Marjah, Afghanistan The young Marine had a simple question for the farmer with the white beard: Have you seen any Taliban today?
The answer came within seconds — from insurgents hiding nearby who ended the conversation with bursts of automatic rifle fire that sent deadly rounds cracking overhead.
It was a telling coincidence — and the start of yet another gunbattle in Marjah, the southern poppy-producing hub that U.S. forces wrested from Taliban control in February to restore government rule.
Eight months on, the Taliban are still here in force, waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.
As U.S. involvement in the war enters its 10th year, the failure to pacify this town raises questions about the effectiveness of America’s overall strategy. Similarly crucial operations are now under way in neighboring Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace.
There are signs the situation in Marjah is beginning to improve, but “it’s still a very tough fight,” said Capt. Chuck Anklam, whose Marine company has lost three men since arriving in July. “We’re in firefights all over, every day.”
“There’s no area that’s void of enemy. But there’s no area void of Marines and (Afghan forces) either,” said Anklam, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s a constant presence both sides are trying to exert.”
That day, militants in his zone of operations alone had attacked Marines in four separate locations by mid-afternoon.
The February assault on Marjah was the first major offensive since President Barack Obama ordered the 30,000-man troop surge to Afghanistan and the biggest joint NATO-Afghan operation since the war began in 2001.
Since then, Marjah has become a microcosm of the war itself — and a metaphor for an insurgency that has spread nationwide.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the Bush administration launched a withering bombing campaign that forced the Taliban from power weeks later. But what looked like quick victory turned out to be the start of one of the longest wars in U.S. history.
Similarly, the end of Taliban control in Marjah has sown the seeds of an entrenched guerrilla war that has tied down at least two U.S. Marine battalions and hordes of Afghan police and army troops.
The result, so far at least: Residents say the town is more insecure than ever.
“There was peace here before you came,” farmer Khari Badar told one Marine patrol that recently visited his home. “Today, there is only fighting.”
Marines say the Taliban can no longer move freely through the town with fighters and weapons. But the militants are still doing so clandestinely — so much so, that “we have areas where every time we go in, we know we’re going to become engaged” in fighting, Anklam said.