Big gains reported in Afghan town that Taliban once owned

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2011 

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Schools that the Taliban closed have reopened in this southern Afghan town, and some girls are even back in the classrooms. The wheat and cotton crops are flourishing, and poppy cultivation is way down.

A year after a major American-led operation to oust the Islamist insurgents from their onetime stronghold, security has improved dramatically, according to Afghan officials and U.S. troops, and townspeople say they no longer live in terror.

With some 2,000 Marines stationed in and around Marjah, the militants have been pushed to the fringe of the area, and the hustle and bustle of everyday life has returned, helped by a huge injection of aid and development projects by the Marines.

Marjah residents no longer fear meeting Americans, and they now routinely pass on intelligence about Taliban movements.

"Security is good now. Life is better," said Gul Ahmed, a 34-year-old wheat farmer in northeast Marjah, close to a U.S. Marine patrol base. "Bad people like the Taliban cannot come here now."

"The Taliban took money from us," he said. "They took food from us. They forced us to go with them to other provinces to fight."

If the relatively peaceful conditions hold, Marjah, in Helmand province, could become a symbol of counterinsurgency at work in Afghanistan. It also would bear out the claim by U.S.-led international forces that a "surge" of 30,000 additional American troops last year has stemmed the insurgency in its southern heartland, Helmand and the neighboring province of Kandahar.

There are plenty of doubters, who say the Marines have proved only that they can hold areas with massive U.S. forces. Locals appear to have little faith — as yet, anyway — in Afghan forces' ability to take over.

"If the Marines left, the Taliban would be back in two weeks," said Sidar Mohammad, the 25-year-old owner of a bakery in Marjah's Loy Chareh market.

This year will be a watershed one for Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is expected to make at least a token withdrawal of U.S. forces after July, and U.S. commanders are waiting for the spring fighting season to assess how much the Taliban and allied extremist groups have been able to rebuild after the U.S. offensive.

The Taliban still enjoy a haven in neighboring Pakistan's tribal areas, and serious questions remain about the capabilities of the Afghan army, not to mention President Hamid Karzai's corrupt and fragile government in Kabul.

"While the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, these gains remain fragile and reversible," said the unclassified version of Obama's December 2010 review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

Marjah is the test ground for the U.S. strategy of protecting the population with huge numbers of soldiers, and success or failure here will have far-reaching consequences for the American mission in Afghanistan.

U.S. forces have driven the Taliban out of territory west and north of Kandahar city, securing an important part of Kandahar province. Marjah, in central Helmand, appears promising. A tough fight remains, however, in northern Helmand.

Marjah is now being compared to Nawa, a town in Helmand east of Marjah that's the current poster child for the claims of a successful counterinsurgency. Marjah is bigger, however, and had been a more significant Taliban haven. It also has a much higher profile, as it took on near-iconic status thanks to the promotion of the original offensive a year ago.

"Marjah is critically important," said Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marine general who's in charge of southwest Afghanistan, including Helmand province.

"Firstly, psychologically it is the center of the insurgency within Helmand province. It was his (the Taliban's) capital. It was where he ran this place from. He lost it. Secondly, it was his bankroll. Marjah was basically drug trafficking. It produced narcotics, which were sold to fuel the insurgency. He lost that."

Mills, a 60-year-old from Huntington, N.Y., said central Marjah was now in the "build" phase, the final step of the three-phase clear-hold-build counterinsurgency model used by U.S. forces.

Last year, more than 7,000 international and Afghan forces swept in to clear the town of Taliban in the biggest operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. After initial success, the Taliban staged a comeback, and the promise to deliver "government in a box" didn't materialize, leading the then-commander of the international forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to dub Marjah a "bleeding ulcer" last May.

The turnaround came by last autumn, after the U.S. military made a tactical shift from defending the center of Marjah to aggressively chasing down Taliban on the outskirts of town. New officials were named, and the Marines have high regard for Abdul Mutalab, the district governor, who was appointed last summer, and for the district police chief, Ghulam Wali. Elections to choose a district council will be next week.

Marjah is currently benefiting from ideal conditions. The traditional winter lull in fighting, when the Taliban lie low or leave Afghanistan, has dampened violence. An attempted resurgence is expected in spring or summer, when security will face the acid test. The huge concentration of U.S. and Afghan forces, blanketing the area with an overwhelming security presence, can't be sustained long term.

"I feel a lot more comfortable walking around there (Marjah) than Baltimore after 8 o'clock at night," said Lt. Col. Robert Schwarz, 42, of Salmon, Idaho, the executive officer of the Marines' Regimental Combat Team 1, which oversees an area of Helmand that includes the two Marine battalions in Marjah. "The intent is to make the population resistant enough during wintertime so the bad guys cannot get back in."

Marines from 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, stationed in and around central Marjah, arrived at the end of December for a seven-month tour. At their Turbett combat outpost, in the middle of town, the Marines from Lima Company appear relaxed as they patrol the Koru Chareh market just outside their base, wandering across the road to buy a kebab or being mobbed by local children, who are after candy, as they stride down the street.

The population is providing plentiful tips about Taliban movements in the town and the locations of homemade bombs buried in the ground, known as improvised explosive devices, Marines say. Across central Marjah, residents appear happy to speak with the Americans, a change from the wariness or even hostility that greeted their arrival in town a year back. Many residents spoke openly against the Taliban to a McClatchy reporter, an act that would have been life-threatening not long ago.

Thousands of Marjah residents who fled to avoid the military offensive a year ago are trickling back to their homes. Schools are opening, allowing hundreds to attend class once more, including some girls. The Taliban had closed down education in Marjah.

Poppy cultivation has been cut to minimal levels in central Marjah, and the drug bazaar shut down.

The bustle of the Koru Chareh and Loy Chareh markets, both in central Marjah, and the sight of farmers busy with their cotton or wheat crops are signs of "business as usual" that are a strong indicator of stabilization, said Capt. Nathan Dmochowski, the commander of the Turbett outpost, where 230 Marines and 220 Afghan security forces are stationed

"Back in July or August, you'd get into a firefight just walking out the gate of Turbett," said 32-year-old Dmochowski, who's from East Lansing, Mich. "The situation has transformed."

Perhaps the most revealing indicator of progress is a new militia of armed volunteers, known as Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure. It consists of about 800 townspeople who've volunteered to guard neighborhoods within Marjah against Taliban encroachment.

Marjah, more a string of villages surrounded by farmland than a town, benefits from an extensive canal irrigation system installed with American aid in the 1950s, making it an oasis in the desert. The U.S. military estimates the population at around 100,000.

"The bubble of security has pushed the insurgency further and further from the people," said Maj. Zeb Beasley, 33, who's from Lumberton, N.C., and is the operations officer of the 3/9 Marines. "We will push further and further out."

The Taliban have largely been relegated to sparsely populated desert east and west of Marjah. Separating the insurgents from the population is an important goal of modern counterinsurgency.

The Taliban still have a presence, however. The 3/9 records two or three enemy incidents a day, such as an IED find or small arms fire, said the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. David Hudspeth. He said the pattern being followed was a two-year stabilization campaign, after which security could be transitioned to Afghan forces. Nawa has been through the two-year cycle.

"We're halfway through the 24-month model. If it stays on this trajectory, I'm confident that Marjah will be ready to transition a year from now," said Hudspeth, 39, who's from Hamptonville, N.C.

Hudspeth said "decisive operations" would be carried out in areas where the Taliban remained, including Trek Nawa to the east and Sistani to the west. Two more Marine battalions are slated to rotate in for successive seven-month tours in Marjah after the 3/9.

Hudspeth's battalion is stationed in the most populated parts of Marjah. Another unit — 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines — guards the desert north of the district. Two Afghan army battalions also are deployed in the Marjah district, along with 300 Marjah police officers, a contingent of Afghan National Civil Order Police — a highway patrol force — and the new town militia.

The dividing line is stark: Where Marjah's irrigation canal network runs out, Taliban influence still asserts itself.

Lima Company's patrol base Saipan, on the eastern fringe of Marjah, is close to the remaining Taliban hideouts, with the population there noticeably more cautious about associating with the Marines.

Saipan's commander, Staff Sgt. Jesus Medina, a 31-year-old from Elizabeth, N.J., who was out on patrol heading east, pointed further east.

"This is the edge right here. Three hundred yards to the east is Indian country," he said. "When we go over there, we know we're going to get into a fight."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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