In Afghanistan's Helmand province, one U.S. Marine captain says, militants are like the hairs on your head — pull them out and more grow back.
The southern province is the backbone of the Taliban insurgency gripping the country, and the Marines are finding that simply being stronger than the Taliban isn't enough to dislodge their fighters.
Famed for its pomegranates, the district of Now Zad in southern Afghanistan was once an economic powerhouse, but the district's center is now a ghost town because of years of battles between the Taliban and coalition forces. All photos by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
U.S. Marines who arrived in this vital district three months ago are trying something new — less fighting with militants and more wooing of residents. Here, a Marine patrol returns from the village of Khawji Jamal.
Retired New York City police officer Lt. Roger Parrino (right) talks with village elders in Khawji Jamal village. His beard makes Afghans view him as an elder among the Marines.
Marine Staff Sgt. Todd Bowers (center) talks with residents of Khawji Jamal. Bowers, who heads a civil affairs team, is part of the new strategy to win the support of villagers.
An Afghan soldier looks out of a Marine truck as a battle begins to clear the Taliban out of the Now Zad village of Dahaneh. Some Afghan soldiers came with the Marines on the mission, but the Afghans ended up contributing little.
Shrapnel from mortars and rockets ignites a roof in Dahaneh during the Marine operation.
Marines escort an Afghan suspect captured in the battle of Dahaneh.
A dried-out opium poppy field is seen outside Dahaneh. The Taliban reaps profits from the many fields cultivated here and also taxes residents.
The Marines confiscated 66 pounds of opium at one compound in Dahaneh.
Now Zad is a key district in the Marines' fight against militants in Helmand province. The Marines in this region are trying to build trust among the local people so they can drive out the Taliban permanently.
Shortly before last week's presidential elections, the Marines launched an operation to take back a key district. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson accompanied a Marine company in its battle to clear the Taliban out of one Helmand town.
They strike Dahaneh before dawn. Three helicopters carrying assault teams from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines and a squad of Afghan soldiers fly over a much slower convoy of armored vehicles also headed to the fight.
The airborne teams descend on a mud-walled compound where Afghans believed linked to the Taliban sleep on the roof to escape the summer heat. Several of the men are taken into custody. The women and children are sent to stay with relatives.
A few hours later, the armored convoy carrying more Marines and Afghan troops rolls in. Patrols are sent out to secure the town, one dirt street at a time.
The militants put up a fierce fight. The Marines guess someone's tipped them off about the operation.
Bullets, mortars and rockets rain down in periodic bursts on the troops. Most appear to be fired from mountains surrounding the town. But some Taliban fighters weave in and out of Dahaneh's deserted streets.
"That's him there," a Marine yells. "Go right!" comes another shout, punctuated by gunfire.
'On The Winning Side'
On the second day, one Marine is killed, his legs blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade. Taliban casualties in the fight over Dahaneh were much higher — an estimated dozen militants killed in the first 24 hours alone.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Retired New York City Police Lt. Roger Parrino (right) talks with elders in Khawji Jamal village in Now Zad district, Afghanistan. The civilian adviser, whose beard makes Afghans view him as an elder among the Marines, is part of an American team trying to improve relations with local Afghans.
Retired New York City Police Lt. Roger Parrino (right) talks with elders in Khawji Jamal village in Now Zad district, Afghanistan. The civilian adviser, whose beard makes Afghans view him as an elder among the Marines, is part of an American team trying to improve relations with local Afghans. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
No civilians are believed hurt or killed. Most flee Dahaneh during lulls in the fighting.
Cobra helicopters and other military aircraft provide backup to the troops. One missile is even fired from a base some 60 miles away, taking out the militants' heavy-caliber machine gun on a nearby ridge.
With their large numbers and advanced weapons, the Marines and Afghan soldiers soon control much of Dahaneh.
But the operation commander, Marine Capt. Zachary Martin, says a meaningful victory here is about a lot more than who controls the terrain. He says the key to any long-term success will be to win over the town's population, estimated at 2,000.
"They're waiting to see what we're going to do," he says. "They want to see if we're going to stay the course, if we're going to be the winning side, because they very much want to be on the winning side."
Martin says it's about more than demonstrating who is stronger. It's about whether the Marines can build trust. That's something he and others say it has taken Western forces in Afghanistan years to learn, including in this district.
Famed for its pomegranates, the district of Now Zad was an economic powerhouse for the Afghan government when it controlled Helmand province. Today, Now Zad is a moneymaker for the Taliban. The militant group taxes residents and reaps profits from the many opium poppy fields now cultivated here.
For years, the Taliban has kept people here cut off from the Afghan government — despite the presence of British and Estonian troops and, more recently, the U.S. Marines. There is no Afghan police force here, nor are there any schools.
Despite the isolation, Now Zad residents interviewed before last week's presidential polls were aware their country was about to hold elections.
Farmer Khan Mohammad, who lives in the tiny village of Khawji Jamal, says he would vote if the security situation were different. But with the Taliban ruling Now Zad, he and other villagers see little value in the polls.
It's this perception of Taliban domination that the Marines here want to change. If they don't, they see little hope of permanently driving out the Taliban.
A Lesson From Iraq
Cpl. Justin Thompson, 24, is the sergeant of the guard at a combat outpost on a hilltop a mile away from the village.
The Afghans "are our friends, and our enemies hide within them," he says. "So the enemy could be the guy herding his sheep one day, and then the next day he can be the guy carrying the AK in the wood line that you can't see, just firing at the helicopters because he needs to make a living for his family."
Thompson and others of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines' Golf Company — which has been in Now Zad since May — are doing something they say no other foreign troops here have done before: They go into the villages to make friends with Now Zad residents. It's a lesson these Marines learned while in Iraq, where they won over Sunni tribesmen in the fight against al-Qaida.
Martin, the company commander, says the Marines help the Afghan villagers whenever they can — like giving them parts to repair their water pumps.
"Once they saw that we were very careful with our rules of engagement, once they saw that we were eager to actually talk to them and to get to know them, to look at their problems and concerns — and that, furthermore, we were here to fight the Taliban and here to stay — our reception became much different," he says. "To the point where now we have them invite us in for tea, they invite us to come to the mosque with them, which is a fairly radical switch from running away whenever we come."
The villagers seem especially fond of Roger Parrino, the civilian law enforcement adviser. He's brought penicillin for an Afghan village boy with an ear infection. The retired New York City police lieutenant sports an unkempt beard, which to Afghans makes him appear to be a tribal elder among the Marines.
But there are limits to how far residents are willing to go with the Marines, Martin says.
"What we're looking at right now to some extent is an impasse because of the situation the locals find themselves in," he says, referring to Taliban control of Dahaneh.
The village is the economic heart of Now Zad, where residents from around the district shop or sell goods. But they faced retribution if they were seen talking to the Marines. So the Marines went there to drive out the Taliban.
Even before the fighting in the town ended, Marine civil affairs teams fanned out to meet with the residents they could find.
"We found that the follow-on operations are sometimes way more critical than the actual kinetic aspect," says Marine Staff Sgt. Todd Bowers, who heads one of the teams. "We need to have good planning in order to understand who the key leaders are and ensure that we're giving them the capability to still have power over their people, but at the same time make sure that power is guided in the right direction."
The day after the battle in Dahaneh, Afghan soldiers raised their country's flag over a hastily constructed combat outpost that will house the Afghan and U.S. troops.
It was the first sign of Afghan government presence here in four years.