The war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was one of the shortest conflicts the United States had ever fought, but the subsequent war against the Taliban insurgency is now the longest in American history. Superpowers like the U.S. can dispatch armies as incompetent as the Taliban’s with ease, but not even the best fighting force in the world can quickly vanquish guerrillas. Ben Anderson’s HBO documentary The Battle for Marjah, recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Athena, shows why.
Counterinsurgency is a political war as much as a shooting war, and politics in Afghanistan are even tougher than they are in Iraq. Marjah is a medium-sized city in Afghanistan’s battleground Helmand Province, the heartland of Taliban territory. What happened there last year is a condensed version of events in the country over the last decade. In February, 272 men from the Marine Corps’ Bravo Company led by Captain Ryan Sparks dropped into an insertion point where they found themselves completely surrounded, spread out like an oil spot, and quickly took the city, though the enemy had months to prepare. The Taliban weren’t strong enough to take the city back, but they successfully waged a low-intensity guerrilla and terrorist war that bogged the Americans down amid a suspicious and semi-hostile population and prevented local authorities from assuming control.
The subject matter is grim, but everything else about The Battle for Marjah is fantastic. The film quality on the Blu-Ray disc is vastly superior to that of most documentaries, whose filmmakers tend to be strapped by tight budgets. The images are so vivid and clear they made my TV seem like a dimensional portal to Afghanistan. The music, far from being overdone and sensationalist like so much “reality TV” dreck, is understated and haunting. And aside from a few spectacular satellite images of Afghanistan from outer space, all the footage was shot on location before, during, and immediately after the fighting. This is boots-on-the ground, you-are-there combat journalism shot in HD by a man being shot at himself.
Anderson seems to have no agenda aside from documenting what happened. His portrayal of the Marjah Marines exactly matches my experience with Marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province during the “surge” there in 2007 and 2008. The Marines in Marjah do everything right—assuming that what worked in Iraq is right for Afghanistan—and Anderson doesn’t try to distort their tactics, their strategy, or their character. He clearly was not shopping for quotes or images to fit a preconceived narrative.
This is the film to watch if you want to know how counterinsurgency worked in Iraq, and how it currently fares in Afghanistan. Everything General David Petraeus did in Iraq to defeat al-Qaida and Iranian-sponsored Shia militias is being duplicated now in Afghanistan. The strategy is straightforward: clear, hold, and build. The first thing the Marines did was clear out the Taliban. Then they held onto the ground they had just seized. Once Marjah was pacified, they built infrastructure and government. Their efforts should conclude when they transfer all power and security duties to Afghan authorities.
For the best fighting force in the world, clearing Marjah wasn’t difficult, nor was holding the cleared ground. But building Marjah is hard, and transferring power to the local authorities is proving even harder.
Anderson makes abundantly clear the extreme moral and ethical differences between the Taliban and the American military. Early in the film, a squad of Taliban fighters uses women and children as human shields to retreat from a compound under fire. The Marines, contemptuous of the Taliban’s cowardice, let them get away with it to avoid injuring or killing the captive civilians. Later, the Taliban are shown to use slave soldiers. The Marines ask a slain fighter’s uncle how many other members of his family are with the Taliban. The man says none; not even his nephew, in fact, had sympathized with them. The young man was simply given a gun and forced to fight. “When they give you an order,” the uncle says, “you don’t say no.”
By contrast, most of Bravo Company’s requests for air support were denied, even while the soldiers were encircled by enemies, because innocents might have been hurt. Still, fighting a war without hurting any civilians is impossible. An American-fired rocket struck a house where three families had taken shelter. Four people were killed, including two little girls. The camera follows the Marines as they apologize to a middle-aged man for accidentally killing two of his family members. One Marine even chokes down tears, the camera lingering on his face. The Afghan man is given a “condolence payment” of $2,500 per death, a huge amount of money in a country so stricken with deprivation and poverty. It ought to go without saying that neither the Taliban nor any other terrorist organization in the world would ever contemplate such a thing.
The Americans do it partly because it’s decent and right. No one enlists in the United States military because they want to bomb little girls on the other side of the world. Aside from all that, a crucial component of counterinsurgency is the protection of civilians caught in the middle. No counterinsurgency can succeed without the support of and assistance from locals. The same applies to insurgencies. Guerrillas, in Mao’s famous formulation, swim in the sea of the people. What he didn’t say, and what the Petraeus model depends on, is that guerrilla armies expire once the seas have dried up. “The Taliban,” Captain Sparks says, “will eventually lose their freedom of movement and dissipate. They will become irrelevant.”
That hasn’t happened yet, at least not as quickly as expected, not even after Bravo Company took the city and campaigned for its people’s affection. They tried to modernize Marjah with roads, schools, economic stimulus, and a new city park, but security remained tenuous at best and entirely dependent on the Americans. Few residents were interested in working for local security forces. The Taliban in the area hail from the ethnic Pashtun community in the south, where Marjah is located, while Afghan army recruits were mostly from the north. Native Afghan soldiers in Helmand Province are almost as foreign to the locals as the Americans. Too many people in Marjah found this intolerable. They didn’t care much for the Taliban, but siding with Americans and northern Afghans against “their own” was too much for many. “Who are the Taliban?” a local man says. “They are the sons of this land.”
“These people are not like Americans,” Corporal Hills says. (We are not given his first name.) “There’s no way you can trust them. They let the Taliban beat them, but when it comes to one of us saying the wrong phrase to any of these people, they lose their lid because we’re Americans and the Taliban are from their own tribe and ethnicity. It’s ridiculous.”
The Petraeus model of counterinsurgency worked fairly quickly in Iraq. It even worked in the city of Mosul, where Petraeus first tested it out while the rest of the country looked to be slipping away. But Afghanistan isn’t Iraq. Iraq is a modern society that has gone through hell and moved backwards. Afghanistan was never modern. It makes Iraq look like the gleaming sci-fi future by comparison. The bonds of tribe, ethnicity, and religion are much stronger in Afghanistan than anywhere in the Arab world, with the possible exception of Yemen. The Marines had to shrink their zone of control after failing to hold the periphery. Even standing up a local militia didn’t help much. Afghanistan frankly looks doomed at the end of The Battle for Marjah.
No one can know how this ends, but if the Taliban win, it won’t be because the Americans don’t know what they’re doing. I know how counterinsurgency works. I’ve seen it correctly applied in Iraq and I’ve written a book about it. The Marines did the right thing in Marjah. If they fail, it will be because Marjah belongs to Afghanistan.
The film was finished last year, though, so it’s not entirely up to date. Marjah is in somewhat better shape today. Its people are more trustworthy (and trusting). The frequency of violent incidents has been sharply reduced. The economy and conditions generally have improved. By the time most documentaries are released, and especially by the time they’re released on DVD, they’ve become dated artifacts. But The Battle for Marjah is an indispensable dated artifact.