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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.

Marine commanders and reconstruction experts remain optimistic that the government will start providing services here, but some residents are not waiting for Kabul to act. Last month, McCollough was alarmed by a report of a group of men digging holes along the road from the main irrigation canal to the bazaar. He feared that they were planting roadside bombs, but it turned out they were digging holes for electricity poles. Dozens of merchants had banded together to fund a homegrown hydropower project -- a 12-foot-high water wheel fashioned from metal shipping containers connected to a generator.

To McCollough, the project is a sign that something unique is taking root. If residents were willing to invest, he reasoned, they must feel confident that conditions are going to improve. "This says, 'I believe in my future,' " he said.

Concentration of forces

For the first five years of the Afghanistan war, there were no NATO forces permanently stationed in Nawa. The British military, which became responsible for the area in 2005, did not have enough soldiers on the ground to perform more than occasional operations aimed at flushing out insurgents. When the British left, the Taliban returned.

In 2006, the British sent a team of about 100 soldiers to Nawa, largely to mentor local police and a small contingent of Afghan army personnel. They were quickly outmatched by the Taliban and forced to hunker down in a half-built government office that they said began to feel like the Alamo.

Taliban coffers swelled with protection payments from poppy growers and taxes on their fields, and the insurgents used their wealth to recruit legions of unemployed young men. Some residents openly welcomed the Taliban because a corrupt government and police provided no good alternative.

Then, three months ago, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment arrived. To U.S. commanders, the change in Nawa is the result of overwhelming force and overhauled battlefield strategy. The combined strength of U.S. and Afghan security forces in the district is now about 1,500 for a population of about 75,000 -- exactly the 1-to-50 ratio prescribed by U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine.

McCollough said the concentration of forces, which prompted insurgents to retreat, allows him to practice the sort of counterinsurgency tactics McChrystal wants. Each of the battalion's 36 squads conducts two foot patrols a day to meet residents and reassure them -- often over cups of hot green tea -- that they are safe. "We have enough Marines to shake everyone's hand," McCollough said.

But translating handshakes into public confidence remains a challenge. On a recent afternoon, a team of Marine civil-affairs specialists drove to the village of Pakiran to investigate accusations that Afghan security forces had bombed several pieces of farm equipment. When the Marines approached one farmer to inquire about damage to his water pump, he quickly ushered them into his walled-off compound. "Please don't tell anyone that you have come here," said the farmer, Mohammed Gul, a stout man clad in a black turban and a white shawl.

Gul accepted $300 to repair his shot-up pump, then invited the Marines to stay for tea. Capt. Frank "Gus" Biggio, a Marine reservist on leave from his job as a lawyer in the Washington office of Patton Boggs, peppered Gul with questions to help update a database maintained by the U.S. military command in Kabul.

"What's the biggest problem in this village?" Biggio asked, sitting on a straw mat with Gul. In the first weeks after the Marines arrived, the answer always related to security. But lately, the responses were becoming more varied, which the Marines regard as a sign of progress.

"Water," Gul said. "There's not enough water in the canals to irrigate my fields."

Working on his fourth cup of tea, Biggio suggested that Gul raise his concerns with the district governor, who would be visiting with the Marines soon.

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