Image: Afghan boy and U.S. Marine
Kevin Frayer  /  AP
An Afghan boy and U.S. Marine Cpl. Joseph Kelly beside a nearly empty market in Khan Neshin.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 12/7/2009 5:35:20 PM ET 2009-12-07T22:35:20

The dusty bazaar in this remote town in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province was once teeming with Taliban fighters and drug smugglers who used it as a central transit point in their journeys to and from nearby Pakistan.

Now the market is quiet, and shopkeepers and residents tell U.S. Marines who patrol the streets that they appreciate their efforts to open a new school and dredge the town's irrigation canals. But they complain that business was better before troops descended on the area five months ago and drove the militants away.

"Security is good now, but security was also good during the time of the Taliban," said Marijah, a Khan Neshin resident hanging around the market looking for work.

Many residents say they are more concerned about job prospects than security and are impatient to see improvements after eight years of war. But coalition efforts have been hampered by Afghanistan's weak government and the behavior of local security forces.

Some residents also expressed concern that working with the coalition could endanger them if the Taliban return after the Marines leave.

"The people are thinking about the history of Afghanistan," said Jonathan Browning, a development expert deployed to Khan Neshin by the British. "If things swing back to the Taliban, they fear they will be seen as being involved."

Links to drug network
Others probably support the insurgents, most of whom, like Khan Neshin residents, are ethnic Pashtuns. Many farmers in the area grow poppies or marijuana, linking them to the vast drug networks that are often protected or controlled by the Taliban.

Some 4,000 Marines pushed south to Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig district, and other parts of southern Helmand province in July in the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

Lessons learned after five months on the ground in Khan Neshin will provide a roadmap for the 30,000 additional U.S. troops President Barack Obama has ordered to Afghanistan under a new strategy announced last week.

As part of the Obama surge, about 16,000 U.S. troops got their orders to Afghanistan in the last few days, including about 1,500 Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina who will leave for this country later this month, the Pentagon said Monday.

In Khan Neshin, several hundred of the Marines established a patrol base inside a 200-year-old mud fort. They also set up several smaller outposts in the surrounding area. The spartan bases represent the coalition's most southern presence in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold that produces more than half of Afghanistan's opium.

"This was one of the main stopping points for all the rat lines for weapons, fighters and drugs heading north from Pakistan," said Capt. Chris Banweg, a civil affairs officer with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, the Marine Corps reserve unit stationed in Khan Neshin since November.

'Like the Holiday Inn'
"It was like the Holiday Inn. Everyone stayed here," said Banweg.

Video: Deadline, timeline or transition? The U.S. military plans to send a large number of the additional troops to Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province to secure key population centers and transit routes.

U.S. forces will also focus on expanding the Afghan army and police. Training the security forces is seen as key to transferring responsibility to the Afghan government and allowing the coalition to draw down its forces.

Some analysts speculate the transition will take longer than expected, and the Marines' experience with police in Khan Neshin shows how far that group, known for its corruption, has to go.

Residents complained the police harassed them and took goods from the bazaar without paying.

"It's the police's job to protect the people, not bother them," said shopkeeper Bar Aga.

Policeman fired for drugs
Eleven of the 19 policemen in Khan Neshin were fired after testing positive for drugs, said Lt. Col. Richard Crevier, executive officer of the Marine battalion in Khan Neshin.

The police responded by rebelling and throwing rocks at the Marines, he said.

"The police down here were basically corralled off the streets of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah," Crevier said. "They hadn't been trained and didn't have police ethics."

A second group of 13 police who arrived a few days ago also lacked any training, except for the chief. But the town is slated to receive more than 20 graduates from a police academy near Lashkar Gah toward the end of the month.

Despite the challenges, the Marines and civilian development experts in Khan Neshin believe they are making progress and that morale is high. They have partnered with the community to dredge the town's canals, open the first school in about five years and run a health clinic two days a week inside the fort.

They also have high hopes for the new district governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch, a 27-year-old former pharmacist from Lashkar Gah. But he has struggled to recruit competent staff willing to work in Khan Neshin and to get resources for a district that contains only about 1 percent of Helmand's population.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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