Winning (Part 1)
You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.—General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his letter to members of the Allied Expeditionary Force on the eve of D-Day, June 5, 1944
July 2, 2009. At 1:00 a.m., a not-quite-full moon emitted enough light to allow NVG-wearing helicopter pilots to discern the key features of landing zones in Helmand Province’s Nawa District, where they were dropping off hundreds of combat-loaded Marines. Several hundred more Marines were easing along the district’s dirt roads in armored Humvees or large mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) spread out in convoys, close enough to keep an eye on each other, but far enough to ensure that any improvised explosive devices (IEDs) would not hit multiple vehicles. Operation Khanjari was under way, and 4,000 Marines were pushing into Nawa and its neighboring district, Garmsir, along with hundreds of Afghan National Army soldiers………
……….Only the soundest sleepers in Nawa would not have known something was happening in the wee hours of July 2 as the thumping crack of helicopter rotors and the growling rumble of diesel engines echoed through the district. As the sun rose that morning, villagers looking into their freshly harvested and plowed fields would see squads of Marines fanned out, keenly scanning tree lines and village compounds for signs of trouble. We were not on a stealth mission and didn’t make any effort to mask our noise or conceal our presence. In fact, we wanted the Afghans to know we had arrived, and the patrolling Marines went out of their way to approach the locals they encountered to introduce themselves and explain our mission.
Every Marine in 1/5 told every Afghan he met the message from the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bill McCollough, that we were here to stay, and the Afghan government was on the way. This message was often met with skepticism (with respect to the Marines’ long-term presence) and disdain (with respect to the Afghan government). But when the battalion’s company commanders organized shuras with the village elders in their respective Area of Operations (AO) to reiterate this message, the audience at least politely listened with bemused interest. During the first weeks of Operation Khanjari, the heat and humidity was as much our enemy as was the Taliban, some of whom had blended back into the general populace or fled to neighboring districts like Marjah, where there was not yet a NATO presence. Nevertheless, Marines trudging through the district in the early days of the operation got into their share of firefights each day, some consisting of sporadic harassing fire and others lasting for several hours. Many of the locals who weren’t shooting at us regarded the Marines with cautious reserve or even clear scorn. Foreigners had been passing through Afghanistan for centuries. Although our uniforms may have looked different than those of the Russians or Brits who came before us, our promises probably sounded familiar to some of the older Afghans. They had seen foreign armies come and go over their lifetimes, and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers would have told them about the dismal fate that those foreigners met at the hands of their Afghan tormentors. We had embarked on a new type of warfare in the earliest days of the twenty-first century.
The eyes of the world were upon us. It was our fight to lose, but winning was our only option.