In January 2011, on our first night in Durzay, one of the last Taliban-held enclaves in Southern Helmand Province, we occupied a compound just outside the main villages. Captain Abdullah, the commander of the Afghan National Army (ANA) infantry unit and I discussed the details with the elder who owned the property, while the Marine platoon that was with us searched the area.
“How many days will you stay?” the elder asked.
“Maybe three,” Captain Abdullah replied.
“Will you use the whole compound?”
“No, you can still stay on the other side of the compound with your family. The Marines and Afghan soldiers will stay on this side of the compound.”
The elder had no choice in his new temporary roommates, but Captain Abdullah wanted him to be as comfortable with the deal as possible. He would be compensated. Marines don’t usually pay rent for a few nights in a local home—the owner can make property damage claims, instead. Captain Abdullah explained to the elder that he needed to identify all the discrepancies, inevitable with a platoon of Marines and ANA soldiers as houseguests, which might add up to a fair price for the inconvenience: a damaged gate, a caved-in roof, a torn blanket.
Earlier in the day we had landed by helicopter on the bare poppy fields and walked single file along one of the many crisscrossing berms toward our objective, the string of villages we planned to bring into the fold. Saifoolah, one of the more irrepressible Afghan soldiers, hopped onto a parallel berm and walked alongside us, as though he were looking for a detour around holiday traffic. We knew there were IEDs (improvised explosive devices) all over the place. Blazing his own trail was a good way to get us all blown up.
I caught Captain Abdullah’s eye and gestured toward Saifoolah. Captain Abdullah quickly yelled at Saifoolah to get back in line. Saifoolah complied, but stopped, unfurled an Afghan flag, and cinched it to his pack. A Marine watched, bewildered. “We can’t patrol with him carrying that big sniper target on his back.” Wearing a flag over your head—like the floating red halos in video games that identify otherwise unidentifiable opponents—isn’t the most tactically sound move, but it was worth it to let Saifoolah show a little pride in what he was doing. As the mentor and adviser to these eighty Afghan infantrymen, it’s my job to help them develop into good Afghan soldiers, but not into U.S. Marines.
We made our way through the Durzay bazaar in spurts, halting for our Explosive Ordnance Disposal Marine to detonate pressure plates, battery packs, and explosive charges as we went. On one such halt we boosted Saifoolah up onto the thatched mud and bamboo roof of the local pharmacy. He took the Afghan flag off his pack and tied the pole to the corner of the roof. He adjusted it so it would be as straight and as high as possible. It flapped in the strong wind of this unusually cold day. I took out my camera and snapped a picture. This was his Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. The difference: no one will remember Saifoolah.
In the compound that night, tea was the first priority. Captain Abdullah made a small fire and borrowed the family’s kettle. Would the family add the firewood to their battle damage payment list? When we ran out of straight green chai leaves, I contributed a few heavily-spiced fruit-infused American teabags that a Marine had received in a care package from home.
Saifoolah grimaced broadly: “It tastes like perfume.”
Three detainees were led in by Marines, who had found weapons buried in their backyard. We let them sit by the fire and pointed the direction toward Mecca, so they could pray.
Saifoolah switched the battery on the ANA radio. He didn’t have many left. At our small outposts the ANA power their radios off of Ford Ranger truck batteries. When the battery is low they disconnect the radio, put the battery back in the Ranger, and turn the vehicle on for a bit. But out on patrol, ANA troops burn through their non-rechargeable radio batteries at a rapid rate.
I’d been asking for extra batteries for months, but there were simply none to be had in the ANA chain of command. Up at the battalion level, the Marine communications mentor was finally able to get me some batteries, using this Durzay operation as leverage. When a high-ranking ANA officer saw some of our extra batteries, he ordered Captain Abdullah to share them with the other Afghan units. So Abdullah hid the rest. We often lament the hoarding mentality in the ANA ranks. But in this case, I say, you do what you gotta do for radio batteries.
Anwar, the ANA radio operator, disconnected the equipment for a minute and set up a larger antenna, angling it through the room’s window so it could reach out to our other patrolling units in other compounds, and back to our patrol bases.
“Char panj (four five), char panj, char panj,” Anwar repeated in Dari into the radio.
“Four five?” I asked. I was used to “aurem (I hear you)” as their version of the Marines’ “Lima Charlie (loud and clear).”
He explained: “Yak doo (one two)” means the radio traffic is too low to hear. “Char panj (four five)” means it’s normal. Turns out you can also use “char panj” as an informal way of saying you’re doing OK, as in, “How are you?” “Ohh, char panj.”
I asked Anwar if I could say “panj shash (five six)” to indicate that I was doing better than OK.
No, he said. On the radio “panj shash” would be too much loud, and you can’t be too much OK.
“What should we call the new patrol base we’re going to build?” I asked Captain Abdullah. He thought out loud, mentioning names of historical Afghan figures and local hajjis. He finally settled on Sola Base (Peace Base) because, of course, that’s what we came for.
I didn’t like it. “It sounds like the name for a new Yusuf Islam song,” I said. “Or Neil Armstrong’s second choice for the lunar landing site.”
When my interpreter doesn’t know what I’m talking about, he says in English, to no one in particular, “Yeah, that’s right.” “Yeah, that’s right,” he said.
Abdullah took out his cell phone. Almost every ANA soldier has one—not to make calls, since there’s no cell tower in the area, but for pictures and video. The captain played some made-in-Jalalabad stand-up comedy for me, pausing after each joke so my interpreter could fill me in on the humor. The lead-ups involved a dysfunctional Jalalabadi family feuding with its neighbors, with Pashto punch lines the equivalent of “Yikes, I wish she’d put her burqa back on.”
IN THE morning we headed out again on patrol. I looked off toward the bazaar. The Afghan flag was gone. But Saifoolah soon found a better spot for a flag: the top of what was initially just a numbered key terrain feature on our maps but is now affectionately known as Big Guss, an old ruined hilltop fortress of unknown derivation that dominates the skyline of otherwise flat farmland. We were patrolling toward Haji Hadabad Khalay, a town in Durzay indistinguishable in color from the surrounding desert, built as it is from water and earth. We walked through the dusty central square. It was the first time Americans or ANA had been there. Another Marine patrol crisscrossed the village, spray painting the compound gates, identifying them by number in accordance with our grid reference system maps.
We sat with the Durzay elders at Hajii Mokhtar’s cousin’s house—what we call Compound 43 Alpha. Hajji Mokhtar had invited us for lunch. An elder we know from our weekly shuras—or meetings with local elders—spoke up. His gray beard, with traces of orange henna in it, had crept up to his eyes over the years. He wore a silver turban around a red traditional Pashto hat, and an olive drab overcoat with Mercedes-Benz logo buttons.
“If there is no security, and the Marines want to live in this village, that is fine,” he said. “Just please let us know so we can move across the river. We can leave this land for you.”
An elder I call the Weather Man interrupted, with his most recent forecast: “There will be security,” he said. “There will be security thirty days from now, because fifteen days ago I said there would be security in forty-five days.”
Later, he took me aside to say, “The names I’m about to give you are not farmers. They are not laborers. They are not shepherds. They do not own land. They do other things for money.”
I walked around the compound, stopping to check on the Afghan soldiers who were posting security. Saifoolah stood watch with his PK machine gun. Despite repeated discussions about proper weapon selection, Saifoolah insists on bringing his relatively heavy machine gun to our shuras when a lighter rifle would be much more appropriate.
“Taliban, shoot-ing, shoot-ing” he gestured, lifting his air gun to show me what he’d do if he saw an enemy. The compound’s living quarters were spare, with red carpets, red curtains, and mud walls, bare except for a hanging map of the world. “Arabistan, Hindustan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan.” Saifoolah pointed, slowly, enunciating each country, as if it were the last round of the geography bee.
For the meal, we reclined on intricately colored cushions and pillows. The families’ young children arranged the dastarkhan, the spread of tablecloth and foods: flatbread, beans, okra, rice, yogurt, and Mountain Dew. The elders watched us eat. I tried to offer them some food. They said they’d eaten.
THE MARINE commander asked the elders to identify priority infrastructure projects. Most of the men were in agreement: “We ask you to please fix the canal.”
“The one over there,” an elder pointed.
“Saints Canal?” a Marine asked, half-expecting familiarity with our nomenclature.
“The one just over there or way on the other side?” another elder answered.
The Marine commander pulled out his map and laid it on the carpet. Too many elders gathered around, kneeling to look, making sense of the crisscrossing numbered grids, pointing to features that resembled the elusive canal, finally suggesting we all walk together and see. A joint Marine-ANA-elder patrol, to make sure we had our canals straight once and for all.
I thought of the Jorge Luis Borges mini-story “On Exactitude in Science,” about a people so advanced in cartography that for them only a map of the empire the same size as the empire will suffice in precision. Borges’s story is based on an episode in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: farmers object to a 1:1 map, “on the scale of a mile to the mile.” They worry it will cover their fields and block out their sun. Like the Afghan elders they use the country itself as its own map.
After the meal our civil affairs corporal started to explain the battle damage payment paperwork process to all the elders assembled at the shura. “We don’t know about this; we are poor people,” interrupted one of the eldest elders.
“That’s why I’m explaining the process,” the corporal said. “Show us anything and everything that’s been ruined in your home; our interpreter will do the writing. All you have to do is give your finger stamp at the bottom.”
“Sir, we don’t know about this. We are poor people,” the elder repeated.
Sam Jacobson most recently worked as an adviser to the Afghan National Army. He previously served as an infantry platoon commander in Iraq. Some names and numbers in his essay have been changed.