MARJA, Afghanistan — The Afghan pilots discussed the approach into the small cluster of forward operating bases in Afghanistan’s south over tea and a lunch of rice pulao, much like surgeons discussing their next procedure. It would be quick, no more than 40 seconds on the ground, both helicopters landing at the same time, unloading the supplies before yanking up fast to get away from the easily targeted landing zones.
“Do you have body armor?” one pilot asked another Times journalist and me.
A flight of small gunships formed up alongside as we approached the first base, once called Camp Hanson after a U.S. Marine who was killed there in early 2010. It’s now known as Kem bazaar, but a decade later, the Taliban are still close.
Dropping altitude rapidly, we banked hard before flaring and touching down. The helicopter’s crew threw the supplies out the open doors, the rotors pushing up dust and sand.
Just as the last goods were being disgorged, a barefoot man jumped aboard, likely a police officer stationed at the base. He carried nothing with him, darkly tanned in a brown T-shirt, disheveled and looking half-mad and panicked. It seemed like he had been marooned on an island and we were his rescue. We weren’t.
A soldier unloading the supplies grabbed the man as he screamed, though his cries were inaudible over the blast of the rotors. The soldier wrestled with the man before the helicopter crew member sent them rolling out the door. The aircraft pulled off the ground in a rush of air and speed, skimming the roofs of nearby houses before catapulting upward. The whole thing took about 60 seconds.
I first arrived here in Marja as a 22-year-old Marine corporal during one of the American war’s earlier chapters, when the U.S. military still thought it could beat the Taliban into submission enough for the Afghan security forces to take over the fight. There are no Americans at these bases anymore, and barely any in southern Afghanistan, as the United States military prepares to leave by September (though it could be earlier).
Marja today is nothing like what American military officials envisioned so many years ago. It’s a microcosm of failed counterinsurgency strategies, abandoned development projects and costly drug eradication campaigns, and the hundreds, if not thousands, of wounded and dead Afghans and Americans.
The end result: two remaining government-controlled outposts surrounded by Taliban fighters.
Exactly 11 years earlier, on May 14, 2010, I found myself at Forward Operating Base Marja, one of the two bases we flew to this month, for the memorial service of my friend, Sgt. Josh Desforges. He had been killed two days before in a vicious firefight in a sector simply called “the Zulus.”
The whole platoon was there. Guys I hadn’t seen for what seemed like eternity. We hugged and laughed, even though the next day we knew we’d wear sunglasses so no one could see us crying.
That was the third month of Operation Moshtarak, the big show of President Barack Obama’s troop surge that was supposed to turn the tide of the war. We landed in February that year, securing Marja with the Afghan military’s earliest attempt at an army. A government was brought in and installed — a so-called government in a box, a select group of Afghan officials to replace the Taliban’s local leadership.
The Marja mission — with around 15,000 troops — was supposed to showcase this new but ultimately ineffective strategy.
Touching down again this month, there was little evidence that could explain why my friends, and so many Afghan civilians and soldiers, died here.
We rode in an Afghan Black Hawk helicopter with the call sign Eagle 6-4. Lt. Jack McCain, the son of late Senator John McCain, had in recent years helped train these Afghan pilots as a Navy adviser.
Helicopter supply missions in Helmand are exceedingly dangerous, and most trips to the bases in Marja are to pick up the dead and wounded. The aircraft are frequently…