LIKE DIPLOMATS WITH guns, the marines assembled around their hulking MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored vehicles that might have wandered off the set of a Star Wars movie. Their tan boots crunched softly on the dried mud and gravel of their desert base, a modest collection of sand-colored tents covered with camouflage netting and outfitted with hastily assembled plywood furniture, all of it enclosed, almost like a medieval fortress, by rows of dirt-filled Hesco bastions and concrete Jersey barriers designed to stop suicide bombers and enemy rockets. All that was missing was a moat. Conditions were so primitive that there were no Port-a-Potties, much less latrines with running water; the men relieved themselves into plastic “piss tubes” stuck into the dirt. Towering above them were long, thin antennae thrusting upward as if to extend a metal hand through the ether itself to connect this remote outpost with its higher headquarters and with smaller elements in the field. As they listened to a short mission brief, the marines stood next to their armored vehicles in their camouflage fatigues, weighed down with M-4 rifles, spare magazines, body armor, radios, CamelBaks, first-aid kits, and other assorted paraphernalia.
Suddenly out of a limpid blue sky a strange apparition with giant wings appeared amid a volley of deafening thwacks. Neither airplane nor helicopter but a combination of both, the V-22 Osprey landed at Camp Hanson with its tilt-rotors pointing upward to disgorge a handful of security experts sent from Kabul to assess this Area of Operations. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel A. Schmitt, the wiry and energetic commander of the 3-6 (Third Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment), stepped forward to greet his visitors on this warm fall day, helmet in hand, and to usher them into the MRAPs for the drive ahead—thirty bone-rattling minutes over dirt roads fringed by orchards and farm fields, heading from the northern edge of settlement straight into the population center.
Sunday, October 23, 2011. The Marjah district of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
Four and a half years after Captain David Brunais had led a squad of soldiers from the Eighty-Second Airborne Division onto the streets of Baghdad, another American officer was departing another American base in another country to engage in another of the time-tested rituals of counterinsurgency. Just as Brunais’s patrol was designed to consolidate the gains his troopers had made through an assault into ungoverned terrain, so too with Schmitt’s “Key Leader Engagement,” the fancy term that the American military conferred on meetings with local notables.
American marines, the 3-6 among them, had first entered this area, long notorious as a Taliban safe haven and center of the flourishing drug trade, in February 2010. The high hopes of commanders, who had spoken overoptimistically of bringing “government in a box,” were stymied initially by the low quality of Kabul’s representatives and the fighting ability and tenacity of the local insurgents. There was no set-off-the-fireworks victory, no instant turnaround to be had in Marjah, but then there never is when battling an entrenched guerrilla group. Gradually, however, after hard fighting and serious losses on both sides, the marines were able to push the Taliban out of town. Once there had been two marine battalions in Marjah. Now there was only one reinforced battalion, and it was increasingly turning over control of the town itself to the Afghan army and police so that it could pursue the Taliban into the empty desert that lay outside the narrow agricultural belt, literally a “green zone,” that stretched along the Helmand River Valley. Some of the Taliban remained in town, of course, but they found it prudent to hide their weapons, at least for the time being.
The situation was much safer than it had been back in May 2011 when the 3-6 battalion had arrived for its second deployment to Marjah. Yet Schmitt still took the precaution of having a marine with a hand-held metal detector sweep the path ahead, on the lookout for buried mines, after he and his visitors dismounted from the armored vehicles and were walking to an elder’s gated and heavily guarded house. Capricious and deadly, IEDs had taken a fearsome toll on the marines in Helmand, killing many and leaving many others without arms or legs. Most of these infernal devices were so well concealed that they could be detected only with a metal detector or a set of well-trained eyeballs.
Once inside, marines and visitors alike engaged in a routine that had become second nature to American troops over the past decade who seemed eager to show by their actions that the age of the “ugly American” was long past. They took off their body armor, leaving it in heaps outside, and walked in to sit down on the floor along the periphery of a spacious salon. Sitting next to them on threadbare carpets were local potentates. At the head of the room, crouched on the floor next to Schmitt, was the owner of the house, Hajji Baz Gul, sporting a traditional flowing white shalwar kameez, a black vest and turban, and a substantial salt-and-pepper beard. (“Hajji” was an honorific denoting one who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.)
Meetings with elders like him had been a part of the routine for counterinsurgents since the days of Alexander the Great, and indeed, aside from an expensive watch on his wrist, he did not look as if he would have been out of place in a sit-down with the Macedonian conqueror. Such conversations are designed to exchange information and to reach a modus vivendi between occupiers and occupied. They are not a substitute for the violence and coercion of warfare—killing and jailing insurgents—but they are an essential complement to it. Such diplomatic work took up much of the time of American commanders from the platoon level to the division and beyond, and it distinguishes counterinsurgency from conventional conflict, where the pure kinetic battle is all. Winning a counterinsurgency is a lot more complicated than simply pumping out a lot of lead and involves risks in addition to being shot or blown up—risks such as food poisoning and terminal boredom.
A manservant arrived to distribute with grimy black hands a lunch of rice, cucumbers and tomatoes, and scrawny, incinerated pieces of chicken, all washed down with cold cans of soda. As the assembled company of Americans and Afghans ate with their own hands off plates set on the floor, another elder entered and sat down on the other side of Schmitt from where the first elder had crouched. Hajji Moto Khan was wearing a virtually identical outfit; the only difference was that his beard was perceptibly longer and whiter, which denoted higher standing in this patriarchal community. For the next hour, the Americans and Afghans engaged in a stilted, slow-motion conversation, punctuated by elaborate avowals of affection, through a marine translator. The elders were making a plea for greater infrastructure investment, while Schmitt was making a plea of his own for greater security cooperation.
Tension simmered not far beneath the surface of this ostensibly friendly interaction. Moto Khan had previously been a local leader of the Taliban. Another elder sitting in the back of the room had lost two sons fighting the marines. These men had no love lost for their camouflaged guests, but as wily survivors they could calculate their own-self interest—and much as their counterparts in Iraq’s Anbar Province had done in 2007, they had decided to throw in their lot with “the strongest tribe,” at least for the time being.
Thanks to their cooperation, Marjah, once the epicenter of violence in Afghanistan, had turned remarkably peaceful. After leaving the elder’s house, the biggest obstacle that Schmitt encountered was flocks of stubborn sheep blocking the road. No snipers targeted his men, no IEDs went off to blow up his MRAPs. He was even able to lead his visitors on a walk through an open-air market, helmets off to reflect the greater sense of security. Once closed, the market was now bustling, with kids running around, stalls piled high with everything from vegetables to plastic flip-flops, and jingle trucks and motorcycles clogging the main street. Schmitt pointed proudly at this accomplishment, which was more significant in his mind than any number of insurgents caught or killed.
Despite this scene of apparent tranquility, a major question hung ominously in the air like the portent of a far-off storm: Would these gains endure once all the marines had gone? Much the same question had been asked by American soldiers in Iraq in 2007.1
Little, it seemed, had changed during the preceding four and a half years. Notwithstanding the considerable differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, American forces were conducting counterinsurgency using roughly the same set of tactics, techniques, and procedures, and experiencing many of the same frustrations and joys. But then by some measures little had changed over the past five thousand years. Brunais and Schmitt were walking in the footsteps of counterinsurgents going back to Sargon of Akkad, while Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban were spiritual descendants of the tribes from the Persian highlands that had bedeviled Akkad and other Mesopotamian states. Both sides had much to learn from the past about how to wage insurgency and counterinsurgency—how to overthrow governments and how to safeguard them.
Those lessons will remain of paramount importance long after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are concluded, for if there is one constant of history, it is the ubiquity and inevitability of guerrilla warfare. It is a form of combat that has been immanent in all cultures, at all times, whenever one side was too weak to face another in open battle. There is no reason to think that this method of warfare will be outdated anytime soon; rather, there is cause to fear that it could assume terrifying proportions in the future. Should some group of insurgents obtain weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, a terrorist cell the size of an infantry squad could easily acquire more destructive capacity than an entire conventional army. That is sadly not the world of science fiction. If that were to occur, guerrilla warfare would take on an importance not countenanced in five thousand years of world history. Even if that technological leap does not manifest itself anytime soon, it seems reasonable to augur that guerrillas will continue to humble and humiliate the world’s great powers, as they have done so successfully in the past, and that soldiers following in the footsteps of Brunais and Schmitt will inevitably find themselves thrown into the cauldron of irregular warfare.
To modify George Santayana’s famous observation: “Only the dead are safe; only the dead have seen the end of guerrilla war.”2