A Change in Mission: Marines Battle Insurgents in Afghanistan

When a Marine battalion is sent to Afghanistan to train a town's police force, it meets a very different challenge -- deadly insurgents.
By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Fix bayonets."

Not long after giving that order, 1st Lt. Arthur Karell was hunched in a dirt trench crowded with Marines. The hushed darkness bristled with eight-inch blades fitted beneath the barrels of dozens of M-16 assault rifles.

You fix bayonets when you expect to need the aggressive combat mind-set that's produced by the primal sight of massed blades. You fix them when you expect to search hidden places. You fix them when you expect the fight could push you within arm's reach of your enemy -- gutting distance. In modern warfare, that's extraordinarily rare.

The problem was, Karell didn't know what to expect. He was from Arlington. He'd traveled the world. This place, though, was like nowhere he'd ever been. The 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment had deployed to Afghanistan last spring to train Afghan police. But when Karell's platoon arrived in Now Zad, the largest town in a remote northern district of Helmand province, they'd rolled into a ghost town.

The Afghans who used to live here, more than 10,000, had been gone for several years, their abandoned mud-brick homes slowly melting into the dusty valley. Insurgents were using the place for R&R. At night, all you heard were the jackals, ululating like veiled, grieving women. The fact that Now Zad had no civilian residents, much less any police, had somehow escaped the notice of the coalition planners who had given the Marines their mission.

"They saw what they wanted to achieve but didn't realize fully what it would take," Task Force 2/7's commander, Lt. Col. Richard Hall, said at the time. "There were no intel pictures where we are now because there were few or no coalition forces in the areas where we operate. They didn't know what was out there. It was an innocent mistake."

So, with no police to train or civilians to protect, the Marines in Now Zad were left with the job of evicting the insurgents who had taken over the town. The fight to root them out began a year ago in the predawn twilight of June 15, in a trench.

Karell was about to lead the first assault of his first deployment. Some Marines in his platoon had done tours in Iraq, but Afghanistan was new to all of them. The dried-up irrigation trench they were in led toward the edge of Now Zad, then ran parallel to a thick mud wall that was taller than a man and that separated the town from a small forest.

No coalition forces had ever been beyond that wall. With the trees blocking their view, all they knew about what lay beyond was that whenever they got close, they were shot at. Whether the small arms fire had been coming from bunkers in the wall or the trench alongside it, they didn't know. So Karell gave the order to fix bayonets.

Silently creeping forward through the trench, Karell remembered feeling the same charged mix of fear and electric anticipation as when he rowed crew in high school and college -- that last 30 seconds before a race as the craft slid into place. He and his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Gabriel Guest, had been first to jump into the dark trench and had already decided they would be at the front when the assault on the wall began. "We're not asking them to do these things unless we're willing to do it," they'd reasoned between themselves, because the old cliche was true: "Everyone can get afraid out there."

Among the Marines in the trench, Karell was one of the oldest at 29, though he looked younger. Now Zad's blowing dust had cracked his voice, as if his teen years at Arlington's H-B Woodlawn high school weren't that long ago. After Harvard and the University of Virginia law school, he'd gone to work on K Street for Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, investigating corporate corruption in developing countries and watching the news from Iraq and Afghanistan. "Seeing these guys go off to these wars time and again, these young guys who are having kids they never see," Karell remembered, "I couldn't just sit there while that was going on." He's the oldest of six, his father the son of Finnish immigrants, his mother Mexican American. At the time, no one in his family was in the military.

He joined the Marines.

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