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A single company of U.S. Marines is slugging it out with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s toughest ghost town. The battle shows how limited troop numbers have hurt the war—and why the U.S. is changing its strategy.

NOW ZAD, Afghanistan

In a war over hearts and minds, Now Zad has neither.



May 25, 2009

Abandoned by its residents, this mud-brick ghost town is a corner of Afghanistan that might be forever Flanders. There are no schools being painted, no roads paved, no clinics built. There is no Afghan army, no Afghan government at all. In Now Zad, there is just one company of U.S. Marines slugging it out across no man’s land with equally determined militants. From their entrenched lines, neither side is strong enough to prevail.

On patrol this month, Sgt. Tucker Strom, a 26-year-old squad leader from Tallahassee, Fla., lifted his head just high enough above a mud wall to glimpse the Taliban front line across 500 yards of neglected pomegranate orchards. “They’re right there,” Sgt. Strom told a newly arrived Marine. “This is what it turns into—us watching them, them watching us.”

Helmand is one of the toughest provinces for the U.S.-led coalition, home of the insurgency’s twin foundations: Pashtun and poppy. And Now Zad is arguably one of the toughest, and most unusual, towns in Helmand. For the U.S., it’s a prize too valuable to lose, not valuable enough to win.

Senior commanders have already turned down one Marine request to dispatch a 1,000-man battalion to the town, preferring to concentrate forces in areas with more hearts and more minds. Yet the military says keeping a lone company in Now Zad “fixes” the insurgent force in place, even if outright victory isn’t possible.

“Whatever we take, we do not want to cede back to the Taliban,” British Brig. Gen. David Hook, the coalition’s deputy commander for operations in southern Afghanistan, said during a brief visit to Now Zad this month. “What kind of message would it send?”

The inability of the Marines to dominate the area is an extreme example of how limited troop numbers, especially in the country’s strategically vital south, have hampered the U.S. ability to eradicate the Taliban threat. The U.S. and NATO-led coalition has easily defeated the Taliban in battle, but struggled to prevent insurgents returning to towns and villages across the country.

As part of President Barack Obama’s Afghan “surge,” the military has ordered 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to around 60,000. The beefed-up force is a central element of the military’s new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, which aims to replicate the successes of the Bush surge in Iraq, in particular the way it was able to both “clear” important areas of insurgents and “hold” the territory long enough for the government to solidify its position.

The strategic shift gelled earlier this month when Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for the resignation of Gen. David McKiernan, the Pentagon’s top general in Afghanistan, in a bid to further instill counterinsurgency tactics throughout the war. The successor, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is a former Green Beret who recently commanded the military’s secretive special operations forces in Iraq.

Still, the new approach won’t bring enough troops to put overwhelming force into every hotspot, suggesting that Now Zad and other pockets won’t see relief any time soon. Afghanistan’s terrain, replete with inaccessible valleys and remote villages, exacerbates the shortfall.

“We’re still only at half of what we had in Iraq,” says Col. Greg Julian, the military’s chief spokesman in Afghanistan. “In counterinsurgency doctrine, it should really be a 10-to-one ratio of population [to troops], and we’re nowhere near that.”

Soon after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, charities from the United Nations and European Union installed clean-water wells and a mother-child health clinic in Now Zad. But by 2007, fighting between insurgents and small British and Gurkha contingents prompted the estimated 10,000 to 30,000 residents to flee. An Estonian force joined the British before a company of U.S. Marines arrived last year. None was big enough to clear the town of insurgents.

The Marines here now, Lima Co. of 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, number fewer than 300 men and are currently training their replacements. Being a sideshow to the main effort has meant a daily routine of dangerous patrols through a no man’s land littered with land mines, all the while accepting the fact that at best they’ll go home next month with a tie.

Matthew Nolen, a 27-year-old Navy corpsman from Memphis, Tenn., insists that each man on his patrols carry two Velcro tourniquets. The assumption is that if a Marine steps on a mine, he’ll likely lose both legs at once, and the corpsman will have two arterial bleeds to stem. Some infantrymen wear tourniquets loose around their ankles, like bracelets, so they can get at them quickly.

“It’s not for me,” said Sgt. Roy Taylor, a 23-year-old squad leader from New Orleans. “It’s for the guy next to me.”

The Marines maintain two fortified positions in Now Zad. First Platoon mans an outpost atop ANP Hill, named for the Afghan National Police unit that is supposed to be here but isn’t. The position provides covering fire for two improvised helicopter landing pads, otherwise exposed on the dusty flatlands.

On the round hilltop is a c-shaped trench. The Marines live in bunkers built into the sides of the trench, buffered by sandbags and dirt walls. Some are big enough for three or four men; some are little more than crypts with space for a single cot. None is high enough to stand up in.

“What we’re doing is denying the enemy’s ability to operate in Now Zad,” said the platoon commander, 2nd Lt. John Langer, a 23-year-old from Dallas. “It’s a waiting game,” he said. “As long as we stay here, they’ll know somebody is watching.”

On rare occasions, the lieutenant’s platoon patrols through a nearby village where some former Now Zad residents have taken refuge. The Marines don’t visit too often, however. They know that the Taliban will punish villagers who accept U.S. radios or food aid. It wouldn’t be a problem if the Marines had enough troops to leave a permanent presence in the village, but they don’t.

Below the hill is Lima Co.’s main base, surrounded by razor wire and giant barriers filled with dirt and rock. The camp abuts the town itself and the guard towers look onto ghostly streets.

“I guess way back in the day this used to be a thriving town,” said Lance Cpl. Raymond Cardona, 20, from Ormond Beach, Fla., sharpening his fighting knife recently in a guard post built on the ruins of a small store. He and Lance Cpl. Daniel Wescovich manned a machine-gun-like grenade launcher that can spew explosives into Now Zad at a rate of hundreds per minute.

In the street below, sheet-metal shutters creaked and wooden doors rattled in abandoned storefronts, their facades divoted by bullets. Black-blue swallows dodged among swaying strips of awning. Electric poles stood, leaned or reclined, their wires drooping to the streets.

Lance Cpl. Cardona pointed across the street to a forlorn mud building with a blue sign crudely depicting a cut-away drawing of a molar. The sign identified it as the workplace of Dr. Mohamad Zaher Zahin. “That there was a dentist’s office,” Lance Cpl. Cardona said. “Down on the hardball is a doctor’s office.”

On a map tacked to the plywood wall, Lance Cpl. Wescovich, a 20-year-old rifleman from Long Beach, Miss., traced the insurgents’ L-shaped front lines. To the east, he pointed to a wide swath of dried riverbed running along the edge of the town, a route the insurgents use to move weapons, money and men. “They own the eastern wadi,” he said. “But the central wadi is pretty much neutral now,” he added cheerfully.

To the north he picked out a thin strip of road nicknamed Pakistani Alley, for the foreign fighters thought to man it. The Marines once found 20 mines in a small field that way.

“That place scares the [expletive] out of me,” said Lance Cpl. Cardona. “I compare it to playing Minesweeper”—a computer game—“on ‘extremely difficult.’ ”

The insurgent positions are in buildings and bunkers, too, the Marines say, or among trees edging the eastern wadi. The militants use ancient irrigation tunnels to move from place to place, emerging under buildings to surprise Marine patrols and plant mines.

Before coming to Now Zad, Sgt. Eric Droste, 23, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, watched a televised version of Stephen Ambrose’s World War II history “Band of Brothers,” in which German troops were on one side of a river, Americans on the other. He wondered what such a war would be like. Now he knows.

“We could go over there and fight, but it wouldn’t do us any good, because we couldn’t hold the ground,” said Sgt. Droste.

In April, the Marines bombarded the insurgent front line. Jets dropped bombs and attack helicopters fired rockets into mud buildings. From their base, the Marines sent mortars arcing into insurgent fortifications. The attack succeeded in pushing back the front line by a few hundred yards and creating a larger buffer around the U.S. positions, the Marines say. They also believed it killed a substantial number of fighters.

Afghanistan won’t see the bulk of the surge troops until later this summer. But the military is already putting its new strategy to the test in the provinces around Kabul. Early this year, a 3,500-man infantry brigade arrived in Wardak and Logar Provinces, two places where the coalition had had a relatively small footprint in 2008.

The early results appear promising. The additional troops have allowed commanders to clear insurgents from several valleys and towns. In their place are joint U.S.-Afghan forces. The goal is to assure locals who side with the government they won’t be left to the mercies of vengeful returning insurgents.

Commanders say they don’t have enough troops to guard every valley and have to pick targets in the hope that word of their successes creates a chain reaction in areas where they don’t have the manpower to set up permanent outposts. Another fear is that the new troops are simply pushing insurgents from one valley to the next.

Since the bombing raids in Now Zad, the number of ambushes and attacks on the Marine bases has diminished substantially, although commanders worry that the local insurgents are simply taking a break to harvest opium poppies, earn some money to buy more weapons and prepare for more fighting.

“I think they’re happy with a stalemate, as long as we don’t mess with their main supply route, the eastern wadi,” Sgt. Strom told the new Marine, watching the tree line that edges the riverbed.

Day and night, the Marines send patrols into the town, orchards and fields, trying to catch insurgents off-guard or provoke them into a full-on firefight. Now they’re teaching the incoming unit, Golf Co., 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, the survival tips they have picked up.

Sgt. Jasen Wrubel, 25, of Roseville, Mich., guided a new man through empty homes and empty stores, finding traces of the insurgents. At one house Sgt. Wrubel observed that someone had placed a burlap bag on top of a door, apparently to keep it from slamming loudly. He once ran across an Arabic-brand cigarette. “The guy has been to Iraq,” he speculated.

At another house the Marines tore a poster off a wall. The insurgents often hide weapons in holes dug behind the posters, Sgt. Wrubel explained to his replacement.

“I never imagined it like this before I came out here,” he said later, patrolling past empty houses, aiming his rifle down empty lanes. “Very, very, very odd.”

Land mines present a greater danger than gunfire in Now Zad. The insurgents have seeded the entire town with an ingenious array of homemade mines. There are mortar rounds buried with spring-loaded triggers that explode when a Humvee passes over them. Another device uses a fist-sized rock above ground to hold metal contacts apart below ground; when a Marine kicks it, contact is made and a plastic bottle explodes with ferocious power.

Since they arrived in November , five Lima Co. Marines have stepped on land mines, while U.S. vehicles have hit seven more. In more than 700 patrols, Marines found another 50 or so.

To combat the danger, each patrol is led by an engineer with a mine detector, a long wand with a disc-shaped sensor at one end and headphones at the other. On Sgt. Wrubel’s early-morning patrol this month, the job fell to Lance Cpl. Keith Greenberg, a 25-year-old from Long Branch, N.J., rarely seen without a slight grin on his face.

As soon as the Marines reached the end of the hardtop road outside their base, Lance Cpl. Greenberg stepped to the front of the formation. The next man in line turned and held one hand vertically in front of his face, like half a prayer, indicating the patrol should move single file.

As the patrol followed in near-total silence, Lance Cpl. Greenberg swept the mine detector side-to-side with his right hand. He kept his left behind his back, holding his rifle still. Through headphones he listened for minor inflections in the mine detector’s whine that might reveal the presence of a bomb.

He swept every patch of dirt, every wall, every berm where a Marine put his weight. Every few steps, each man behind him dragged the toe of one boot, as if performing a primitive dance, scuffing a path for the rest to follow. Many of the Marines have torn the soles loose from their combat boots from hours of scraping their way through minefields.

If he finds a mine, Lance Cpl. Greenberg marks it with spray paint and steers the column around it. The men warn each other with a quiet hand gesture, holding their palms down and flicking their fingers outward, as if shaking off water.

Before he leaves the base, Lance Cpl. Greenberg prays as if he and the other Marines have already made it through alive: “Thank You for getting us back safe.” He figures that might make it a done deal. Just to make sure, he also carries a Bible, a rosary and a lucky wine cork.

Three engineers have been blown up since Lima Co. arrived here in November, out of the company’s seven total fatalities.

The Navy has stationed an emergency-room doctor, along with a critical-care nurse and a trauma nurse at the Now Zad Marine base, a highly unusual decision for such a small position.

The medical team built a mobile ER mounted on the back of a seven-ton truck. When a Marine steps on a mine, the medical team mounts up and drives across country, pulls up behind a wall or berm and begins treatment on site. The truck’s sides are scarred by insurgent mortar shots.

“Am I scared?” asked the Navy doctor, 55-year-old Steve Temerlin, of Poulsbo, Wash, before answering his own question: “I’m not crazy.”

Write to Michael M. Phillips at Michael.Phillips@wsj.com