For Marines, Marjah market is battleground for Afghans' trust

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2010 

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Among the U.S. Marines at Combat Outpost Turbett, Gunnery Sgt. Brandon Dickinson is better known as "Gunny D."

These days, the 32-year-old non-commissioned officer, who's spearheading U.S. Marine counterinsurgency outreach in this central slice of Marjah, has a new nickname: "The mayor of Koru Chareh."

In the weeks since the Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment seized control of this opium-rich region from the Taliban, Dickinson has emerged as a neighborhood godfather in the ragtag Koru market outside this Marine outpost.

Every day, Dickinson hands out money to pay storekeepers recovering from the fighting, hires scores of workers to clean canals, and wanders into the street without his flak jacket to talk to Marjah elders.

The new "mayor" only has to walk a few feet to encounter the opposition, however.

The Marines' immediate neighbor is a crumbling mud mosque run by Mawlawi Abdel Rashid, an unapologetic Taliban supporter who makes little effort to hide his distaste for the Americans who've taken over his town.

"If I lived 1,000 years, praise God, I would prefer the Taliban," Rashid said through one of the Marines' interpreters during a brief visit to the military outpost.

"They failed before, so now they are trying to win people's hearts using different tactics and strategies," Rashid said of the Marines as several sat listening nearby. "But they will never be successful."

If Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's strategy for winning the eight-year-old war by regaining the trust of wary Afghans is going to be a success, this is one place where it must take root.

Dickinson's tireless campaign should be the cornerstone of a counterinsurgency strategy, but it won't have credibility until and unless the Marines can convince Marjah residents that they're safe, that the ousted Taliban rulers will never regain power, that the new Afghan police force can be trusted and that the U.S.-backed district government is truly in charge.

Dickinson's title as the local mayor is an unintended reminder that, aside from the Afghan police and soldiers working with the Marines, there are few signs of the new Afghan government that at some point will take responsibility for Marjah.

Bravo Company is in charge of a narrow, six-square-mile slice of Marjah and holds firm control over the Koru market.

Once they win over Afghans living around the 150 stalls in the market, Marines are betting they can gradually extend their influence into areas that Taliban fighters still contest with daily roadside bombs and sporadic gun battles.

The focus is on those Afghans who have no ideological allegiance to the Taliban and would be willing to work with the Marines, the Afghan police and the pro-Western government in Kabul that sent them.

The effort has begun in the courtyard of Mawlawi Rashid's mosque.

Until the Marines arrived, Rashid said, he had more than 100 Taliban students who'd regularly come to his mosque for classes and guidance. They've gone.

Now that the American military is across the road, Rashid has given permission for the educated commander of the new Afghan police force to hold regular elementary school classes in the mosque courtyard.

When invited to the Marine compound for tea, Rashid politely rebuffed the Americans' politically charged request that he teach 15 minutes of Koran studies each day to the growing number of young boys in the class.

Throughout the days, Rashid tries to counter the American influence by inviting Afghan soldiers, police and military interpreters to come across the street to pray. Sometimes they join Rashid and other local men answering the hoarse, atonal call to prayer.

Though Rashid won't take any money for his own needs, the Marines said he accepted about $150 from the Marines to repair some minor damage to his mosque, and he tacitly acceded to the Marines' plans to build a new community well outside the mosque.

Despite it all, Rashid wants the Americans to leave and the Taliban to return.

"The Taliban have the strongest security in the world," said Rashid, a lean Afghan with oversized glasses and a tangled black beard.

The constant push to distinguish friend from foe has an obvious subtext: Willing allies generate more intelligence on Taliban insurgents in the community.

As Marjah residents come to trust the Marines, they're cautiously providing more information to help the Americans track down Taliban militants who are planning attacks, holding meetings, monitoring the base and planting roadside bombs.

"This is so much more powerful than bullets," Dickinson said last week as he ushered one Marjah merchant into the Marine base for another in an endless series of talks.

Since they took control, Dickinson and his team have handed out tens of thousands of dollars to store owners, canal cleaners, litter patrols and families that lost relatives in the fight for Marjah. The U.S. Navy medics have seen a constant stream of Afghan patients being referred in increasing numbers by the local doctor.

More and more residents have come seeking U.S. issued ID cards that require them to be photographed, fingerprinted and to agree to a retinal scan.

"We want to make you an ID so we know who our friends are," Dickinson, a native of Princeton, Ill., told one timid resident who came to ask for money from the Marines.

Even though being caught by the Taliban with a U.S. military ID could mean death, the Marines have been convincing a small but growing number of residents to take them.

The counterinsurgency work — known colloquially as COIN — is slow.

"I'm a huge believer in COIN, I just don't particularly like doing it because it's so tedious," said Capt. Ryan Sparks, the 35-year-old Bravo Company commander from San Diego.

"It's much easier to say: The enemy is on that side of the line; we're on this side of the line. Go," Sparks added. COIN "is just so stressful on a day-to-day basis because you talk to a guy who is your friend, and as soon as you walk away from him, he shoots you in the back."

Despite the risks, Sparks said the counterinsurgency strategy is the best way to end the long war in Afghanistan.

"In COIN, we as the coalition forces have to be perfect on every patrol and the enemy only has to get lucky once in a while to win, so it makes it much more difficult," Sparks said. "But it is absolutely the most effective way to do it."

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