Two Marine Humvees met Ironhorse across the river. We were in a thickly vegetated area of farmland, trees, and narrow canals. Helmand is the wealthiest province in Afghanistan; it has an irrigation system, some electricity and paved roads, and some of the best agricultural land in the region. It is the world's largest producer of opium poppies and a great place for a self-sustaining insurgency.
Sandbags lined the top of the schoolhouse. Hundreds of Marines wandered around shirtless wearing green shorts and kicking up dust. They slept on the ground outside or in classrooms that smelled of sweaty feet. A Marine captain thanked Contreras for bringing the ANCOP. The lack of an Afghan face had been their weak spot, he said. Nawa had been quiet for a few days. "The Taliban left to lie low," he said, "but this is their breadbasket, so they're not likely to give it up."
The next morning Contreras met Marine Commander William McCollough at Patrol Base Jaker, a partially constructed brick building that was a short but tense walk from the schoolhouse. McCollough told Contreras that in the town of Aynak, 14 miles away, they had discovered a "rogue" police unit that was extorting the locals. Nawa's chief of police, Nafas Khan, sat in on the meeting. He had a long beard and a long, nervous face. The Marines described him as a local mafia boss. Team Ironhorse suspected he was keeping his men's salary for himself, forcing the police to steal for a living. Khan denied that the police in Aynak were under his authority.
After Khan left, McCollough told Sakhi that he should supplant the rogue police. The Marines might have to fight to get to Aynak, but once there, McCollough said, they would meet with locals in a shura, or council. Team Ironhorse's Staff Sergeant Randy Thacker was dismissive. "These shuras are just a bitch session," he said. "They'll complain about cops shaking them down. The major will make promises and the ANP will come back and go back to the same ways." He'd seen it before: when Ironhorse and the ANCOP came in, towns that had been abandoned would slowly repopulate, and when they started to hand things back over to the ANP, residents would flee once more. The ANP were the only face of the Afghan government most people saw, and it was often an ugly one.
The three units prepared for departure the following morning. The Marines gave Ironhorse and ANCOP enough fuel for another day or so. What might happen after that, no one really knew.
'They were all high'
The next day the coalition command for Helmand informed Contreras that the Aynak police were indeed under Khan's authority. We departed at 5 am and rumbled slowly along a canal green with vegetation. Marine minesweepers walked ahead of us. By 9 am, we had gone maybe three miles — a numbing pace that allowed any Taliban to flee well in advance.