Colonel Mike Manning, commander of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine regiment. “They have no bias against us because of the Brits” (and their failure to deliver reconstruction).
Fighting a War, Building a Village
Americans established two patrol bases flanking Karamanda, denying the Taliban any opportunity to significantly reinfiltrate the village and overtly intimidate or impede reconstruction. Led by First Lieutenant Scott Cook, the Marines of 4th platoon out of PB Griffin made quick improvements to the village. They fixed wells, hired a local contractor to install a generator and wire the village with electricity for the first time, and began a series of mosque refurbishment projects utilizing discretionary funds available to infantry commanders. Cook’s natural aplomb and aggressive outreach soon made him “sort of a folk hero to the locals,” according to several Marines.
The insurgents mostly fled the area for a narrow section of small villages and compounds to the north, routinely attacking American patrols with small arms fire when they move up the valley. The Taliban altered their tactics a month after their retreat from the village, however. They now tend to avoid sustained attacks in favor of reinfiltrating the area in small teams to shadow American patrols, intimidate locals with threatening night letters, and plant ubiquitous IEDs around the village and along the main roads transiting the district.
“Their main C2 (command and control) node now is about three to four kilometers north of Karamanda,” said Captain Nathan Chandler, Charlie Company Commander. “That’s where they bed down at night, and then they send guys down to infiltrate through the green zone (farmland), get close to PB Griffin and try to monitor patrols moving in and out.”
The bomb that detonated amidst civilians on Saturday June 26, was a tragic challenge to American counterinsurgency efforts focused on protecting the population. But Chandler believes it also might be a grim sign of progress.
“Initially, the Taliban were very careful to mitigate civilian casualties,” explains Chandler. “But the increase in intimidation, the increase in night letters, the increase in IEDs that pose a danger to civilians are indicators that they are becoming more desperate to try to affect what we are doing. It’s not a comforting metric of success, but it is one nonetheless.”
Whether the use of bombs is a sign of American success, or a rational switch to more effective tactics in light of Marine firepower is an open question. Later in the day on June 26, another Taliban bomb made its lethal mark on the opposite side of the valley. A remote controlled IED detonated amongst one of Fourth Platoon’s routine foot patrols, killing Lance Corporal William Richards. Corporal Alan Mcalister was knocked unconscious before snapping back to life. And Lieutenant Cook – the “folk hero” of Karamanda – was injured with secondary shrapnel (debris) and burns to his face and eyes. Quickly medevac’ed, Cook was expected to recover and keep his eyesight, but officers with Charlie Company doubted he would return to his platoon.
“He’s 20/40 in one eye, 20/30 in the other, a little cloudy, but getting better,” said Captain Chandler several days after the blast, as he updated Fourth Platoon on a visit to PB Griffin. “What he told me was, ‘I got another appointment on Wednesday, if I’m good they’re gonna send me right back.’ He didn’t even mention the lacerations or the second degree burns on his face, but bottom line is they are going to send him to Germany. I think he’s going to make a full recovery, but as you all probably know, it takes an act of God to get back. He wants to be here, it’s killing him to not be here.”
A Hard-Hit Platoon
These casualties were the latest suffered by Fourth Platoon since their arrival in March. Lance Corporal Joshua Davis was killed by machine gun fire on May 7, and Sergeant Donald Lamar, a sniper attached to Fourth Platoon, was killed by a remote-controlled IED on May 12. Several others have been wounded by shrapnel or concussions from bomb blasts, and their patrol base is named after Lance Corporal Tyler Griffin of Third Platoon, who was killed the day before Karamanda was taken from the Taliban.
The young men at PB Griffin have taken the losses hard, but maintain their daily routine of patrols and “force protection,” or guarding their base. The work is difficult. Guard duty for hours at a time is monotonous. And foot patrols carrying up to a hundred pounds of armor, ammunition and equipment for several hours in the sweltering summer heat are brutal tests of concentration and endurance. Nevertheless, the Marines continue, sublimating grief into work and camaraderie.
“I’ve been here 3 days going on 4 days,” explains First Lieutenant Paulus. As Charlie Company’s executive officer, Paulus was sent to PB Griffin from PB Habib to temporarily assume command after Cook was injured.
“As can be expected, some guys took it pretty rough,” he explained. “The ones that were on scene, and the ones who were close to Lance Corporal Richards took it pretty hard. These guys, especially this platoon, are extremely tight. They don’t have computers, they don’t have phones, they sleep two feet away from each other and hang out all the time, so I think that’s really been it, is just them being able to talk to each other, because no one else – I mean, I barely understand what they’ve been through.”
“We just talk to each other,” explained Lance Corporal Samuel Espinosa, with no elaboration.
The Marine infantry version of “talking to each other” does involve some comforting words, though usually not within earshot of strangers. But most of young Marines’ interaction is singularly profane and funny. It resembles the banter seen in college fraternity houses and locker rooms, turned up a few degrees. The jokes are a little dirtier, the impressions more energetic and the casual, good-natured insults are relentless. The vast majority of it is unfit for print.
On Thursday afternoon, one of the Marines was buzzed by an unusually large Afghan bee in the patrol base’s communal sleeping area. The constant pests plague Helmand’s countryside, but this one “was f---ing huuuge,” Lance Corporal Ryan Castillo gasped as he seemed to jump out of his skin. Clad only in flip flops and boxer shorts, Lance Corporal Tony Rosini sprang into action, comically chasing the mutant insect with a shoe while leaping a tangled maze of cots, weapons and equipment. Another man joked that Castillo is “a f---ing pussy” for being afraid of a bee.
“Well, we all have our fears,” wryly chimed in a fourth Marine, completing the scene before the next round of insults and jokes.
A New Lieutenant
First Lieutenant Johnny Campbell arrived on Wednesday to replace the injured Cook. A former platoon commander in Alpha Company with experience in the equally violent area of Salaam Bazaar, Campbell is an earnest Virginian who “feels honored” to take charge of the platoon. His past playing football for the University of Richmond is obvious from his large size and even bigger handshake, described by one of his new Marines as being “like grabbing a bunch of bananas.” The 26 year-old Lieutenant is faced with the difficult task of quickly learning a new village and commanding men who have a great deal of respect for his predecessor.
“The biggest thing is coming in here and seeing what works, continuing the shuras, the projects in the area, and listening to the squad leaders and the platoon sergeant, because these guys know what they are doing,” said Campbell, when asked about his plan to meet the challenge. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Lt. Cook. I’ve got some big shoes to fill.”
Campbell’s assessment of his predecessor doesn’t seem to be simply boilerplate, as evidenced by the way Fourth Platoon’s enlisted men and non-commissioned officers describe their former platoon commander. On Thursday afternoon, a group of lance corporals sat around discussing their hypothetical funerals, reviewing which officers they’d want to say a few words. “None of ‘em!” was the immediate crack, which gradually gave way to more generous scrutiny.
“Eh, I think I’d let Lieutenant Paulus speak at my funeral,” said one Marine. “He met me only once and always remembered my name after that.”
“Lieutenant Cook can say whatever he wants at my funeral!” exclaimed Lance Corporal Castillo. When asked why, he became suddenly shy, thought a few seconds, and sincerely explained:
“He’s just, like … you could just tell that he cared about us, the platoon. And anything he could do for us he would do without hesitation. He was just there. He was good to go.”
An Exceptional NCO
As Campbell prepared to take charge, he had help from the platoon’s non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and squad leaders. Of these men, one stands out: Corporal Seth Strickland received a meritorious battlefield promotion to sergeant on Wednesday, after winning “Marine of the Quarter” over NCOs nominated from all seven battalions in the Division. In the following days, Strickland would go on to win the award for all of Regimental Combat Team South, as well as be awarded a Navy Achievement Medal with Combat ‘V.’ Strickland’s promotion ceremony was attended by Battalion Commander Lt. Colonel Mike Manning, and Battalion Sergeant Major Jeffrey Cullen, both of whom traveled the bomb-laden route from FOB Musa Qala to award his chevrons.
The ceremony took place on PB Griffin’s windswept ridge, among cots and equipment strewn under a makeshift canopy of camo netting. Strickland’s speech was brief, and capped by a tribute to his platoon.
“Mostly, it’s an honor for y’all to all be here, as I pick up sergeant,” said Strickland, his voice slightly cracking. “That means the most to me.”
The platoon clapped and lined up to shake Strickland’s hand, the first man picking up the new sergeant in a bear hug. When asked why Strickland has received the awards, one Marine said, “He’s just the best Marine you could ever think of. You’ll meet him. You’ll see.”
After a couple of motivational speeches from the attending officers, the gathering unofficially broke up with a wise-ass crack followed by snickers from the crowd.
“Okay, now do we have to go fight?”
A Shura No-Show
Despite Lieutenant Campbell’s arrival, the July 1 patrol to meet with village elders and the families of the children who were slain by the Taliban bomb was led by Lieutenant Paulus. In addition to wanting to familiarize Campbell with the area, Paulus didn’t think it wise to officially begin the new platoon commander’s interaction with the locals on such depressing terms.
After walking through the village proper, the Marines on Thursday’s patrol moved through Karamanda’s “green zone:” a swath of lush farmland painted along the middle of the valley. Spring’s harvest of opium was complete, and the farms were now sown with summer crops: fields of corn, melons, and nuts littered with smaller patches of marijuana. The members of the patrol picked their way along a series of irrigation canals and pathways, the heavily-laden Americans carefully balancing over small footbridges and narrow logs spanning idyllic creeks.
They hit a treeline at the edge of the farmland along the wide, mostly dry riverbed. The patrol split into two sections. Half the Marines laid down a potential line of machine gun fire and observation to cover the other group as they made their way across the wide, exposed wadi. Once across, the Marines on the far bank reciprocated this cover as the rest of the patrol caught up. As half of the men walked and half waited, Bandit the bomb sniffing dog decided to lighten the mood by chasing a group of cattle through a large, knee deep puddle in the riverbed.
From the western riverbank, the patrol then moved through a section of sparse compounds before making the difficult climb up the slope of Panda Ridge. After nearly two hours, their destination was in sight: distant figures of Marines could be seen peering over sandbags at the very top of the hill. A last push up the rocky ridge brought the single-file line of Americans and Afghans to the crest and through American lines. They were greeted by First Lieutenant Thomas Jung, commander of Second Platoon stationed at PB Panda Ridge, the most Spartan patrol base in Musa Qala. Three MRAP armored vehicles were arranged behind sandbags as part of a defensive perimeter, and artfully placed camo netting served as a tent shading cots covered in mosquito netting. As the platoon commander closest to the site of last Saturday’s bombing, Jung had brokered the tribal shura.
“Mainly we just want to get a feel for the atmospherics, because I don’t have an interpreter up here anymore, he just quit,” said Jung. Many interpreters don’t last long with the Marines, because of the difficult living conditions and workload. “If I get all of the local elders together, I can find out what they need. Some of the main friction points are going to be, they don’t want me going down there (into the village). The more I go down there, the more the Taliban plants IEDs. But they need to understand that me going away isn’t going to make the Taliban go away.”
The Americans waited for the arrival of village elders, talking and eating MREs as a merciless sun moved over the top of the ridge. The temperature reached 120 degrees. Traditional Afghan music, U2 and Metallica drifted from a radio manned by Marines and Afghan Army soldiers. The appointed time for the shura – 10 AM – came, and went. The Americans waited another hour, then two. Finally, at 12:30, Paulus called it a wash. The Marines had heard a report that a father of one of the slain children had gone directly south to Charlie Company headquarters to speak with Americans and receive a condolence payment, and the lieutenant ordered the patrol back to base.
Along the way, the Americans would look for families of the slain children. Their residence was not hard to find – from Panda Ridge’s panoramic view, three colorful flags could be seen flapping in the breeze, staked in the backyard of one of the small mud-daubed compounds. The flags are traditional Afghan grave markers that signify the resting places of innocent shahid (martyrs). They sometimes also serve as monuments; members of the community can travel to the graves, tie a clean cloth around the flag pole and make a wish. If many of the wishes come true, the flags can become popular local attractions, maintained long after no family members are around to keep up the gravesite.
On their way down the ridge, Marines spotted a young man walking near the compound, and waved him over as a reluctant guide. Through Frankie’s interpretation, Paulus asked him where the families of the slain children lived.
“Over there,” translated the linguist, as the young man pointed toward one of the residences out-of-sight and beyond the crest of a sandy hill.
“Can he take us to it?” asked the lieutenant.
“He says he can’t be seen with you,” explained Frankie.
“Tell him to walk towards it and we’ll follow behind him at a distance,” bartered Paulus.
Eventually, the exact location of the compound was communicated to one of the Afghan National Police officers accompanying the patrol, and he indicated he could guide everyone there himself. The Americans, the interpreter, and an Afghan soldier finally approached a blue metal gate set in the tan mud walls of the house. A wizened old man wearing a matching white beard, turban, and robes left the house to meet them. Paulus directed Frankie to ask him whether any family members of the slain children lived in the home.
The man answered that a father of two of the children lived there, but he was not home at the moment.
“I’m the grandfather. The father isn’t home right now,” said the old man. “If you want to talk, talk with me.”
“First and foremost, I’m very sorry for your loss of your two grandchildren,” began Paulus. “Due to that fact, we’re responsible for the security of this area, as are the ANA and ANP – it’s only right that we speak to pay our respects, and we have a gift for the father of the two lost children.”
“Also, please ask him why no one attended the Elder Shura,” Paulus said in an aside to Frankie.
After the translation, Paulus then attempted to verify the earlier report that one of the fathers had traveled directly to an American base instead of attending the shura. The elderly man responded with a lengthy non-answer, before he looked directly at the interpreter and his voice dropped to a plaintive whisper. Before it was repeated in English, his message was clear.
“He said they are afraid to be seen with Marines,” explained Frankie.
After another few rounds of fruitless questions and answers under the blistering sun, it was revealed that the old man had lied – two fathers of the slain children were home. The men eventually came outside to hold the meeting on the front stoop of their compound. In the end, an agreement was struck: the fathers would travel to an American patrol base further down the valley, to receive condolences from the company commander, discuss any problems and accept a financial gift.
One of the fathers who eventually made the trip was scathing in his opinion of the Taliban when he spoke to the Marines.
“When we sat down and made the payment, the father had strong comments toward the Taliban who did that to his child,” said Major Jason Aragon, head of the Civil Affairs Team responsible for Musa Qala District. “He doesn’t see them as warriors because they put these bombs in the ground and it kills children and kills the Marines, and it’s not keeping with [Islam], so he doesn’t even view them as Muslim. And in this case he called them ‘girls’ for doing such a thing. He realized that it’s an international thing, you can’t put a price on someone’s life, and he said his son’s spirit still lives on. He thanked the Marines for making effort to understand his loss, and said the Taliban who are responsible for this have no desire to apologize for what they’ve done, so in his eyes they are the lowest form of life.”
Wishes for Peace
Despite the week’s tragedies, the Marines feel they are making progress in Karamanda. The quick delivery of reconstruction and infrastructure improvements established a tentative rapport with much of the population that has remained mostly intact after the recent bombings.
“I’d say most people are just on the friendly side of neutral, and that’s really because they’re still hesitant to be too publicly supportive of us,” explains Captain Chandler. “They’re just not sure if we’re gonna be here. [T]hey still believe there’s a possibility we’re going to leave before the Taliban’s gone and, if we do, they know that the Taliban will be right back. And anyone who’s done anything to support us that can’t be explained away will be subject to retaliation. So, they try to walk a fine line.”
Still, many citizens of Karamanda remain cautiously open to the presence of the Marines near and within their community, especially those within the more populous section on the eastern side of the wadi. The attitude was evident in the way children and adults treated the Marines and their Afghan security partners as they walked back through the village on their way home from the unattended shura.
Again the children stopped and gawked, or smiled and followed. A local merchant shook hands with the patrol. Most villagers casually watched the line of armored men make their way through the fields and village. Their eyes were devoid of the malice or affected apathy one sees in openly hostile populations, and most responded in kind to offered greetings of “salaam alaykum” (Hello, peace be upon you) and “sangay” (How are you?).
But the Marines will eventually withdraw, and the ultimate, non-Taliban security solution lies in establishing the credibility of the government of Afghanistan. Given a checkered history recently exemplified by the naked corruption of the former District Governor, Mullah Salaam, this will be no easy task.
“The previous district governor, Mullah Salaam … the people don’t trust the government because of him,” said Chandler. “They trust us, they trust the [Afghan National Police] and the [Afghan National Army] as representatives of the government, but they know [we’re] not going to be here forever and … people understand that as long as the civilian side of the government doesn’t care about them, then they believe it’s just a matter of time before the Taliban are back.”
Marines Moving Forward
Despite the loss of some of their own, and the fact that some of the villagers undoubtedly know where a portion of the IEDs are placed, some Marines hold surprisingly little antipathy toward the people they are here to protect.
“Our main focus is the people. It sounds corny, it sounds scripted, but in the end it’s true,” explains newly promoted Sergeant Strickland. His youthful face contrasts with a steady, confident energy typically seen in older men. “The better we make their lives, the more you get civilians pointing out IEDs to you, it makes our jobs a lot easier, makes it a lot safer out here, so that’s what I’m trying to accomplish. I like them (the civilians), especially the kids. I gotta lot of respect for ‘em – they’re all hardworking people, and they’ve had to put up with this crap for a long time. And I hate that they’re still putting up with it.”
The day’s patrol completed when the Marines reentered PB Griffin in the early afternoon. The men removed their grimy armor, smoked cigarettes and downed bottles of water, and renewed the endless stream of stories, jokes, and insults that mark close friendships nurtured under duress and impossibly close living conditions. When asked what he thinks his men are accomplishing, Strickland explains:
“Since we’ve been up here, we’ve built a school, we’ve pushed the Taliban out of this town, we’ve let [the people] get back to their way of life, and we’ve minimized the IEDs they’re hitting …. Still, it’s sad whenever a civilian, especially a kid, gets hurt. And the Taliban have done that a couple of times now, and it’s really just starting to piss me off.”
Strickland continues: “When it comes to Marines [getting killed or injured], you gotta look at it different. That’s what we’re here for, we’re here to help them, and when it happens to us, it’s part of the job, and you just gotta learn to suck it up and move on. It sucks, but if you get stuck into it, you’re not going to get anything done out here.”
Strickland’s ability to move forward is all the more remarkable given how close he was to Fourth Platoon’s recent losses. According to other Marines, he was one of the first men to render aid when Lance Corporal Richards was mortally wounded.
The day before the July 1 patrol, Captain Chandler had welcomed a handful of replacements – some of whom would later push out to Fourth Platoon – with a short speech back at PB Habib. “Listen gents, I’m not going to give you a long speech,” said Chandler. “But there are two things you need to do in order to be successful. The first is to uphold the Marine Corps’ standards and traditions. It’s what we owe to all those who have gone before us to give us the name Marines. And the second is to love each other. Love the guy next to you. Take care of him.”
On Monday, July 5, the wounded First Lieutenant Cook surprised the men of Charlie Company by returning to resume command of Fourth Platoon. His prognosis had turned out better than expected: the burns on his face were small, and the lacerations were superficial. The “secondary fragmentation” (dirt and debris) that had blown into Cook’s face had blurred his eyesight for a week, but he has now improved to 20/30 vision. Doctors in the rear wanted to evacuate the lieutenant to Germany to make sure his eyes were okay, but he refused and opted to return to Karamanda, PB Griffin, and the Marines of Charlie Company.
Bill Ardolino is a writer for the Long War Journal currently embedded with the Marines in Northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan