MARJAH DISTRICT, Afghanistan -- As night descended, the desert turned cold, and silhouettes gathered within the walls of Patrol Base Husker. The light of a near full moon revealed brambles of concertina wire atop the walls, and gave the bulky rows of combat packs a thin, nocturnal lining. The Marines - tucked into sleeping bags along the rows -murmured premonitions about the coming days.
But sunrise chased away the specters of Operation Watchtower. What unfolded was unexciting but effective: typical counterinsurgency operations for Fox Company, said Capt. Walker Koury, the company commander with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Fox Company concluded the three-day operation, March 25, without firing a single shot. According to Koury, the company dug up approximately 10 small weapons caches and found one small poppy lab. However, most of the operation consisted of walking across the desert and talking to the people.
For three days, Fox Company plodded through the Shinghazi region, a loosely connected network of villages in Southern Marjah District, Helmand province Afghanistan. Each day, the foot patrols started near sunrise lasted until late afternoon.
To start the operation, two “ranger files” sprawled over the barren desert plains. The Marines of Fox Company stayed approximately 50 yards away from each other to reduce potential casualties from possible improvised explosive devices or enemy machine gun defilades.
MARJAH, Afghanistan - The caravan crawled along, with the average Marine lugging between 50-75 pounds of gear. Each day, movement became increasingly arduous as the cool of morning gave way to the desert sun. Flack jackets became fleeces. Sweat seeped into the cushioning of kevlar helmets, and shoulders sagged under the dull weight of combat packs.
Occasionally, a chirp of the point man’s metal detector would prompt him to halt the column, and the Marines would drop like slow-motion dominoes. Kneeling, they would quietly scan the horizon and wait for the point man to resume the patrol. He would motion them to their feet, and the pack-laden Marines would thrust themselves up, renewing the long march across sage and sand.
Eventually, the desert sprouted a few green wheat fields, and thatched mud huts appeared nearby. The column splashed through a shallow canal and, after reaching the other side, separated into squads to search the village. The squad leaders consulted their maps, comparing the buildings in view to grid coordinates, and began their search for insurgent weapons caches.
On the last day of Operation Watchtower, after all the searches, a Marine with Fox Company addressed an overflow of elders outside a compound where a shura was taking place.
The night before, a squad of Marines informed the locals that Marjah District Governor Abdul Mutalib Majbor was coming. The locals quickly volunteered the compound for the occasion, but attendance exceeded expectations, and some of the elders had to wait outside.
The Marine spoke to them about the coalition's vision of Afghanistan.
“It’s not the crops that are the best thing you grow around here; it’s the kids,” said the Marine. “If you send (your children) to school, they can think of better ways to farm. There are new ways to farm, and there are new ways to get water. There are better ways for medical health, but if the kids never learn, we’ll never know. So it doesn’t have to be an American school. The schools you have here are just fine.”
Meanwhile, excited Pashtu chatter filtered out of the building where the official shura was taking place. The governor, elders and Marines seemed to be engaged in lively conversation about farming, poppy cultivation, and water scarcity.
Outside, the elders continued listening to the Marine.
“In Marjah,” he said, “a lot of the teachers are just local people, and they volunteer one or two days a week. They show kids how to weld some pipes together, and how to make bricks, how to dig a well, and they seem to be doing pretty good.”
The elders’ responses to the Marine varied. Some gazed intently; others seemed to half-listen while fiddling with pieces of sage.
Nevertheless, the Marines of Fox Company believe that engaging the community is the best way to win in Afghanistan.
“Killing the bad guy is a method of getting rid of the (insurgents),” said 1st Lt. Shane Harden said, the executive officer with Fox Company. “A better method is focusing on the people, because a lot of our successes come from local national reporting.”
Earlier in the operation, before searching compounds for weapons caches, the Marines would sit down with the villagers and explain the mission. Sometimes, the villagers complained about the intrusion; other times, friendly greetings were exchanged through the interpreters. The children invariably stared wide-eyed at the Marines, and the elders smiled nervously or bore blank, sullen expressions.
But as the searches progressed, attitudes seemed to change. Curiosity overcame the children’s fears. Little boys shuffled over to the Marines holding security. Through a mixture of gestures and an occasional English word, the children asked to try on the Marines’ sunglasses and begged for pieces of candy. Marines produced sticks of gum. Eventually, the elders migrated over to the gift-giving Marines, smiling and uttering Pashto phrases in seeming acknowledgment of the Marines’ good intentions.
In one village, a Marine used the page of an informational pamphlet to make a paper airplane for one of the local boys. A procession of four more children soon appeared, conveying one page after another until the Marine finally realized he could save work by training one of the boys to make his own paper airplanes.
Little did the pamphlet’s author know, it was the mere paper – not its carefully crafted message – that made a difference to the children in that village.
Likewise, Operation Watchtower was a success, but maybe not in the sense it was envisioned. Watchtower’s primary purpose was to preempt a suspected insurgent spring offensive by interdicting insurgents and their supplies.
But the Fox Company Marines who patrolled the Shinghazi region never heard or fired a shot. An occasional dust devil whirled in the open spaces where the insurgents were conspicuously absent, and the Marines spoke to village elders in peace.