HBO’s ‘Marjah’: Afghan futility


What: “The Battle for Marjah”

When: premieres at 9 tonight

Where: HBO


Early in the battle for Marjah,” U.S. Marines Capt. Ryan Sparks makes a confident prediction. “The Taliban,” he says, “will eventually lose their freedom of movement and become irrelevant.”

That opinion, proven wrong, forms the central theme of “The Battle for Marjah,” an HBO documentary about a critical 2010 mission in Afghanistan. The film premieres tonight at 9.

The Marines’ Bravo Company does seize control of the town in just five days, bravely running off the entrenched Taliban with minimal casualties. The mission was to be the blueprint of the war: rout the Taliban, seize a town, hold it, and return control to the locals.

The first two objectives were easy, but not the last two. The second half of the documentary — after Marjah has been taken — proves there was no clear winner in the greater mission. The Marines reopen the town’s market district, but it’s hardly a return to normalcy for the citizens.

Under Taliban rule, life was acceptable, they say. The Taliban were their countrymen, and if you didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother you. The Americans, one Marjah resident confides to the cameraman, think they are improving the situation, but they are only making things worse.

Months after the town is “liberated,” Taliban snipers continue to attack the occupying Marines. Citizens who cooperated with the Americans are found beheaded. Fear rules in Marjah, and the Taliban presence remains strong in shaky Afghanistan.

“The Battle for Marjah” has parallels to “Restrepo,” the Academy Award-nominated documentary about the U.S. military’s mission in the dangerous Kornegal Valley of Afghanistan. Both films go shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. troops in a combat zone.

But while “Restrepo” frames the soldiers as comrades — using footage of the troops at leisure so viewers can get to know them — “Marjah” sticks closely to the mission, forming a narrative with text screens and cut-aways to Pentagon press conferences. It is the more immediate of the two films, and it also makes a subtle point: Defeating an enemy in a gun fight is much easier than changing an ancient society.

Toward the end of “The Battle for Marjah,” a wiser Capt. Sparks reflects on the mission, knowing it fell short of success but that he, at least, did his part.

“Marines fight battles,” he says, “not wars.”

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