Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Static War: Helmand after the US Marines’ return

Andrew Quilty 18 min

In April 2017, 300 US Marines were sent back to Helmand, a province the US troops, who numbered 20,000 at their peak there, had handed over to Afghan forces less than three years earlier. The Marines’ task was to rehabilitate the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 215th Corps and help prevent the fall of the provincial capital Lashkargah to the Taleban. At that time, the insurgents controlled 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts and virtually surrounded its capital. AAN guest author Andrew Quilty has repeatedly traveled to the province, the last time during the February 2020 Reduction in Violence week. He describes how Lashkargah had come to the brink of collapse, as well as the changing tactics on both sides of the conflict that have led to frontlines that are static, but to no reduction in violence. 

Peaceful evening scene at the Helmand River, as seen from a bridge spanning it in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand province, the day after the US-Taleban agreement was signed on 29 February 2020. All Photos: (c) Andrew Quilty.

When 300 US Marines – half of whom had already fought in the province – arrived in Helmand in April 2017, they faced a dire situation. They came in on a January 2017 order by then-commander of the US-led Resolute Support (RS) mission, US Army General John Nicholson, to replace a battalion from the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division who had arrived a year prior. According to the US/NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RS), their mission was ostensibly to “train, advise and assist” the ANA’s 215th ‘Maiwand’ Corps, who are stationed adjacent to Shorab, in Camp Shorabak – formerly Camp Bastion – and are responsible for all of Helmand as well as parts of Farah and Nimroz. In reality, there was a more urgent objective, to help prevent the fall of Helmand’s capital Lashkargah.

So depleted were the ANA that the Marines began retraining entire kandaks (battalions, around 600 soldiers at full strength) inside Camp Shorabak’s Regional Military Training Centre (RMTC), before sending them back to their brigades across Helmand, Farah and Nimroz.

By that time, the Taleban dominated 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts. After overrunning several northern districts in 2016, its fighters surged south and almost encircled Lashkargah, bringing it to the verge of collapse. The city was now home to thousands of families that had fled ahead of the fighting in the districts (see media reports here and here) while others fled the provincial capital to Kandahar, even as fighting regularly cut Highway One. The twice-weekly commercial flights from Kabul were all but empty. The return flights were full. Many passengers were government workers who feared for their lives should the Taleban overrun the city. 

The prospect of Helmand falling to the Taleban in its entirety was made possible by the withdrawal of foreign forces, including the last of the 20,000 Marines who had been deployed to Helmand at the peak of President Barak Obama’s 2009-2014 ‘surge’, when the majority of the province was still nominally in government hands.

The threat to Lashkargah, and with it the province of Helmand, was accelerated by the dysfunctional government security apparatus that filled the void. The chiefs of the three main security branches worked independently rather than in concert, while the Taleban made making steady gains. 

Helmand’s post-foreign-troop-withdrawal collapse began on 7 April 2015 when the Taleban assaulted a police checkpoint, killing Gereshk’s powerful police chief Hekmatullah. His death, and subsequent territorial losses, illustrated the lack of resilience inherent in a police network that relied on allegiance to key local figures rather than to the security institutions themselves (see more AAN reporting here).

Furthermore, the ANA’s 215th Corps, the primary fighting force through this critical period, was heavily degraded by its leadership’s ‘ghost soldier’ scam, which saw senior officers pocketing the salaries of soldiers who existed only on paper—in some cases more than half of entire battalion personnel allotments. In the following year, the ANA retreated in a ‘strategic withdrawal’ from Musa Qala and Nawzad, as district after district fell to the Taleban (media report here). 

The crises within the branches of the armed forces were no less problematic than those between them. Rahmatullah Amiri, a Helmand expert from the Kabul-based The Liaison Office and an AAN contributor, said in an interview that the capitulation of the ANSF was due not only to Taleban ascendance and the lack of US air support, but also to its own bad management. “There was no coordination between the ANSF,” he said. “That’s what made the Taleban’s attacks so effective.”

The ANSF crumble 

From Lashkargah, the signs of faltering security were visible by spring 2015, only months after the Marines and British troops pulled out of Camps Bastion and Leatherneck. Within a year, Marja was on the brink of falling to the Taleban, whose fighters had advanced south after overrunning Baghran, Musa Qala and Nawzad. Parts of Nad Ali northwest of Boghra Canal, which fighters had to pass through to get to Marja, fell too. 

“Leaving it to the Afghans,” said Rahmatullah Amiri, of security in Helmand after 2014, “was a big mistake. All they needed was the air support.” Neither Helmand or Kunduz – which was overrun twice by the Taleban, in 2015 and 2016 (see AAN reporting here and here) – would have collapsed had the Americans maintained a more aggressive aerial posture, he said. 

In February 2016, before the expected Taleban spring offensive, and in an effort to stall their advances in Helmand more broadly, the US Army deployed 500 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division to Camp Shorab, in central Helmand’s Nahr-e Seraj District. The combat mission the Americans had previously operated under, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), had ended. The soldiers were now operating under the new Resolute Suppor mission with its mantra of ‘train, advise, assist’.

The Taleban were gaining momentum. By April 2016, the village of Sayedabad, southeast of Boghra Canal, was one of a string of towns in Nad Ali that marked the government frontline. The core of Sayedabad’s security personnel were 80 Afghan Local Police fighting under local Hazara elder Ghulam Sakhi, then 61. The village had grown from the desert with the canal’s construction in the 1950s and was populated by resettled Hazaras from Ghazni, and it is now famous in Helmand for its school whose teachers are predominantly Hazara but whose students come from a mix of Pashtun tribes across the district (for more on Nad Ali District, see AAN’s 2019 dispatch). 

Sakhi took up the role in 2011, before which he had raised a family and cultivated his land. He had no prior military experience, but he felt a duty to protect his community. His mission was becoming critical. By April 2016, the checkpoints his men manned had been the last line of Sayedabad’s defence for six months. “If the Taleban take Sayedabad,” Sakhi said at the time, “they will go all the way to Lashkargah.”

During an exchange of fire, an ANA soldier peers toward a Taleban position through a firing hole in the wall of a school in Chah-e Anjir that is being used as a base on the Nad Ali front.

Lashkargah under threat

Early on the morning of 11 May 2016, word had spread that the Taleban were massing outside Sayedabad and preparing to attack. By midday, the Taleban had surged in from all directions. Government forces were coming under attack across the district and Sakhi, the 45 ALP fighters who had not already fled with their families and the 100 other police and soldiers stationed in Sayedabad were forced to abandon their positions. 

Districts in Helmand continued to fall to the Taleban through the 2016 summer. Next went Garmsir, Khaneshin and even Nawa, the traditionally pro-government Barakzai-majority district bordering Lashkargah to the west. 

In Lashkargah itself, the situation was becoming desperate. The Taleban had pushed through Chah-e Anjir and Babaji, northwest of the city centre, and were fighting their way into Bolan, the capital’s last neighbourhood before the Helmand River, and the government headquarters on its eastern bank. 

The US began conducting regular defensive air strikes in July that year. 100 soldiers from Camp Shorab were relocated to Camp Bost, near Lashkargah’s airstrip. ANA Special Forces were sent to Lashkargah from Shorabak, too. One team was dispatched to a frontline compound a few kilometres west of the city. They were being attacked three times a day, said special forces Lieutenant Rohid Paykar, adding that the regular forces “will flee, one hundred percent,” if the special forces left. 

The fighting came closer to Lashkargah still, so close that local journalists began referring to the frontline locations not in terms of districts or neighbourhoods but by specific landmarks.

Taleban offensives and institution building

US Central Command announced in the first week of January 2017 that the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, under Brigadier General Roger Turner Jnr, would return to Helmand. In a nod to the Marines’ history in Helmand, the outgoing US Army task force commander, Brigadier General Douglas Sims, said on the day of the handover, “I know they are the right unit with the right training and experience to carry the ball further down the field.” Gen Turner and approximately half of the 300 Marines he arrived with had already served in the province before 2014, some several times.

By the time they arrived in April, the Taleban had either taken or were strongly contesting 12 of the province’s 14 districts. A month later, the highly-prized Sangin district centre was in Taleban hands after government forces made another ‘tactical retreat’.

While government forces were pulling back, Rahmatullah Amiri said, “the Taleban were building institutions.” Fighting groups made up of local static units known as mahaz (front) were supplemented by more mobile Taleban qet’a (units) that were deployed on demand in ten-day cycles (for more on these structures, see Amiri’s report here).

Holding territory by defending vulnerable checkpoints was not so much an ANSF strategy as a bad habit following the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014. The Taleban exploited it by adopting the opposite approach and going on the offensive. The qet’as mimicked traditional military commando units while the mahaz held the territory, like police, once it had been taken. It was through the support of the mobile ‘strike force-like’ qet’a groups from northern Helmand, which by 2017 was uncontested, that the Taleban were able to take districts like Marja and Nawa.

ANA rehabilitation and the Maiwand operations

The Marines’ footprint at Camp Shorab grew quickly. Within a year of their arrival with a force of 300, the camp had grown four times in size. By March 2018, 800 personnel, including civilian contractors, were stationed at Shorab. The rehabilitation program, or Operational Readiness Cycles as the Marines referred to them, were so comprehensive that the battalions were honoured with ceremonies with speeches, garlands and a marching band upon completion. 

While fighting continued through the summer of 2017, the frontlines in Helmand began to stabilise. Though they were still on the edge of Lashkargah to the north and west, the Taleban advance appeared to have stalled. To the south and east of Lashkargah, on the far side of the Arghandab River, open desert terrain prevented the Taleban from mounting large-scale offensives. 

In the months after the arrival of the Marines, the ANSF, led by the 215th Corps, commenced their first major offensive operations since the crisis in Helmand began in 2015. The operations, named Maiwand after the 215th Corps’ moniker, began close to Lashkargah and aimed to slowly expand a perimeter around the capital in all directions, beginning with Nad Ali and Marja in June 2017, and soon after, Nawa

It took nearly a month to fully retake Nawa. While it has remained in government hands since, it is still the only district the US-backed 215th Corps has retaken and managed to maintain full control of in Helmand since. 

Damaged shops in Nad Ali’s district centre bazaar. The bazaar marked the frontline of government forces during fighting that engulfed the district from mid-2015 until 2017, in which time much of the district was overrun by the Taleban.

A total of six Maiwand operations have now been conducted in Nad Ali and Marja. By mid-2018, the Taleban had been pushed northwest of the Boghra Canal in Nad Ali, where the frontline has remained since. A significant number of houses in the territory that had been cleared of Taleban were subsequently razed by coalition air support (believed to be predominantly American). Crumbling, abandoned homes still line the dirt roads that criss-cross Nad Ali today.

Marja has been fought over more than most districts in the country. While it is of no particular strategic value (beyond control of its opium crop), because of the resources the Americans committed to it in Operation Moshtarak, the largest operation of the entire war, which saw thousands of US Marines clear the area (1) of Taleban fighters in 2010, before rolling out their ‘government in a box’ prototype, both sides have become stubborn about ceding control of the area. 

However, as Brigadier-General Benjamin Watson told the author in April 2018, even when areas are cleared during an ANSF operation, for the ANP to hold them, “it’s going to be tough.” Furthermore, Nawa, Nad Ali and Marja only represent a small portion of the Helmand areas that were previously controlled by the Taleban.

Holding territory would not be the only problem, though, according to Watson. ANSF operations and US air support “should be able to consolidate most of central Helmand,” he told the author, but “getting much beyond that will be difficult.” Watson may have learned from his previous experience in Helmand to maintain modest ambitions. His assessment would prove to be justified. 

Further joint ANSF-led operations were conducted in Gereshk (‘Maiwand Six’) in September 2017, and along Route 611 from Highway One toward Sangin (‘Maiwand Nine’) in December. The Sangin operation also aimed – ambitiously – to provide stability so that parliamentary elections could be held in the area the following year.  The ANSF Nasrat operations that followed, and on which there is little to no publicly available information or reporting following its commencement, purportedly aimed to prepare central Helmand districts for parliamentary elections later that year and “to gain and maintain the initiative through offensive action and expand population control…”). 

The first aim was not achieved. As early as April 2018, with the election to be held in October, the IEC announced voting in five of Helmand’s districts – Nawzad, Musa Qala, Baghran, Khaneshin and Dishu – “was not possible.” Even before this, the commission, for security reasons, had not been able to reach these districts for pre-election polling centre assessment (AAN reporting here). According to another AAN report, a total of 19,792 votes only were cast across the province.

Increased airstrikes and changed Taleban tactics

For most of the Maiwand operations, Marine advisors travelled from Shorabak to the headquarters of the ANA battalion leading the operation. There, and in Shorabak’s Tactical Operations Centre (TOC), Marines and American contractors assisted by coordinating air assets, providing air support and overseeing command and control and battle tracking of the missions.

During Maiwand Nine, the Sangin operation, ANA Major Abdul Wakil Aryan was in charge inside a small, windowless room inside the 215th Corp’s TOC. He sat, surrounded by plain-clothed contractors, so-called Marine Guardian Angels – assigned specifically to guard against possible ‘green on blue’ attacks – and other ANA soldiers, watching a live video feed transported from a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle surveillance drone flying above Sangin. 

Aryan explained the ScanEagle team was “supporting the convoy… from the air,” and that two instances of Taleban activity had been spotted. “We found a safe haven that was a stage for an ambush… and detected a car escaping [Sangin] with weapons.” 

The ScanEagle, an unarmed drone with a three metre wingspan launched from a sling, is the ANSF’s first foray into unmanned aerial vehicles. Their use is only supplemental, however, to the infinitely more high-capacity armed versions, such as the Predator and Reaper models used by the US military. 

Regardless of the type and who’s operating them, the increased reliance on drones and airstrikes more broadly, since President Donald Trump wound back restrictions on US air power in 2017has been utilised to full effect in Helmand. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), the US’ use of air strikes skyrocketed after 2017. That year, TBIJ counted a total of 25 air strikes in the province. That jumped to 118 in 2018 and more than doubled again in 2019 to 297.

An Afghan National Army (ANA) sergeant carries a Scan Eagle surveillance drone to its launch site in Camp Shorabak in Helmand, the headquarters of the ANA’s 215th Corps.

From the beginning of 2018, the surge in air strikes, and to a lesser extent an increase in night raids, resulted in a huge number of Taleban casualties. (NDS also claimed to have killed and captured al-Qaeda members in a 23 September 2019, raid in Musa Qala). Rahmatullah Amiri said the Taleban have been “hit very hard since 2018.” They’ve lost “an incredible amount of commanders and fighters.” A Musa Qala resident told Amiri that, in 2019, “northern Helmand was full of dead bodies.” Amiri described how a Taleban special ‘red unit’ (sra qet’a) might be dispatched from, for example, Musa Qala to Nad Ali or Marja for a ten-day mission and be hit by a reactive air strike while conducting an operation. When all those bodies are returned to the same village, the toll can seem overwhelming. 

According to Amiri, Taleban commanders and their fighters were being hit “the moment they would start pushing” on government frontlines and checkpoints, as well as during meetings. US air controllers refer to such strikes as ‘dynamic’ and ‘deliberate’ targets, respectively.

In December 2017, a Vice News crew was given access to the Marines’ operations centre inside Camp Shorabak. The short documentary showed a live drone feed – similar to that in the ScanEagle room – of suspected Taleban fighters allegedly preparing an attack against ANSF forces. General Turner then approved an F16 strike on one of the men who appeared to be carrying an RPG launcher. The drone’s video feed showed the moment an explosion erupted beside the suspected fighter. “Missed him,” said a voice in the operations centre. The suspect dashed away from where the munition struck before collapsing on the ground within seconds. 

It is impossible to know how many casualties the Taleban have suffered. However, figures provided by the Italian NGO, Emergency, that runs the only dedicated trauma hospital in southern Afghanistan, paint a picture of the overall trajectory of the war in Helmand over recent years. 

YearWar-Related AdmissionsTrends
20132,108Surge in admissions between May and September.
20142,297Surge in admissions between May and September.
20152,528Surge in admissions between May and September.
20162,997Lashkargah was under siege most of the year. 
20182,692Admissions steady throughout the year. High fatality count due to high number of air strikes may account for admissions being lower than in 2016.
20192,035Decrease in violence apparent after March. Again decrease in admissions may relate to high number of fatalities and subsequent lower number wounded by air strikes.

On the outskirts of Lashkargah, with the help of air strikes, the ANSF managed to push the frontlines back. And even though ANSF gains were not substantial, it was enough to at least reverse the momentum of the Taleban’s four-year push and give Lashkargah’s residents some breathing space. Taleban morale was especially low, said Amiri, after it became apparent that their mission to capture Lashkargah had failed. 

The Taleban also, in response to high casualties, changed their battlefield tactics to mitigate against the losses. Brigadier-General Watson, who replaced Turner as commander, believed the Vice News film may have provided their enemy with an understanding of targeting methods they had not previously known and may have informed the Taleban’s subsequent change in tactics. 

Whether it had anything to do with Vice News or not, Amiri concurred that after 2018, the Taleban in Helmand “adopted new tactics to mitigate against the air strikes.” They told their fighters to stop carrying [two-way] radios and weapons. “They stopped gathering, they stopped training [in the open].” 

The Taleban also changed their offensive methodsHaving seen the success of the assassination campaign in Kandahar, they went about imitating it in Helmand. The operations would be carried out by chariki, an honorific bestowed upon furtive assassins that emerged during the time of the mujahedin. The chariki, who rarely operate with more than a pistol hidden in their waistband or beneath the seat of their car, require little resources or support and are able to hide in plain sight in provincial and district capitals. They famously operate in tandem on motorcycles – a phenomenon that saw motorcycle passengers banned in Lashkargah (and other places in the country) at different times. Police who stopped offenders would puncture their tyres with a spike.

Resolute Support’s figures for the first seven months of 2019 suggest Helmand province was still a major focus for the Taleban with the highest number of what the international military calls Effective Enemy Initiated Attacks – insurgent attacks that cause casualties “that the ANDSF and RS consider to be [significant activities]” – of any province (1,056). It was specified how many of those attacks were assassinations.

Two ambushes

In the same year, three years after fleeing Sayedabad, Ghulam Sakhi, the local ALP commander, was living with his family in Lashkargah. He stayed home more than he cared and although Sayedabad was back in government hands, he had only returned home three times, including once for Eid last year. The area was still close to the frontlines and given the threats he had been receiving by phone, he knew he was still a marked man. Lashkargah, he felt, would be safer. He was not the only one afraid to go back to Sayedabad. “Those that left mostly haven’t returned,” Sakhi told me in June, 2019. “They fear the government can’t protect them.” 

Then, on advice of his doctor, Sakhi took to walking for an hour each morning after offering dawn prayers at a nearby mosque. Soon after sunrise on Monday, 2 September 2019, two men on a motorcycle, their faces wrapped in scarves, approached from behind. The passenger, who was carrying a pistol, shot four times and Sakhi fell to the ground. In a two-line post on its website, the Taleban claimed responsibility for Ghulam Sakhi’s killing later that day. 

Early in the morning of 30 November 2019, Helmandi journalist Aliyas Dayee was called by Afghan Border Force General Zaher Gul Moqbel. Over several days prior, an operation had been undertaken to resupply ANSF forces in Marja’s district centre. On the last day of the operation, the general wanted to bring journalists to see the ANSF gains. Dayee was collected from his home in an ANP Ranger and driven to where the convoy was waiting. When he arrived, he later recalled, “I called the general and said, ‘We are here, are you in the convoy?’ He said,‘Yes, I’m in the first Humvee. Join me.’ I said, ‘No, I’m okay in the Ranger.’” 

The convoy drove into Nawa and then turned off the main road to the west, toward Marja. Soon after crossing the district border, Dayee heard a small explosion – not enough to do any major damage, he thought. He jumped out of the Ranger with his camera and saw the damaged Humvee two vehicles ahead of his. He asked a soldier whose vehicle it was. “It is the general’s Humvee,” the soldier replied. General Moqbel and one of his bodyguards were dead. Several others, including another local journalist, were injured. It was a very near miss, said Dayee.

View across Taleban-controlled Kajaki, from a hilltop ANA outpost in the government-controlled part of the district, on the bank of the Helmand River, in July 2019.

The area during the Reduction in Violence week

It was along the Boghra Canal that the weeklong reduction in violence that preempted the signing of the US-Taleban agreement in Doha on 29 February this year would be tested in Helmand (read AAN analysis here).

Late in the afternoon of 24 February, the third day of the partial ceasefire, ANA soldiers from the 215th Corps were more relaxed than usual at the outpost they had occupied by the canal for more than a year. The outpost was in the middle of the main road running between Chah-e Anjir, outside Lashkargah, and Gereshk, in an area known as Loya Manda.

At 4:30pm, ANA Captain Muhammad Wali Barakzai was called by one of his soldiers. Taleban fighters, he was told, wanted to talk to him. They were waiting on the other side of the canal. With a coterie of soldiers and police, Barakzai, who was unarmed, walked casually toward the southern bank while thumbing through a string of yellow prayer beads.

From the northern bank, one of the three Talebs who had ridden up on motorcycles called over the sound of the water’s flow that the soldiers had breached the terms of the ceasefire by refortifying their outpost. “If you don’t destroy your bunker,” he said, “we will destroy it.” Captain Barakzai said he would speak to his commander. The Talebs rode away and the soldiers turned and walked back behind their parapets.

It was an extraordinary exchange, no less for the casual way it unfolded. But Barakzai was under no illusions. Despite the drop in fighting that week, his construction project was in preparation for its completion. When the week is finished, he said, “it will be the same as before.” 

Indeed it was. It would be less than 24 hours before one of his men was injured. The day after the exchange on the banks of the canal, on the fifth day of the reduction in Violence, a young soldier named Ajmal was standing behind a low wall of sandbags remarking to a fellow soldier how quiet the week had been. Usually, the fighting was so constant that only two or three vehicles would pass the checkpoint by their outpost each day. Now it was a busy junction. Then a sniper’s bullet struck him in the back of the head. It slid along the inside of his skull and exited, miraculously only causing superficial damage. He was rushed to Emergency Hospital in Lashkargah where he was patched up and discharged the same day. He was back at the outpost the following day. “I didn’t tell my family,” he said. “It would make them worry.”

On the morning of 29 February, the day US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taleban deputy leader Mullah Baradar were to sign the US-Taleban agreement in Doha (read AAN analysis here), and the last day of reduced violence, the author received a call from the Emergency Hospital. A 12-year-old boy from Loya Manda had been brought in by his distraught uncle. His legs looked as though they had exploded from the inside. The uncle explained that the Taleban had laid mines throughout the fields between the two frontlines during the night in anticipation, he suspected, of a resumption of regular hostilities. His nephew died shortly after in the emergency room. Staff at the Emergency Hospital, famously resilient in the face of the daily horrors of Helmand’s war, were unusually quiet the rest of the day. 

In Lashkargah, there was surprisingly little interest in what was unfolding in Doha. In an electronics shop, two dozen passers-by crammed in to watch the signing ceremony. They clapped and cheered as the two diplomats put pen to paper, but the room emptied quickly afterwards.

The next day, 1 March, fighting had resumed a normal rhythm at another outpost further to the east along the canal in Loy Manda. In fact, things had not changed much at all the preceding week, said ANA 2nd Lieutenant Zubair Sagari, who had commanded the base for a year. The sound of intermittent bullets flying by kept his soldiers crouching below the parapets and returning fire now and then with an American M240 machine gun. 

Asked whether the soldiers preferred the spike of adrenaline when the bullets started to fly, the half dozen young men responded in unison with an emphatic “No.” Then one spoke out. “All our children are happy for the ceasefire and we aren’t firing back.” Seconds later a single incoming round snapped overhead. The machine gunner hefted the M240 up to a hole in the wall and fired three times across the canal. 

Soldiers from the ANA 215th Corps rest in the sun after a lesson in mine clearance as part of their Operational Readiness Cycle overseen by US Marines.

Conclusion: A new status quo

As Brigadier-General Watson had predicted in early 2018, pushing far beyond the immediate periphery of Lashkargah was going to be difficult. Although the US air campaign has kept significant pressure on the Taleban throughout the province since early to mid-2018, aside from Nawa, the only area the government appears to have retaken and held is Malgir, the band of territory north of Lashkargah that runs southwest from Gereshk to Nad Ali and Marja, along the Boghra Canal. 

Starting in Gereshk, the security belt running west to Loy Manda, bending south into Trikh Nawur on the edge of Marja and continuing around to Nawa and Spina Kota in southern Lashkargah, the frontlines have barely moved in a year, since the Maiwand operations wound up. For now, the goal of the fighting there, as recently witnessed along the canal, on both sides, seems to be about maintaining the status quo. 

(Additional reporting by Sune Engel Rasmussen.)

Edited by Christian Bleuer and Thomas Ruttig

(1) Marja town was founded in 1957, as one of the ‘model villages’ that emerged as the result of the US and Afghan-funded Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority project that started (but still not under that name) immediately after World War II. On the new land won through irrigation, Pashtuns from many different tribes, among them also kuchis (nomads), have been settled there.

Marja is not a full district on its own. It has been part of Nad Ali district, a sub-district (formerly called eleqadari). The official list of districts by the Independent Directorate of Local Governance calls it a “temporary” district – which includes having the full tashkil (personnel and budget) like a full-scale district but not being recognised as such yet. It seems to have assumed this status around the time of Operation Moshtarak.


Afghan National Army Camp Shorabak Helmand Lashkargah Taleban territorial control US Marines