OBAMA'S WAR The Surge Begins

A Fight for Ordinary Peace

U.S. Marines are almost two weeks into an operation to combat Afghanistan's insurgency in a new way: Instead of targeting extremist strongholds, they will aim to protect communities from the Taliban.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

NAWA, Afghanistan -- Most of the mud-brick stalls that line the street in this sweltering town on the Helmand River closed down a year ago when Taliban fighters began swaggering through the bazaar, levying taxes on merchants and seeding the roads with homemade bombs. Shopkeepers placed their wares behind padlocked tin doors, teachers shuttered the school, the doctor abandoned the health clinic and residents with means fled to other parts of southern Afghanistan.

This town does not merit a dot on most maps of Afghanistan. But U.S. civilian and military officials believe what happens to the chockablock market here will be a key indicator of whether President Obama can salvage a war the United States has been losing.

About 4,000 troops -- most of them U.S. Marines -- descended upon Nawa and other towns along the lower Helmand River valley 10 days ago in a massive operation to root out the Taliban. Their aim is to combat the insurgency in a new way: Instead of targeting extremist strongholds, they will aim to protect communities from the Taliban.

In Nawa, that means getting life back to normal. If that occurs, military commanders reason, it will be much more difficult for the insurgents to hold sway here.

"We'll be successful when we can walk up and down that street and most shops will be open, there will be a flow of commerce, there will be a recognizable and functioning government, there will be kids in school and doctors in the clinic," said Capt. Frank "Gus" Biggio, a Marine reservist who is on leave from the Washington law firm Patton Boggs to lead a civil-affairs unit in Nawa.

But employing U.S. forces to restore a sense of normalcy in a country ravaged by 30 years of war involves a series of assumptions and a set of challenges that are already proving more complicated than mounting hunt-and-kill missions against the Taliban. Will residents want the Marines to stick around? Will those who do be convinced that the Americans will stay until security improves? Will residents trust the local leaders -- including the police chief, whom one Marine officer calls "the Tony Soprano of Nawa" -- to run the town better than the Taliban?

An affirmative answer to those questions is not at all certain, and it will not just require the Marines to wage a different sort of war. The United States will have to spend billions more dollars to expand training for Afghanistan's army and police forces. Ineffective development programs will have to be overhauled. State Department diplomats and Agriculture Department specialists will need to deploy in larger numbers. And if the approach being employed in the Helmand River valley is extended to other areas under Taliban control, it could well result in the need for thousands more U.S. troops.

Marines have been heartened by the initial indications in Nawa. A dozen stalls have reopened in the market. People have approached patrols to express support for the troop presence. And perhaps most significantly, the Taliban appears to have retreated -- for now.

"Thirty days from now, the people will say: 'Okay. Great. You've cleared the Taliban out. Now what's in it for me?' " said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the comman der of Marine forces in southern Afghanistan. "We have a very narrow window to bring about change."

From his plywood-paneled office at Camp Leatherneck, a sprawling and dusty base in the desert northwest of here, Nicholson understands that the same urgency applies to Washington. Nicholson's superiors -- including National Security Adviser James L. Jones, who recently visited Leatherneck -- are making clear that the clock is ticking: The Obama White House wants results within a year.

Lessons From Anbar

Helmand, Marines here are fond of noting, is the Afghan equivalent of Anbar, the once-lawless province west of Baghdad that was the focus of Marine operations in Iraq. Both are vast desert regions bisected by a river. The populations are tribal and religiously conservative. Criminal activity -- smuggling in Iraq and drug-trafficking in Afghanistan -- is rampant. Cross-border infiltration of fighters and munitions from Syria was a massive problem in Anbar; Pakistan plays that role with Helmand.

Nicholson, a short, solid man with a weathered face and an intense gaze, gained his seminal military experience in Anbar. He was nearly killed there in 2004, when a rocket landed in his base near Fallujah. He returned in 2006 as a regimental commander and helped to implement a tribal outreach strategy that helped quell the violence.

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