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.
Ghulan Hazrat, an Afghan National Police commander temporarily in Mianposhteh with six of his men, sat on a mat in a deserted shop at the bazaar, eating candy and drinking tea.
The Marines' operation, Hazrat said, has been only "a limited success" because so many Taliban insurgents are still operating in the area, he said. "You can see the condition of the district. It's very dangerous," he said. Far more Afghan and U.S. forces will be required to pacify the volatile area, he predicted.
"We won't get peace until we have checkpoints everywhere and can fight the Taliban everywhere," he said.
In surrounding villages, the ambivalence of Afghans is palpable amid the lack of security.
During a recent patrol with MacDonald's squad, he was met with an exasperated look from Abdullah, an elder with a dark green turban and dishdasha.
"What are you doing here?" he asked through an interpreter. "What are you doing in Afghanistan? You should go back to your country."
"What do you mean, what am I doing here? I'm here to get the Taliban out of here," MacDonald replied.
"There is no Taliban here," the elder said, contradicting earlier statements about being afraid of the Taliban. Others nodded, shaking sets of worry beads.
After half an hour of this debate, MacDonald had had enough. "Alright, listen to me right now," he told the farmers gathered here. "You all are not cooperating. . . . I am going to believe right now that the Taliban does come here and you are on their side."
Promising to return, MacDonald left with his squad.
In another village, the patrol met with a bricklayer building a house, and MacDonald had a similarly difficult conversation.
"We are afraid of the fighting," the bricklayer said.
"Tell the Taliban to stay away," MacDonald urged, taking off his helmet and wiping his forehead. But the bricklayer said he was as powerless to influence the Taliban as he was the Marines.
"We can't tell you that you should go from here, just like the Taliban," he said. "We can't tell them to go from here or they will kill us."
Meanwhile, there are still communities near the U.S. outpost that the Marines are visiting for the first time after years of Taliban rule.
One recent morning, Meador decided to visit for the first time a village north of his outpost, partly to drum up support for the market. The two-mile patrol to the village required advance security from a contingent of Afghan soldiers and elements of three Marine platoons. One platoon was ambushed just outside the village, and two Marines were wounded and evacuated.
Meador did not know who the village elder was, illustrating a lack of U.S. intelligence on the rural communities of the Helmand River Valley. Villagers led him to the elder, Haji Fada Mohammed, who refused to meet inside his home but offered to talk sitting under a tree in his field.
"There are Taliban everywhere," Mohammed said. "If I tell you who they are, I will be in danger." As for the Mianposhteh bazaar, Mohammed was doubtful. "If anyone opens their shop, the Taliban will cut their heads off. The shopkeepers are scared," he said. Urged by Meador to encourage store owners to return anyway, he said he would, but added: "We need time."
As Meador left the village, he worried about another Taliban attack and questioned whether Mohammed's willingness to help was genuine. "We'll see if that's just talk," he said, emphasizing that the security his Marines provide can go only so far without support from ordinary Afghans, who he acknowledges are preoccupied with survival.
"I don't think we'll see a thriving Mianposhteh market in our time. . . . The unit that relieves me will see that," he said. "Such is the long nature of counterinsurgency."