CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – The Marines approached the firing line, cooled by a breeze under blue skies, still quite familiar with the process to follow. The difference this time was that they were in an unfamiliar land, with an even more unfamiliar mission ahead.

The service members of Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan began, each firing round after round from their respective M-4 carbines and M-16 A-4 rifles, improving their accuracy with each shot.

But the rifle-sight adjustment exercise lost its simplicity when a sand storm engulfed the Marines and sailors as they lay across the firing line. Sand filled their mouths and nostrils, covered their weapons and eliminated all visibility of their targets ahead.

The storm provided a lesson for the Marines of the unpredictability of Afghanistan, as well as that of future missions to follow. The sun later set under blue skies.

“Afghanistan can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable,” said Maj. Tom Clinton, a senior watch officer with the brigade’s command element. “Some call this country the ‘graveyard of empires’.”

Clinton used this phrase in reference to other nations, such as Great Britain and Russia, which tried (and failed) to gain a foothold in the country of Afghanistan by use of force. He said America cannot afford to make the same mistakes as its predecessors.

“We are not looking to stay here in Afghanistan,” the Swampscott, Mass., native said. “We’re looking to help the country and its people. The others were looking to build their empires. We have to allow the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to take things over. Yes, we want people to trust U.S. forces and their partners, but they need to trust their own government and security forces.”

Afghanistan features many complexities with which Iraq veterans may not be familiar. The land and terrain of Helmand Province, in which MEB-Afghanistan’s area of operations lies, may appear similar, but the needs and interests of Afghans — such as culture, infrastructure and economy — are worlds apart.

Helmand is a land of extremes, according to the Helmand Provincial Handbook, which is used as a field guide for foreigners deployed to Afghanistan. It’s the largest and arguably the most volatile province in Afghanistan today.

“We would engage no more than seven to 15 enemies in firefights,” Clinton said. “Once in Garmsir, that number was at least 300, if not more.”

Pashtuns constitute the overwhelming majority in Helmand, according to the manual, making up 94 percent of the population. The Pashtun ethnic group is unique in comparison to other groups around the world. Pashtun society is very conservative and strictly follows the Islamic religion.

The code of ethics within their tribe, Pashtunwali, meaning “the way of the Pashtuns,” stands out the most. The pre-Islamic code structures four of their core beliefs in society: nang (honor), melmastia (hospitality), nanawaty (sanctuary), and badal (revenge).

Pashtuns are known for their hospitality and go to great lengths to treat guests with honor and respect. At the same time, everything leads to honor. Any insults to themselves or their families can often lead to a desire for revenge. Their sanctuary beliefs sometimes lead them to forgiveness of acts, if forgiveness is requested. But at the same time, Pashtuns are known for being quick to exact revenge for wrongdoings to restore their honor, even for a crime committed decades ago.

If Marines forces hope to stabilize the security situation in southern Afghanistan during their time here, it’s necessary that they truly understand the people and their culture.

“The big challenge we face is that we want to help and do things right away,” said Clinton, who spent much of his deployments around local Afghan leaders. “But in order to be successful, you have to get to know the people. It took me more than one month in one case just to get one of the village elders to speak to me. We must have patience.”

Security has become the dominant issue in Helmand. According to the manual, there has been ongoing fighting in the province since 2006, which has produced significant loss of life and displacement of the local populace. The deterioration of security is most prominent in areas being contested by the Afghan government and insurgents.

The manual states that today, a relatively small percentage of Helmand locals actively support insurgent forces; another minority actively supports the Afghan government and coalition forces. The majority are neutral, simply trying to survive day to day and support their families.

The outcome of the brigade’s counterinsurgency operations arguably sits in the hands of that majority.

The service members have been given Law of War and Rules of Engagement briefs in cohesion with weapons training to be better informed of the difficulties ahead and the issues to avoid.

The briefs addressed the core issues of armed conflict, such as actions made in self defense, the prevention of unnecessary suffering, the use of force, humanity and the treatment of those wounded and captured.

1st Lt. Ian Mckinnon, operational law officer, MEB-Afghanistan, said the briefs would possibly be “the most important briefs the Marines will have while in Afghanistan.”

Marines were advised on certain issues that will help them achieve success during operations, such as always displaying respect for Afghan traffic and pedestrians on roadways, avoiding reckless driving and always refraining from making any obscene gestures or insults to the local populace.

“Does shouting obscenities from the top of a turret hurt your mission?” asked Capt. Korvin Kraics, brigade operational law chief. “It certainly doesn’t help you and there’s certainly something to lose. You are not going to gain anything from that.”

Recent studies identified different issues concerning U.S. and coalition forces that Afghans oppose. Afghans, according to the manual, have expressed dissatisfaction with international forces, accusing them of entering houses without permission of the home owner and lacking respect for Afghan culture and traditions. In Afghan culture, Mckinnon said, making an uninvited entry is “a huge slap in the face,” to locals.

But one complaint stands out the most: the alleged lack of security and rule of law.

Kraics said many of the choices the brigade is making for future missions to achieve U.S. goals in Afghanistan stem from lessons learned in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, where Marines have had clear successes in counterinsurgency.

The Santa Clarita, Calif., native said Marines are also maintaining the escalation of force rules still present in Iraq. He said Marines must give others the opportunity to adjust their actions, such as driving at high speeds toward vehicle check points. Kraics added that Marines are required to implement challenge procedures, which can be both non-lethal and lethal and are situationally dependent.

“Just because someone has a weapon doesn’t mean you have to shoot them,” Kraics said. “What if he was turning in his weapon? Giving a person, who might be demonstrating hostile intent, the opportunity to cease that threat or hostile intent is important.”

Kraics said by applying principles of discrimination, their goal is to target only the bad guys to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties.

“We do not target or attack the innocent,” Kraics said. “Make no mistake about it, indiscriminately shooting people because we blindly think they have hostile intent will not win this counterinsurgency.”

Afghan Gen. Khodaidad, minister for Counter Narcotics, painted a descriptive picture using his own words in the Helmand manual to define what forces must do to achieve victory in the south of Afghanistan.

“Past history has shown that to fight and win in the south of Afghanistan, it is essential to know all aspects of the localized terrain, including human and political factors,” Khodaidad said. “It is necessary to treat every village as a separate entity and know the personalities with influence there. Every village is a separate military campaign.”

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CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – The Marines approached the firing…