Kinetic environment

By Steve Mumford

War artist Steve Mumford shares a dispatch from Afghanistan.

This is the headquarters for four Marine battalions operating in the greater Marja area of Helmand Province. The larger bases all look very similar: endless rows of tents on gravel lots. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

View of Camp Dwyer 

This is the headquarters for four Marine battalions operating in the greater Marja area of Helmand Province. The larger bases all look very similar: endless rows of tents on gravel lots. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

The headquarters of the 3/6 Marines battalion in Marja. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Camp Leatherneck 

The headquarters of the 3/6 Marines battalion in Marja. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Lance Corporal Benjamin Creely is a combat cameraman who accompanied me to Camp Hanson to film the reconciliation shura. We were waiting for a helicopter ride. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Lance Corporal Benjamin Creely 

Lance Corporal Benjamin Creely is a combat cameraman who accompanied me to Camp Hanson to film the reconciliation shura. We were waiting for a helicopter ride. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

The reconciliation shura was a rather theatrical event. Tribal elders reclaimed 7 prisoners from the Americans, pledging to support the coalition and government forces. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Reconciliation Shura 

The reconciliation shura was a rather theatrical event. Tribal elders reclaimed 7 prisoners from the Americans, pledging to support the coalition and government forces. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

"May Allah take away my sight if I ever fight the Americans." (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

A Call to Allah 

"May Allah take away my sight if I ever fight the Americans." (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Reporters Jason Motlagh and Richard Rowley of Time magazine, and Matthew Green of the "Financial Times" at Camp Hanson. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Camp Hanson 

Reporters Jason Motlagh and Richard Rowley of Time magazine, and Matthew Green of the "Financial Times" at Camp Hanson. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Camp Coutu in Marja was picturesquely situated in an adobe farm compound the Marines were renting from the owner. Any resemblance to the Alamo is purely coincidental. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Camp Coutu, Marja 

Camp Coutu in Marja was picturesquely situated in an adobe farm compound the Marines were renting from the owner. Any resemblance to the Alamo is purely coincidental. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Marines of Lima Co, 3/6 hanging out in the 115 degree shade. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Marines of Lima Co. 

Marines of Lima Co, 3/6 hanging out in the 115 degree shade. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

On patrol in Marja: "Whatever -- I’ve got a month left -- of this shit." (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

On Patrol 

On patrol in Marja: "Whatever -- I’ve got a month left -- of this shit." (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Under fire in Marja. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Under Fire 

Under fire in Marja. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Camp Coutu, 3/6 Marines, Lima Co. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Marines 

Camp Coutu, 3/6 Marines, Lima Co. (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Navy Corpsman Justin Foxworthy, attached to the Marines as a medic. A he says: "They’re straight killers, we’re straight healers." (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

Navy Corpsman Justin Foxworthy 

Navy Corpsman Justin Foxworthy, attached to the Marines as a medic. A he says: "They’re straight killers, we’re straight healers." (Courtesy: Steve Mumford)

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 who’d been captured by the Marines. Seven are handed over with assurances from the elders that they won’t 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. “We’re gonna be traveling slow this morning — I’m taking my time. No one’s in a hurry to get here; no one’s 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 couldn’t get out — they drowned to death! Take it slow and smart.  Don’t wind up with guys in dress blues showing up at your parents’ house to tell ‘em you got killed for a stupid reason. . . now let’s 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 who’ve 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 can’t 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?

 
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