For Taliban fighters infiltrating Helmand Province from Pakistan, one ratline proved simple. They crossed open desert of pebble, sage, and moon dust toward a lonely mountain ridge, and entered Khan Neshin, a gateway to both the Helmand River Valley and one of the bloodiest corners of the Afghanistan war.
In July, though, US Marines seized towns along the Helmand River in a bid to shut down a central problem of the war: the cross-border flow of fresh fighters. But their march stopped at Khan Neshin, 70 miles short of the Pakistan border, slowing but not shutting down Taliban traffic. Now, some 9,000 of the new troops surging into the country are heading to Helmand to expand security and finish the march south. The scope of the time and manpower dedicated to the effort underscores just how difficult it is to secure the 1,600-mile frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“We have to get down to the border. We have to establish a legal border crossing point, so that if you try to bypass it, it becomes an illegal activity,” says Lt. Col. Michael Martin, the commanding officer in charge of 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in the Khan Neshin area. “You start to squeeze off the insurgency’s ability to resupply itself.”
But it’s not as simple as dropping troops into new border outposts. Such posts have been tried before, only to have Pashtun towns deep inside Afghanistan begin to fall to the Taliban, cutting off the remote coalition outposts from behind.
This time, the goal is to secure and win over populations all the way from the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, to the isolated southern border, explains Martin. Khan Neshin will become a safe place to refuel and reconnoiter before the final leg to the checkpoint being built 10 miles north of Baram Shah, a Taliban drugs and arms border bazaar.
“So it’s just one of these things that has to happen incrementally – it’s not something where we can just wish it, snap our fingers, and there you go, you’ve got a border-crossing site,” says Martin.
US Marines in 'flyover country'
That’s the logic that has brought some 800 marines and a cadre of civilians to protect and build up this feudal district of some 17,000 people. The town is little more than a crumbling, centuries-old mud castle – now the marines’ headquarters – and an adjacent bazaar. Families live in mud compounds spread several football fields apart as they coax crops from a sage-strewn wasteland with the help of crude irrigation ditches. Forget cars; here, motorcycles and tractors are scarce.
Even the Taliban treated this place as flyover country. “When the Taliban were here, they never disturbed the local people,” says local elder Fathie Mohammad. Often, they barely seemed to have time to sit down to eat with locals. “They just were moving and walking around.”
The Taliban first came five years ago, say the marines, returning from havens in Pakistan after noticing that neither the coalition nor the government kept any presence here. They used it as a staging point – much as the marines hope to do – to reach more critical population centers.
They also took a cut of the opium poppy crop – the world’s largest – says Mr. Mohammad, angering farmers. But the Taliban’s cross-border movements helped farmers get poppy to market – something that may put farmers on a collision course with the marines (who don’t touch the crops) if they establish a border crossing.
The area has also taken an economic hit from the loss of drug trading in the sleepy bazaar, which still uses Pakistani rupees. “Before, [business] was better. Now people are afraid to come, so it’s slower than before,” says Allah Daad, a mechanic with a shop in the bazaar.
The Taliban no longer stop in Khan Neshin, says Mohammad, who, like Mr. Daad, spoke through a military interpreter. But the marines are still tracking locals whom they believe put up Taliban travelers. “There are supplies a couple times a week going further north or people going down to Pakistan,” says Maj. Jeremy Hoffman, an information operations officer from Aurora, Colo., who notes Taliban movements are slower in the winter. “Us having more troops would make it more difficult to move personnel and resources across the border.”
A place to watch for Taliban
Since the area is largely desert, essentially creating an open road, circumventing the coalition may be a hassle, but not too great a one. On the other hand, the terrain lets the marines see easily, aided by long-range camera towers inside the bases.
“In modern warfare, surveillance is incredibly important,” says Lt. Col. Christopher Langton (ret.), a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “There is the possibility of interdicting movement of militants across the border into Kandahar and Helmand.”
Yet the partial closing of this one door from Pakistan required a 10,000-strong task force of marines, with 9,000 more to help finish the job. And critics say the intense focus on the south has come at the expense of provinces closer to Kabul, including Logar and Wardak.
The troop numbers committed to Helmand also call into question if the military really has the manpower to secure other border regions – and if not, what would stop the Taliban from using those. Getting coalition troops along the full border is “impossible” because of expense, says Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst.
The marines here are training Afghan security forces to take over more secure areas, thus allowing marines to address other areas. That effort here has only begun, with some 100 police being trained around Khan Neshin. It could be years before they are ready to relieve the US forces.
Others advocate boosting a political approach to the border problem: Lean more on Pakistan to move militarily against Taliban centers on its soil. So far, despite US pressure, Pakistan’s military have only gone after insurgents who have attacked them, leaving Afghan-focused insurgent leaders untouched.