The Pentagon brass were willing to meet Conway’s conditions. They needed boots on the ground, and he was the only one offering them.
After the Marines arrived in Helmand, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, joked that the international security force in Afghanistan, then made up of 41 nations, felt as though it had 42 members because the Marines acted so independently. Before long, some American officials began referring to the Corps’s area of operations as “Marineistan.”
‘Welcome to Hell’
With so many troops in Helmand, the Marines could afford to conduct missions that were unheard of elsewhere in Afghanistan. One of them was a charge into an abandoned town.
Set atop a dusty plain between two ridgelines, the orchards of Now Zad once yielded pomegranates as large as softballs, luring visitors from across southern Afghanistan during the harvest season. Some grew so intoxicated by the prospect of farming the fertile soil that they transplanted their lives. Waves of settlers in the 1960s and 1970s transformed Now Zad, which means “newborn” in Persian, into the fourth-largest city in Helmand province.
By the fall of 2006, the city looked like old death. The Taliban had invaded it with hundreds of fighters earlier that year. The pomegranate fields had been booby-trapped with mines. Homes and shops had been blown to rubble. Bullet holes pocked the few walls left standing. As the fighting escalated, most residents fled.
After desperate pleas from President Karzai, the British commanders responsible for Helmand dispatched a platoon of Ghurkas to evict the insurgents. But the fearsome Nepalese warriors were outmanned by the Taliban. A bloody standoff ensued as the insurgents roamed the city and the Ghurkas hunkered inside the police station. Every few days, the Taliban would try to storm the compound, sometimes getting close enough to hurl grenades, but the Ghurkas, and subsequent contingents of British troops, managed to keep them at bay with torrents of bullets and rockets.
U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson was appalled when he visited Now Zad in February 2009. The first thing he saw when he landed was a wall at the police station that was scrawled with graffiti: WELCOME TO HELL. American Marines had relieved the British the year before, and they had expanded the patrol zone by a few blocks, but they were still surrounded on three sides by insurgents hiding in trenches and abandoned houses. A no man’s land lay in between, trod only by wild dogs. Injuries from IEDs — improvised explosive devices — were so common that the Marine company in Now Zad was the only one in the country to be assigned two trauma doctors and two armored vehicles with mobile surgical theaters.
To Nicholson, a compact former infantryman whose weathered face appeared perpetually sunburned, the opposing forces staring at each other evoked the trench battles of World War I. He met a Marine at Now Zad who told him, “Sir, we patrol until we hit an IED, and then we call in a medevac and go back” to the base. “And then we do it again the next day.”
When Nicholson became the top Marine commander in Afghanistan in April 2009, he resolved to save Now Zad. IEDs had blown off the legs of more than two dozen Americans in and around the city. Fighting a war of attrition with fixed positions was not something Marines did, at least not in his book.
But his bosses at the NATO regional headquarters in Kandahar felt differently, as did the American and British diplomats in the provincial capital. They maintained that Now Zad didn’t merit more troops and dollars. They believed that stalemate was good enough in an imperfect war: A small unit of Marines had succeeded in tying down hundreds of insurgents who couldn’t launch attacks elsewhere. Nicholson was told not to worry about Now Zad.
But he would not let go. His job was to protect the people of Helmand, and that meant allowing the displaced to return home. He bristled when British and American officials told him that the former residents of Now Zad would not come back. That’s how people in the West might behave, but the only real assets most Helmandis had were their homes and their land. Nicholson felt they would reclaim them if they could.
It seemed as though every day he received word of another American double amputee in Now Zad. Each folded, handwritten casualty notification his aide passed to him stopped his heart a beat longer. Failing to act, he thought, would mean his brother Marines had sacrificed lives and limbs in vain.
When Nicholson’s political adviser, John Kael Weston, the diplomat he trusted most, arrived in Helmand that June, he asked the general which outpost he should visit first.
“Kael,” Nicholson said, “you’ve got to go to Now Zad.”
At first glance, the 37-year-old Weston seemed like a surfer who’d taken a wrong turn on the way to the beach. But his tousled hair and untucked shirts belied his place among the most erudite and experienced diplomats of his generation, one who had spent more time in Iraq and Afghanistan — six consecutive years in the two war zones, with just a few short breaks — than anyone else in the State Department.
Weston’s job description called for him to advise the Marines about Afghan government matters, palaver with local leaders, and keep his bosses in Kandahar and Kabul apprised of political developments in the Marine area of operations. But he saw his writ in more expansive terms. Weston was the brigade’s political commissar; he constantly reminded the Marines that the military had been deployed in support of the Afghan government, not the other way around. And he was Nicholson’s confidant. They had forged an enduring friendship while serving for a year in the Iraqi hellhole of Fallujah.
When Weston got to Now Zad, he climbed a guard tower to see the dead pomegranate trees that had been rigged with explosives. He walked through the shuttered bazaar, praying that his next footfall would not be atop a pressure-plate IED buried in the dirt. Halfway through the patrol, he asked the corporal ahead of him, who was scanning the ground with a metal detector, how much training he had received to use the device. “Well, sir,” the corporal replied, “not as much as you’d like to think.”
The following day, he mourned with the Marines of Golf Company when they received word that Cpl. Matthew Lembke, who had enlisted on his 18th birthday and served two tours in Iraq, then re-upped to deploy with his buddies to Afghanistan, had died of an infection. Three weeks earlier, he had stepped on an IED while on a night patrol. The blast had blown off his legs and deposited the rest of him in the crater left by the bomb.
As Weston prepared to depart the outpost, a young corporal approached him. “Sir, I just hope this all adds up,” he said. “All of my friends are getting hurt over here.”
Now Zad seemed like a blood feud to Weston. “It is truly an area where you’ve got a company of bad guys versus a company of good guys,” he told his parents in an audio recording he sent them shortly after the trip. “The question for me, the general and others at headquarters is going to be: What kind of further effort do you put towards a place like Now Zad?”
He would answer that question three months later. By then, Nawa, Garmser and Khan Neshin — the districts that had been the Marines’ initial focus — had grown relatively quiet. Nicholson wanted to address other problems in the province, and the arrival of a replacement battalion in northern Helmand provided an opportunity to make a big push in Now Zad. One night in early October, Nicholson made his pitch to Weston.
“I’m frustrated,” he said. “I feel like a bulldog who wants two more links in my chain.”
“You’re on twitch muscles,” Weston replied.
“I am. There are places I can’t go right now and it’s killing me,” Nicholson said. “I’d like to finish Now Zad because I think there’s a strategic payback and benefit of showing people what we’re doing — we’ll repopulate the second-largest city in Helmand.” (Only Nicholson thought Now Zad was once that big. Afghan records listed it as fourth.)
“The people have to want to come back,” Weston said. “And right now, it doesn’t sound like they want to.”
“If you clear it, they will come,” Nicholson continued.
“I’m just being honest with you,” Weston said. “I don’t believe in the time we’ve got that Now Zad is where we should focus our attention. Our report card ain’t going to be about Now Zad.”
“When Now Zad starts to be repopulated, it will be one of the biggest stories to come out of Afghanistan.”
“If the world still cares about Afghanistan.”
“The world will care about it,” Nicholson said.
For more information about “Little America” and to read another excerpt, go to rajivc.com.