The three units prepared for departure the following morning. The Marines gave Ironhorse and ANCOP enough fuel for another day or so. What might happen after that, no one really knew.
THE NEXT DAY the coalition command for Helmand informed Contreras that the Aynak police were indeed under Khan's authority. We departed at 5 a.m. and rumbled slowly along a canal green with vegetation. Marine minesweepers walked ahead of us. By 9 a.m., we had gone maybe three miles—a numbing pace that allowed any Taliban to flee well in advance.
Children tended cows and sheep in fields. At 10:30 we linked up with a group of Marines who would take us the rest of the way to Aynak. Dozens of their vehicles were parked off the dirt road on plowed fields, crushing cornstalks. "This farmer is not gonna be happy," one corporal said. The Marines had paid damages to farmers in the area. Today they accidentally set one field on fire, then ran around trying to put it out. The shura in Aynak was canceled because it was clear we would be getting there too late. Marines lay about in the shade. A young specialist sat atop a Humvee. "We came, we parked, we relocated, then we parked," he beamed.
A Marine captain named Andrew Schoenmaker arrived and told Contreras that when his men had first asked people in Aynak about the Taliban, they got only complaints about the police. He estimated that there were about 150 cops. "It was uncomfortable when we met them," he said. "They were all high."
We wouldn't be leaving for Aynak until 4:30 in the afternoon. That concerned Sergeant Verdoorn: "It seems like the Marines want to get in a firefight—5:30 p.m. is the beginning of fighting time." I asked Contreras about the delay and he said, "Because it is fucking hot." The Marines had to walk, and in the past few days dozens of them had collapsed from heat exhaustion.
We finally began to plod along once more, the Marines in front of us. Kids stood motionless in front of homes and glared at the Americans. Men with black beards and black turbans also stared, expressionless, standing ramrod straight.
A boy emerged from behind a metal gate and mud walls to talk to the ANCOP, but none of them spoke Pashto and he didn't know Farsi. The Americans' interpreter translated. There was an IED on the road up ahead, the boy said. His father came out wearing a green shalwar kameez and nervously fingering red prayer beads. The IED was planted near their house. Several days before, Taliban had been hiding in a house about a few hundred feet away, he said, pointing to it. He worried locals would inform the Taliban that they had warned the Americans. McGuire walked right up to the IED and saw it partially buried and concealed by shrubs. The minesweepers ahead of us had missed it. A robot was dispatched to destroy it; the explosion sent up a huge cloud of smoke and debris. Rocks rained down on us hundreds of feet away. The men speculated whether it would have been a catastrophic kill. McGuire thought it would have just tossed us up a bit in our armored vehicle. But it would have obliterated the ANCOP.
We made it to Aynak after nightfall. It had taken an entire day to go 14 miles. We slept under the stars, the men taking turns on guard shift. We heard explosions and gunfire in the distance. The next morning the police used an abandoned mud compound as a bathroom, and so did I.
Colonel Shirzad, the ANP commander for Helmand, showed up. Like every other chief of police in Helmand, he had bought his post from officials at the Ministry of Interior. Police were known to release prisoners for bribes ranging from $500 to $15,000. I hitched a ride back to Lashkar Gah with Shirzad, sitting in one of the four Ford Rangers in his convoy. It took us 30 minutes. The trip from Lashkar Gah to Aynak had taken Ironhorse three days. Shirzad's men did not stop to check for IEDs, which could shred their Rangers. I scanned the road desperately.
The next morning, I learned, Ironhorse went out on patrol with the ANCOP and found five IEDs placed on the road I had just taken. One had been hidden by their invisible adversary just after they had passed; they found it on the return trip. That day a 20-vehicle Marine convoy from a base in the desert tried to go to Aynak to resupply Ironhorse. The convoy was attacked by the Taliban so fiercely that it turned back.
COLONEL BILL HIX is an experienced Special Forces officer with extensive COIN experience who until July led the Afghan Regional Security Integration Command in Kandahar—he was in charge of training and mentoring the Afghan police and army. I met him there just before he shipped home. His wall featured portraits of 41 Americans from his command who had been killed, all but 2 by IEDs. He would have needed a much bigger wall for the Afghans. From January 2007 to April of 2009, he had lost 2,096 Afghan police and 949 Afghan army soldiers.
Hix believed that the Taliban's disappearance in the face of an American operation was a sign not of weakness, but of strategy. They would slide their Kalashnikovs under their beds and bide their time, watching their enemy. It had happened with a major operation in another part of Helmand the year before; as soon as the Americans left, the Taliban were back. Hix had spent 21 months in Afghanistan, and he enjoyed his job. In his view it was the Afghan army's job to push the Taliban away from the population, while the police should be protecting the people where they lived. Hix did not believe more American troops were needed, just an "adequate" police force and army—about double the present number, which had taken eight years to build up.
Ironhorse's Major Contreras (center) and Marine Commander McCollough (opposite) meet with Nawa's chief of police (second from left), ANCOP's Colonel Sakhi (second from right), and the translator called "Shotgun" (right).
Control is essential to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. According to Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist and civil war expert whose book The Logic of Violence in Civil War is very influential among counterinsurgency theorists, "The higher the level of control exercised by the actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor—and, inversely, the lower the rate of defection." But by that logic, the Americans will never have enough troops in Afghanistan to achieve control. A generally accepted ratio for a successful counterinsurgency is roughly 1 cop or soldier per 50 civilians. That would mean 600,000 troops are needed to secure Afghanistan—fewer if part of the country is assumed to be secure already. The Afghan army and police between them have about 189,000 members, and there are an additional 42,000 international (mostly NATO) troops in the country. Obama has raised the US total in Afghanistan from 47,000 to 68,000. McChrystal's much-debated request is for an additional 40,000, but even that would bring the US troop total in Afghanistan to about 68 percent of the number in Iraq, a smaller country, at the peak of the surge.
Meanwhile the Taliban are seamlessly embedded within communities, a British security expert in Helmand told me. They are the locals. They do not need Kalashnikovs; a simple knock on the door can be just as effective. At night the Taliban controls the villages, undoing whatever the Americans tried to accomplish during the day. It does not matter if here and there the Americans are effective. "Emptying out the Titanic with a teacup has an effect," the Brit told me, "but it doesn't stop the ship from sinking."
COIN is a massive endeavor, I was told by retired Colonel Patrick Lang, who has done counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Latin America, and the Middle East. There are insufficient resources committed to doing it in Afghanistan, he says, and if the Americans don't plan on owning the country, why waste time on it? "It is only worth the expenditure of resources if you were the local government seeking to establish authority, or an imperialist power that wanted to hang around for a while." There are 28 million people in Afghanistan, and they are widely dispersed in small towns. "You have to provide security for the whole country," Lang told me, "because if you move around they just move in behind you and undo what you did. So you need to have effective security and a massive multifaceted development organization that covers the whole place. COIN advisers have to stay in place all the time. If you're going to do COIN, it really amounts to nation building, and troops are there to provide protection for the nation builders."
His point was that the Americans will bail on Afghanistan no matter what. It will be tragic when that happens, whether it's six months from now or two years from now. Andrew Wilder, a longtime aid worker who has spent years working in Afghanistan and set up its first think tank, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, told me there is no way to "fix" Afghanistan. "It may be more realistic to look for ways to slow down the descent into anarchy." Another way to look at it came from a retired American military officer working in security in Afghanistan. "Every time our boys face them, we win," he told me grimly. "We're winning every day. Are we going to keep winning for 20 years?"