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In Marja, it's war the old-fashioned way

A look inside the partnership between U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers in an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja

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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 20, 2010

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- They had slogged through knee-deep mud carrying 100 pounds of gear, fingers glued to the triggers of their M-4 carbines, all the while on the lookout for insurgents. Now, after five near-sleepless nights, trying to avoid hypothermia in freezing temperatures, the grunts of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment finally had a moment to relax.

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As the sun set Thursday evening over the rubbled market where they set up camp, four of them sat around an overturned blue bucket and began playing cards. A few cracked open dog-eared paperbacks. Some heated their rations-in-a-bag, savoring their first warm dinner in days. Many doffed their helmets and armored vests.

Then -- before the game was over, the chapters finished, the meals cooked -- the war roared back at them.

The staccato crack of incoming rounds echoed across the market. In an instant, the Marines grabbed their vests and guns. The 50-caliber gunner on the roof thumped back return fire, as did several Marines with clattering, belt-fed machine guns. High-explosive mortar rounds, intended to suppress the insurgent fire, whooshed overhead.

And so went another night in the battle of Marja.

The fight to pacify this Taliban stronghold in Helmand province is grim and grueling. For all the talk of a modern war -- of Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs and mine-resistant vehicles -- most Marines in this operation have been fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.

They hump their kit on their backs, bed down under the stars in abandoned compounds and defecate in plastic bags.

"This isn't all that different from the way our fathers and grandfathers fought," said Cpl. Blake Burkhart, 22, of Oviedo, Fla.

The battlefield privation here is unlike much of the combat in Iraq, which often involved day trips from large, well-appointed forward operating bases. Even when Marines there had to rough it, during the first and second campaigns for Fallujah, they didn't have to walk as far and they remained closer to logistics vehicles.

In Marja, U.S. military commanders figured, the best way to throw the insurgents off-balance and avoid the hundreds of homemade bombs buried in the roads was to airdrop almost 1,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers. That provided an element of surprise when the operation commenced, and it allowed the forces to punch into the heart of Marja. But it also meant they would have to tough it out.

Because they had to stuff their packs with food, water and ammunition, sleeping bags and tents were left behind. That seemed fine, because summer temperatures in southern Afghanistan often reach 140 degrees. But at this time of year, the mercury can dip -- and it did during the first days of the mission, to freezing temperatures at night.

Huddled under thin plastic camouflage poncho liners, the Marines lucky enough to get a few hours of sleep in between shifts of guard duty huddled close together, sometimes spooning one another, to keep warm.


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