On Aug. 25, 2009, the Marines from 1st Platoon began their day with the intent of looking for a fight. A patrol, like any of the countless ones they’ve undertaken since their arrival here, but based on a guess that insurgents might try to ambush them. With that knowledge, the Marines prepared themselves to hit back.
A few days earlier, the Taliban had critically injured a child while trying to emplace a hasty IED for them during a similar morning patrol. This day, despite their expectations, the Taliban didn’t show themselves where the Marines expected them, and probably for a good reason.
“They shot themselves in the foot in that village,” said 1st Platoon commander 1st Lt. Patrick O’Shea. “I think if they were to show up there, the villagers would kill them.”
In this war, where the main focus is the wellbeing of the local people, these young men, whose average age is 23, have a difficult job that is not usually associated with the hard-hitting Corps. Tactical restraint is the name of the game.
“The fighting mentality is always going to be in your mind. You have to put that to the side,” said 23-year-old team leader Cpl. Joseph M. Misek, from Salem, Ore.
“Like today, we went out expecting a fight,” he said. “We’re trained enough to be able to go from one way of doing business to another. Now it’s just habit for us.”
These Marines have been living in this agricultural district since early July. For two weeks after their helicopter insertion, they lived in only what they had carried with them. Then combat engineers built a berm around a small, secure area they could call home.
Today, they live in accommodations they’ve mostly built for themselves, using camouflage nets and ponchos to create shade from the 120-degree heat and humidity. It’s the only respite after a four- to six-mile foot patrol with at least 70 pounds of gear riding on their shoulders and back.
Despite the enemy presence, however, most of these patrols are simply an opportunity to interact with the locals.
“Before it was a pretty new thing for them – they hadn’t seen Marines before,” Misek explained. “Now, they’re more willing to talk with us, to converse with us. Kids aren’t afraid to talk with us.
“We’re showing the good side of the Marine Corps,” he said. “We’re more than just security.”
One sure method to gauge how welcome they’ve become in this society that values its privacy is the way the children approach the Marines as they hike through towns and cornfields. Their helmets, bullet-proof vests and sunglasses make them look alien to the children who have never been past the edge of their village, but they approach the riflemen without fear.
“When we first landed they were hesitant because it was the first time they had seen U.S. troops,” said squad automatic weapon gunner Lance Cpl. Alex Torres from Farmersville, Calif. “You could tell they wanted to talk to us. They just needed that first kid to go out and ask us, and the rest just followed along.”
Except for the experienced among them, this is not what these young Marines expected to see coming to this country that has seen consistent conflict for more than 30 years. It’s a challenging mission for the Marines who are brought up expecting to make their living fighting their way to success. Accomplishing a counterinsurgency mission, where they smile, wave and play with children, is not what they’ve mentally prepared for until just prior to this deployment. The fight with the Taliban, who have been made up to be an effective fighting force that melts into the shadows, is far less than expected.
“The biggest thing is probably frustration,” O’Shea said about dealing with the insurgents. “They’ve been built up with such an aura around them as this unstoppable force. The people are smothered with a blanket of fear.
“When we go ask, ‘Are the Taliban here?’ they all tell us, ‘No Taliban here. They’re somewhere else.’ You can never get a straight answer,” he continued. “They don’t want to say that they are because they’re scared.”
“I think the Taliban didn’t live up to their hype,” 21-year-old Torres agreed. “They were made out to be these fierce warriors, not scared of getting contact. When we landed, they were nowhere to be found. They only take a couple of shots at us, and they’ll leave.”
Contrary to what the global media and initial reports described, the Taliban militants here are not the masters of warfare some have portrayed them to be.
“They’re unwillingness to engage us in a fight – you know, they shoot a couple of shots and they run. They plant an IED and they hide,” O’Shea said. “Even without all our gear, a rifleman against one of these (goons) is no contest.
“If we could just pin them down, we could defeat them no questions asked,” the University of San Diego graduate said. “They can outmaneuver us, but that is to say they’re good at running away.”
Winning a conventional fight here is not their mission. Earning the trust of the people and training Afghan national security forces, which 1st Platoon is doing on every patrol, is what will label this mission a success.
When the Marines first arrived, the local residents were under the impression that Americans would make promises and leave like others had before them, but over time, local perceptions have changed for the better.
“I got the Afghan equivalent of we’ll believe it when we see it,” O’Shea said.
By the same token, with the Marines visiting every day, O’Shea says he’s gotten feedback that tells him things have gotten better.
“‘We like you. You talk to us. You have tea with us,’” locals have told him. “I’ve been invited to dinner. It’s good to be doing it right from the beginning.”
Even with the feeling of success though, it is difficult to quantify victory in a counterinsurgency.
“From a conventional sense, it’s easier to measure success: so many tanks, so much damage. It’s a much more nebulous way of measuring success,” he said. “Did we get fewer mean looks today? Were people happier to see us?”
Even though living and working in Afghanistan is not what they expected, the Marines here are creating success where others from around the world have fought for it unsuccessfully for decades.
Winning here takes a different skill set. Fortunately, it is one they have clearly demonstrated they can master, if the smiles and words of thanks from those who live nearby are any measure.