Obama's War: McChrystal's Petri dish

In Helmand, a model for success?

The Afghan district of Nawa, where the number of U.S. troops has gone from about 100 to 1,100, offers a ground-level perspective into the debate over U.S. force levels and counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

NAWA, Afghanistan -- Before a battalion of U.S. Marines swooped into this dusty farming community along the Helmand River in early July, almost every stall in the bazaar had been padlocked, as had the school and the health clinic. Thousands of residents had fled. Government officials and municipal services were nonexistent. Taliban fighters swaggered about with impunity, setting up checkpoints and seeding the roads with bombs.

In the three months since the Marines arrived, the school has reopened, the district governor is on the job and the market is bustling. The insurgents have demonstrated far less resistance than U.S. commanders expected. Many of the residents who left are returning home, their possessions piled onto rickety trailers, and the Marines deem the central part of the town so secure that they routinely walk around without body armor and helmets.

"Nawa has returned from the dead," said the district administrator, Mohammed Khan.

Nawa provides one ground-level perspective into the debate over U.S. force levels in Afghanistan among members of President Obama's national security team. In this district, the war is being waged in the manner sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan: The number of troops went from about 100 to 1,100, and they have been countering the insurgency by focusing on improving security for local people instead of hunting down the Taliban.

The result has been a profound transformation, suggesting that after eight years of war the United States still may be able to regain momentum in some areas that had long been written off to the Taliban. Insurgent attacks on civilians and NATO forces, once a near-daily fact of life here, have almost ceased in Nawa and are far less common than they were in surrounding areas, a turnabout reminiscent of what happened in Iraq last year after a sharp increase in American forces there.

But even if Nawa remains peaceful, replicating what has occurred here may not be possible. Achieving the same troop-to-population ratio in other insurgent strongholds across southern and eastern Afghanistan would require at least 100,000 more U.S. or NATO troops -- more than double the 40,000 being sought by McChrystal -- as well as many thousands of additional Afghan security forces.

Nawa also is blessed with stable social dynamics -- the three principal tribes in the area largely get along -- and it has a district governor whom the Marines regard as unusually competent. The Helmand River valley contains some of Afghanistan's most fertile land, enabling reconstruction workers to improve livelihoods through agricultural assistance programs.

"We have to be very careful when we say we want to use Nawa as a model," said Ian Purves, a British development specialist who advises the battalion. "First off, will Nawa work as we want? And even if it does, there's no guarantee what we're doing here will work anywhere else."

The turnaround here remains fragile. Marine commanders in Nawa acknowledge that their gains could melt away if the Afghan government and security forces do not move quickly to deliver essential public services, or if U.S. troop levels are reduced here before stability is cemented. Many of the insurgents who left Nawa in July have taken refuge 10 miles to the northwest.

"The bone has not healed," said Lt. Col. William McCollough, the battalion commander. "If you take the cast off, it's going right back to a catastrophic situation."

McChrystal has not proclaimed Nawa a success or even cited it in discussions with White House officials as a justification for more troops, mindful that similar assertions have been made in other parts of the country only to have those areas slip back into insurgent control. But no Marine from the battalion in Nawa has been killed in combat since late August, even as U.S. troop fatalities have spiked in other parts of Afghanistan. McChrystal and other senior military officials in Afghanistan hope that what is happening amid the canals and cornfields in this patch of southern Afghanistan is different and can be applied elsewhere. Nawa, one of his aides said, is "his number one petri dish."

Skeptics of McChrystal's strategy worry that the Afghan government will not move with haste to take advantage of security improvements created by the United States. Despite repeated requests, the government in Kabul has not sent officials to Nawa to help on issues that matter most to local people: education, health, agriculture and rural development.

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