In late June, a "Reintroduction Shura" takes place at Camp Hanson, the forward operating base for the 3/6 Marines.
Perhaps 200 tribal elders arrive to reclaim some prisoners whoíd been captured by the Marines. Seven are handed over with assurances from the elders that they wonít take up arms against coalition or Afghan forces in the future. One made a tearful speech: "May Allah take away my sight if ever I wish to fight the Marines!"
An AK47 is symbolically passed around to signify the laying down of arms.
No one I talk to among the Marines or the reporters has any idea if this is real or pure theater.
The next day I hitch a ride to Camp Coutu on a convoy bringing supplies to the outlying bases.
A Staff Sergeant gives an energetic briefing before we leave Hanson. Roadside bombs are a constant danger here. "Weíre gonna be traveling slow this morning -- Iím taking my time. No oneís in a hurry to get here; no oneís gonna tell me to be in a hurry out there!"
He continues: "Canals -- be careful! Remember that truck from the other company that slid into the water a couple weeks ago? Guys couldnít get out -- they drowned to death! Take it slow and smart.† Donít wind up with guys in dress blues showing up at your parentsí house to tell Ďem you got killed for a stupid reason. . . now letís do this. This is awesome! I am motivated to be here!"
As I travel further out the bases get progressively smaller and more spartan. You shit in a plastic bag, designed to fit around a toilet seat; for a shower -- if you must -- you fill a can perched on 2 x 4s with bottled water heated from the 125 degree temperatures during the day.
This is an active combat zone, as dangerous as anything I experienced in Iraq. The Marines are taking a great gamble here, applying the counterinsurgency theory developed in Iraq, which calls for a soft hand, small bases with multiple patrols a day, mentoring an army of largely illiterate Afghans whoíve had little training, and adhering to very strict rules of engagement to avoid civilian casualties. The Taliban understand and exploit these rules expertly, boldly scoping out bases and patrols, sauntering away from ambushes after hiding their weapons, knowing the Marines canít fire on them no matter how obvious the association. At one small patrol base I visited a Marine was being investigated for shooting a dog. Had the dog really attacked him, or was there some frustration in his act? Has an army in combat ever been held to such account? And will it make any difference?
At Camp Coutu (many of the small bases are named for Marines killed in the initial invasion of Marja, a few months ago) I meet a young Marine named Rob McKean. His uncle Trip is a close friend since childhood of my stepmotherís, in Tenants Harbor, Maine, where I spent my summers. Small world!
Iím on a patrol in Marja with a squad of perhaps 15 Marines from Lima Co. and six Afghan army soldiers from Camp Coutu, lead by Sgt Landen McLilly. Itís a grueling five-hour walk through fields, crossing irrigation canals, some so wide that Iím barely able to jump across. The Marines avoid the dirt roads and pathways where insurgents like to place bombs, instead walking directly through the fields, some fallow and dry, some soggy, some lush with vegetation.
Iíve brought six half-liter bottles of water, which I try to conserve, not knowing when the patrol will end, should there be contact with the enemy.
Staff Sgt Chris Whitman ("spelled like the poet," he told me), along for the patrol, preempts McLilly towards the missionís end point and mistakenly leads us farther from the base than planned.
As weíre crossing a field shots ring out and everyone dives for cover. Iím lying between dry, fallow rows. An Afghan soldier a few rows over fires a couple of rounds back, while Marines also return fire. I decide to run for cover, and dash towards the ditch at one end of the field which turns out to be a small canal. I jump into it.
The cool filthy water feels delicious! Marines and Afghans are taking cover there too. After a minute the firing stops and I remember that my digital camera is in my pocket. Luckily itís in an upper pocket and isnít wet -- but my satellite phone is. I sit back in the water and get my sketchbook out of my backpack.
Jason and Richard, reporters for Time magazine whoíd been walking upfront near the point man, say they saw two unarmed guys leaving the scene of the fight on a motorcycle, just after the firing had stopped. The Marines couldnít do much about it.
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist and author of Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (2005). The illustrations accompanying this text are his own. For his "Baghdad Journal,"click here. For his previous dispatch from Afghanistan, click here..