In Helmand, Caught Between U.S., Taliban

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

MIANPOSHTEH, Afghanistan -- U.S. Marines pushing into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province are running up against a skeptical Afghan population heavily influenced by Taliban insurgents, signaling a long campaign ahead.

Afghan villagers, many of whom fled the Marines' advance, say they feel caught in a tug of war between U.S. forces and the Taliban, and are fearful of both. The Afghans, primarily illiterate farmers who tend livestock and crops in the irrigated lands alongside the Helmand River, often say they simply want to be left in peace.

The Afghan government and its forces, meanwhile, are nonexistent in large parts of Helmand where the Marines are operating, undermining efforts to bolster governance and development. Residents are largely self-governing or are under the sway of the Taliban, with security too tenuous in many places for the government to establish a presence, U.S. officers say.

"We are in the early-crawl phase of counterinsurgency right now," said Capt. Eric Meador, 37, of Jones County, Miss., who commands Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment here.

"The people are very skittish" and unsure that the Marines will stay, Meador said. "As far as the people not wanting the Taliban, it depends on who you ask."

The difficulty Marines face in making the Afghans feel safe is epitomized by the deserted dirt road and lonely rows of shuttered shops in what used to be the bazaar in Mianposhteh, a cluster of villages in Taliban territory now occupied by Echo Company.

When the Marines arrived by helicopter in Mianposhteh in early July, the population fled en masse, walking or riding on tractors into the desert that borders their farmlands. The bazaar, too, was abandoned.

Weeks after Meador and his company fought to occupy an old school whose walls displayed Taliban slogans, he estimates that slightly more than half of the residents have returned. The bazaar, which lies just outside the gate of the Marine outpost and is under watch 24 hours a day, remains vacant. Indeed, shopkeepers emptied their shelves of food and other goods after the Taliban threatened execution for anyone who went to the marketplace, according to several Afghan residents.

"The Taliban told us not to go to the market or we will be killed," a white-bearded elder in a nearby village told a passing patrol led by Marine Sgt. Christopher MacDonald, 22, of Woodbridge. Hooded Taliban "spies" come into the village at night to issue such warnings, he said.

Instead of shopping at the Mianposhteh bazaar, villagers are told to frequent the Taliban-controlled bazaar at Lakari a few miles south, the elder said. MacDonald urged him and other farmers to resist the Taliban's threats. "Stop going down there [to Lakari] and start going here," he said, his voice edged with frustration. "How do you know you will be shot if you go to the market" in Mianposhteh?

Although Marines constantly watch the bazaar, there are too few U.S. and Afghan forces to guard or regularly visit all the surrounding villages where shopkeepers and customers live.

"More forces, whether Afghan or American, would help," Meador acknowledged. In addition to his company, there are about 30 Afghan soldiers and a handful of Afghan police in Mianposhteh, where about 3,000 people live.

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