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In Helmand, a model for success?

In the three months since the Marines arrived in the Afghan district of Nawa, the school has reopened, the district governor is on the job and the market is bustling.
Image: Marines discuss humanitarian projects in Helmand province
U.S. Marine Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, right, who commands Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, discusses humanitarian projects with local elders at a school in Nawa district, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.Brennan Linsley / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Before a battalion of U.S. Marines swooped into this dusty farming community along the Helmand River in early July, almost every stall in the bazaar had been padlocked, as had the school and the health clinic. Thousands of residents had fled. Government officials and municipal services were nonexistent. Taliban fighters swaggered about with impunity, setting up checkpoints and seeding the roads with bombs.

In the three months since the Marines arrived, the school has reopened, the district governor is on the job and the market is bustling. The insurgents have demonstrated far less resistance than U.S. commanders expected. Many of the residents who left are returning home, their possessions piled onto rickety trailers, and the Marines deem the central part of the town so secure that they routinely walk around without body armor and helmets.

"Nawa has returned from the dead," said the district administrator, Mohammed Khan.

Nawa provides one ground-level perspective into the debate over U.S. force levels in Afghanistan among members of President Obama's national security team. In this district, the war is being waged in the manner sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan: The number of troops went from about 100 to 1,100, and they have been countering the insurgency by focusing on improving security for local people instead of hunting down the Taliban.

The result has been a profound transformation, suggesting that after eight years of war the United States still may be able to regain momentum in some areas that had long been written off to the Taliban. Insurgent attacks on civilians and NATO forces, once a near-daily fact of life here, have nearly ceased in Nawa and are far less common than they were in surrounding areas, a turnabout reminiscent of what happened in Iraq in 2008 after a sharp increase in American forces there.

But even if Nawa remains peaceful, replicating what has occurred here may not be possible. Achieving the same troop-to-population ratio in other insurgent strongholds across southern and eastern Afghanistan would require at least 100,000 more U.S. or NATO troops -- more than the double the 40,000 being sought by McChrystal -- as well as many thousands of additional Afghan security forces.

Nawa also is blessed with stable social dynamics -- the three principal tribes in the area largely get along -- and it has a district governor whom the Marines regard as unusually competent. The Helmand River valley contains some of Afghanistan's most fertile land, enabling reconstruction workers to improve livelihoods through agricultural assistance programs.

"We have to be very careful when we say we want to use Nawa as a model," said Ian Purves, a British development specialist who advises the battalion. "First off, will Nawa work as we want? And even if it does, there's no guarantee what we're doing here will work anywhere else."

The turnaround here remains fragile. Marine commanders in Nawa acknowledge that their gains could melt away if the Afghan government and security forces do not move quickly to deliver essential public services, or if U.S. troop levels are reduced here before stability is cemented. Many of the insurgents who left Nawa in July have taken refuge 10 miles to the northwest.

"The bone has not healed," said Lt. Col. William McCollough, the battalion commander. "If you take the cast off, it's going right back to a catastrophic situation."

McChrystal has not proclaimed Nawa a success or even cited it in discussions with White House officials as a justification for more troops, mindful that similar claims have been made in other parts of the country only to have those areas slip back into insurgent control. But no Marine from the battalion in Nawa has been killed in combat since late August, even as U.S. troop fatalities have spiked in other parts of Afghanistan. McChrystal and other senior military officials in Afghanistan hope that what is happening amid the canals and cornfields in this patch of southern Afghanistan is different and can be applied elsewhere. Nawa, one of his aides said, is "his number one petri dish."

Skeptics of McChrystal's strategy worry that the Afghan government will not move with haste to take advantage of security improvements created by the United States. Despite repeated requests, the government in Kabul has not yet sent officials to Nawa to help on issues that matter most to local people: education, health, agriculture and rural development.

Marine commanders and reconstruction experts remain optimistic that the government will start providing services here, but some residents are not waiting for Kabul to act. Last month, McCollough was alarmed by a report of a group of men digging holes along the road from the main irrigation canal to the bazaar. He feared that they were planting roadside bombs, but it turned out they were digging holes for electricity poles. Dozens of merchants had banded together to fund a homegrown hydropower project -- a 12-foot-high waterwheel fashioned from metal shipping containers connected to a generator.

To McCollough, the project is a sign that something unique is taking root. If residents were willing to invest, he reasoned, they must feel confident that conditions are going to improve. "This says, 'I believe in my future,' " he said.

Concentration of forces
For the first five years of the Afghan war, there were no NATO forces permanently stationed in Nawa. The British military, which became responsible for the area in 2005, did not have enough soldiers on the ground to perform more than occasional operations aimed at flushing out insurgents. When the British left, the Taliban returned.

In 2006, the British sent a team of about 100 soldiers to Helmand, largely to mentor local police and a small contingent of Afghan army personnel. They were quickly outmatched by the Taliban and forced to hunker down in a half-built government office that they said began to feel like the Alamo.

Taliban coffers swelled with protection payments from poppy growers and taxes on their fields, and the insurgents used their wealth to recruit legions of unemployed young men. Some residents openly welcomed the Taliban because a corrupt government and police provided no good alternative.

Then, three months ago, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment arrived. To U.S. commanders, the change in Nawa is the result of overwhelming force and overhauled battlefield strategy. The combined strength of U.S. and Afghan security forces in the district is now about 1,500 for a population of about 75,000 -- exactly the 1-to-50 ratio prescribed by U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine.

McCollough said the concentration of forces, which prompted insurgents to retreat, allows him to practice the sort of counterinsurgency tactics McChrystal wants. Each of the battalion's 36 squads conducts two foot patrols a day to meet residents and reassure them -- often over cups of hot green tea -- that they are safe. "We have enough Marines to shake everyone's hand," McCollough said.

But translating handshakes into public confidence remains a challenge. On a recent afternoon, a team of Marine civil-affairs specialists drove to the village of Pakiran to investigate claims that Afghan security forces had bombed several pieces of farm equipment . When the Marines approached one farmer to inquire about damage to his water pump, he quickly ushered them into his walled-off compound. "Please don't tell anyone that you have come here," said the farmer, Mohammed Gul, a stout man clad in a black turban and a white shawl.

Gul accepted $300 to repair his shot-up pump, then invited the Marines to stay for tea. Capt. Frank "Gus" Biggio, a Marine reservist on leave from his job as a lawyer in the Washington office of Patton Boggs, peppered Gul with questions to help update a database maintained by the U.S. military command in Kabul.

"What's the biggest problem in this village?" Biggio asked, sitting on a straw mat with Gul. In the first weeks after the Marines arrived, the answer always related to security. But lately, the responses were becoming more varied, which the Marines regard as a sign of progress.

"Water," Gul said. "There's not enough water in the canals to irrigate my fields."

Working on his fourth cup of tea, Biggio suggested that Gul raise his concerns with the district governor, who would be visiting with the Marines soon.

"Don't bring government officials with you," Gul said. "They're not good to us."

Rebuilding local services
The insurgents who left Nawa in July now operate from in and around the town of Marja, 10 miles away, amid a series of north-south canals carved into the sandy desert by the U.S. government in the 1950s and '60s as a way to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan.

The canals helped turn the Helmand River valley into Afghanistan's breadbasket. But wheat fields have been replaced by the highest concentration of opium-producing poppies in Helmand, and the canals now serve as defensive moats that U.S. combat vehicles cannot cross, protecting the drug smugglers and insurgents who have taken shelter there.

"Nawa is only going to get so far as long as their next-door neighbor is Marja," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Helmand.

But clearing out Marja would require more troops than the Marines currently have in Afghanistan. Hopeful that they will receive additional resources, Marine strategists are planning a significant operation in Marja in the coming months.

For now, the Marines are focused on another big risk to progress here -- the lack of basic services. They are working with diplomats and U.N. officials in Kabul to prod key ministries to set up offices in Nawa. The Marines also are setting up their own police training facility in Helmand, working with tribal leaders and local officials to identify solid new recruits and quickly increase the size of the force. Commanders here liken their efforts to the Sons of Iraq program Marines started in Anbar province, but here they are recruiting uniformed police instead of creating tribal militias.

Nonmilitary reconstruction efforts have also begun to gather momentum. The battalion's two civilian advisers are working with a team of U.S.-funded contractors to provide agricultural assistance to farmers, the Obama administration's top priority for Afghan reconstruction. The contractors plan to hand out shovels, gloves and even tractors over the next few months. They hope the goods will increase prosperity and jobs and reduce the number of disaffected young men who want to fight for the Taliban.

"Everyone makes promises to us -- the Americans, our government, even the Taliban," said Mohammed Ekhlas, a snowy-bearded elder of the Noorzai tribe. "If the Marines and the people in our government are true to their words, then there will be peace in Nawa. If not, there will be fighting again."

More on: McChrystal  |  Afghanistan