The Marines who launched operations in southern Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province at the beginning of July set two ambitious goals: seize control of the Helmand River valley from the Taliban, and build a lasting presence in villages in the area.
The first part of the mission seems to be going well. The Marines have set up new combat outposts throughout the area and are engaging the Taliban where they find them.
But the U.S. forces and their allies know that the second part will take more time.
The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment's Fox Company are ahead of the game. When the current operation began July 2, they poured out of helicopters onto what they imagined might be a battlefield waiting for them. Instead, they found themselves setting up in a largely friendly village called Sorhodez.
The local people aren't exactly happy to have the Marines in their village. In fact, they are concerned that the U.S. Marines and the Afghan border police working with them will spark a fight with the Taliban that will bring chaos.
But they agreed to talks with Capt. Junwei Sun, Fox Company's commanding officer.
Mandatory Meeting With Locals
The meeting of the Marines and a dozen elders was held under a shade tree, next to an irrigation canal. The locals offered no cups of tea. It was a bit of a forced get-together, but for the Marines, it was vital.
"All of you gentlemen have expressed concern that we're just going to come here, stay a couple days, and then we're leaving," Sun said to the elders. "It's not true with us. We're different. We're here along with the Afghan border police. We're going to stay here and work with you."
The commanding general, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, told his 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade that everywhere Marines landed in this operation — with 4,000 troops, the Marines' biggest aerial insertion since Vietnam — they were to hold meetings within 24 hours to explain to the locals why they had come.
The problem is, the Afghan people, at least in Sorhodez, don't believe the promises. They have heard it all before. According to Nicholson, the No. 1 question the Marines get from people across Helmand is, "When are you leaving?" His answer is that they are not leaving "until the transition for security is made to the provincial government."
After the Marines had been in the village of Sorhodez for more than a week, the locals started to get the idea.
Worry That Marines May Attract Taliban
A farmer named Daoud — who is known by only one name, a common custom in Afghanistan — has felt the presence of the Marines in Sorhodez more acutely than anyone.
It was in front of his walled home that the Marines landed in waves of helicopters. Eventually, they negotiated the use of his house as a firebase.
On a recent day, Daoud was emptying a room that had been used to store his harvest of wheat — scooping the grain into large plastic bags to give the 130 Marines a little more room to stretch out.
The first day, Daoud refused payment, for fear of Taliban reprisal for cooperating with the Americans. Now, despite his worries, he has agreed to a two-month lease.
"The people are just worried about fighting between the Taliban and the Americans — that when they start fighting, we will die," he said.
Peaceful Village Surrounded By Fighting
Although it has been quiet in Sorhodez — too quiet for many of the Marines — there is fighting just to the north and south. On Wednesday, a Taliban IED struck a Humvee on patrol, killing two Marines and injuring others.
And despite reports that the Taliban have largely fled the river valley, heading north and east, there have been daily firefights nearby, prompting at least one Hellfire missile strike on an insurgent compound.
Because Sorhodez is peaceful, there is already some talk of moving these Marines out. Sun, like his men, is eager to get into the fight and reinforce units that are seeing action. But he doesn't want to be made into a liar in the minds of the villagers.
"In terms of the enemy, it's been quiet down here. We don't know if the enemy is hiding or they moved, or there's just never any enemy here," he says.
"According to the locals, the enemy transit through here all the time, but we just haven't seen any. If we move, somebody's got to come here and fill the void. Because if we move, the Taliban's going to come back in, and then we're immediately going to lose the people around here as well," Sun says.
Marines Await Next Move
So because Fox Company finds itself ahead of the game, the game may be changing. Sun confers with Army Capt. Michael Repasky, who is the mentor to the Afghan border patrol unit that is stationed here with the Marines.
One of Sun's concerns is if the Marines leave, will coalition forces stay? With the unit's departure, the Taliban are sure to return, he says.
But it is unclear what their next move is. What is clear is that the campaign to secure the Helmand River valley — and to move its population closer to the Afghan government — is far from over.