U.S. Marines patrol slowly along streets laced with land mines and lined with abandoned shops, clinics and homes. As night falls over this Afghan ghost town, the only sounds are the howling of coyotes and the creaking of tin roofs in the wind.
Three years after its residents fled, the once bustling town of Now Zad is the scene of a stalemate between a company of newly arrived Marines and a band of Taliban fighters. The Americans have plenty of firepower. What they don't have is enough men to hold seized ground.
"We would just be mowing the weeds," said Capt. Zachary Martin of any move to drive out the Taliban.
The deadlock shows how a shortage of troops has hindered the Afghan war and points to the challenges for the Obama administration as it sends 21,000 extra Marines and soldiers to the south to try to turn around a bogged down, eight-year conflict. The influx will bring U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to about 68,000 by late summer — roughly half the current level in Iraq, a smaller country than Afghanistan.
It's unclear if more troops will be deployed to this town in Helmand province, the heart of the Taliban insurgency and the opium poppy trade that funds it. For the meantime at least, it appears Now Zad is too valuable to abandon to the insurgents — but not valuable enough for an all-out offensive.
The 300 or so Marines in Now Zad regularly patrol areas close to the Taliban front lines, skirmishing with them and risking attacks from the area's biggest killer — IEDs. Over the last month, improvised explosive devices have killed one Marine and wounded seven. Four of the men — including the fatality — suffered double leg amputations.
"Welcome to Hell," reads one message spray-painted on a wall in the town's main base by British troops whom the Marines replaced last year.
"Good Luck USA," reads another.
No locals to help, or have help
Along with the new troops and military aircraft, Washington plans a corresponding surge in development projects to convince the largely impoverished Afghan population that the central government — not the insurgents — offers the best hope for the future. The U.S. is also spending more on training the Afghan police and army so they can eventually take on the Taliban.
But with Now Zad's 10,000 to 35,000 residents long gone, there are no hearts and minds to woo here — even it were safe enough to build schools, clinics and roads. The town also has no local security forces, and no one can say when they will arrive.
"Even in our wildest dreams we are not going to have enough Marines and soldiers to be everywhere," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of the first wave of 10,000 new troops pouring into Helmand and surrounding provinces. "That is why it is important to have the locals taking more responsibility, saying, 'This is my neighborhood and I'm going to have to defend it.'"
Like much of Afghanistan, Now Zad was relatively peaceful in the years following the U.S.-led invasion. Water pumps installed by the U.N. World Food Program are dotted around the town, and there is at least one health clinic funded by the European Union.
But in 2006 and 2007 — just when Washington was focused on sectarian bloodshed in Iraq — the Afghan insurgency stepped up a gear and Now Zad became the scene of fierce battles between NATO troops and the Taliban.
Now Zad remains so dangerous that this is the only Marine unit in Afghanistan that brings along two trauma doctors, as well as two armored vehicles used as ambulances and supplies of fresh blood.
Apart from one small stretch of paved road, the Marines patrol only behind an engineer who sweeps the ground with a detector. The men who follow scratch out a path in the sand with their foot to ensure those trailing them do not stray off course. Each carries at least one tourniquet.
"It's a hell of ride," said Lance Cpl. Aenoi Luangxay, a 20-year-old engineer on his first deployment. "Every step you think this could be my last," said Aenoi, who has found six bombs in the company's four weeks in the town.
Just after midnight recently, the medics were wakened by a familiar report: A patrol had hit an IED in town. Within five minutes, they put on their flak jackets and helmets and were in their vehicles leaving the base.
The bomb blew the legs off Cpl. Matthew Lembke as he walked to a building. Lembke, from Tualatin, Ore., was loaded onto the ambulance. On the trip to the helicopter landing zone, the medics tightened his tourniquets and gave him two units of blood along with antibiotics.
At one point, he stopped breathing. The medical team used equipment on board to pump air into his lungs.
"Our aim and intent is to give the guys the optimum chance of survival from the first minute," said the commander of the Shock Trauma Platoon, Sean Barbabella, of Chesapeake, Va. "If it was my son or brother out there, that is what I would want."
Lembke was in stable condition Monday at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
Enemy hides in maze
The men of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines in Now Zad know where to find their enemy — to the north of town, in a maze of compounds and tunnels that back onto lush pomegranate orchards.
The Marines are garrisoned in a base that occupies the town's former administrative center. They also have fortified observations posts on two hills. In one of them, named ANP hill after the Afghan police who presumably once had a post there, the men sleep in "hobbit holes" dug into the earth. The underground briefing room is partly held up by an aging Russian Howitzer gun.
Each day, the Marines aggressively patrol to limit the Taliban's freedom of movement. They keep a 24-hour watch on the battlefield using high-tech surveillance equipment and are able to fire mortar rounds at insurgents spotted planting bombs or gathering in numbers.
A recent daylong battle showed the massive difference in firepower between the two sides, as well as the tenacity of the Taliban. It took place close to "Pakistani Alley," so named because of one-time reports that fighters from across the border were deployed along the road.
The insurgents opened fire from behind high-walled compounds with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades against five armored vehicles; the Marines responded with machine gunfire and frequently called in airstrikes.
Reaching out to nearby village
Mindful of the need to engage with what few locals remain in the area, every couple of days a small group of Marines and translators leave the base and walk a mile to a village south of Now Zad where some families who fled the town now stay.
They try to convince them that the Marines are there to help, remind them that Taliban militants plant bombs that kill innocents and discreetly try to gather intelligence. Many of the locals are suspicious and worried about Taliban retribution for talking with the visitors, who are besieged by children demanding candy and notebooks.
Capt. Martin got some encouraging news. One villager said he was a former soldier in the Afghan army and would be willing to fight the Taliban; another said he would like to vote in August elections, though with no local government in place that looks unlikely.
But later, one man accused coalition forces of killing 10 women and children in a bombing last year.
"I take it as a sign of success they are willing to talk to us," Zachary said. "Before, if you said the word Taliban, they ran away."