Winning ground is one thing. Convincing Afghan villagers you will not leave, abandoning them to a vengeful Taliban, is a bigger challenge for US Marines advancing deep into southern Helmand province.
The Marines, part of a 10 000-strong force sent to Afghanistan this year, have pushed south into hostile terrain, winning ground and pledging to build the long-term trust and security needed to prevent insurgents from returning.
A day after taking over the former home of a local doctor which had been used as a post by the Taliban, the Marines were building it into a base and trying to win over local people.
“You have to make a decision, please. You want to work with us or you want to work with the Taliban?” the clean-shaven young Marine Captain Junwei Sun asked a wizened and bearded village elder at the first “shura” or meeting with local people.
The base is a sprawling, dry mud compound of rooms and a large courtyard, topped by a watch room which gives a panoramic view of the surrounding cornfields and villages.
“I’m good at fighting people like this (the Taliban). If you help me, I guarantee, over time we’ll get security here,” First Lieutenant Samuel Oliver said.
It took 200 men from the 2nd battalion 8th Marines two days to advance just 4km (2.5 miles) to Barcha in the face of insurgent attacks and a string of roadside explosive traps.
The eight-year-old war is at its most intense, with more than 400 NATO troops dead this year. US Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has told President Obama he needs 40 000 troops to push back a resurgent Taliban and convince the population insurgents will not win.
The Marines in Helmand are field-testing McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy of marching into populated areas and holding them so that government institutions can be set up.
Obama, under pressure from Democrats to pull back from the war and from Republicans to meet military requests, has said he will review overall strategy before deciding on reinforcements.
Villagers complained it was unsafe to walk to the local mosque, that there were no schools and that the Marines had detained an innocent man as a suspected Taliban member.
“If you tell me he is not Taliban, then I will let him go you promise me he is not Taliban?” Captain Sun asked.
The elders raised their hands and in unison said, “no he is not.” The heavily armed Marines outside released the detainee.
But winning trust, while judging friend from foe, is not easy.
In nearby Darbishan village, Abdul Razak, 18, who lives in a simple mud brick hut in a cornfield, is having his eyeballs scanned by a US Marine sergeant.
Razak is not an “individual of interest,” or suspected insurgent, but Marines say keeping biometric data will enable them to track who lives nearby and build an informal census.
Razak knows the Marines outside his home and mosque, where he runs a small school, want information about the Taliban.
“The Taliban and the Americans come here and push us around … I don’t mind if they don’t upset us, they can come here, but we are not the Taliban, they are not from here,” said Razak.
The Marines, accompanied by a unit of nine Afghan soldiers machete their way through tall corn fields to other houses.
In the next compound Hajji Abdul Khaliq is squatting and counting his worry beads. Khaliq’s son, a doctor, is the village’s main landowner but is in Helmand’s provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, buying medicine for his practice.
“The Taliban were last here four days ago.” Khaliq said. “I don’t know them, they are not from the area and they are always from Pakistan or Iran.”
Three women from the village sit in the corner of Khaliq’s compound cleaning vegetables. “When there is war, we are very unhappy, when it’s peaceful it’s good, but we don’t have Taliban here,” 60-year old Hadiyeh said.
Pic: US marines