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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.

"Don't bring government officials with you," Gul said. "They're not good to us."

Rebuilding local services

The insurgents who left Nawa in July now operate from in and around the town of Marja, 10 miles away, amid a series of north-south canals carved into the sandy desert by the U.S. government in the 1950s and '60s as a way to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan.

The canals helped turn the Helmand River valley into Afghanistan's breadbasket. But wheat fields have been replaced by the highest concentration of opium-producing poppies in Helmand, and the canals now serve as defensive moats that U.S. combat vehicles cannot cross, protecting the drug smugglers and insurgents who have taken shelter there.

"Nawa is only going to get so far as long as their next-door neighbor is Marja," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Helmand.

But clearing out Marja would require more troops than the Marines currently have in Afghanistan. Hopeful that they will receive additional resources, Marine strategists are planning a significant operation in Marja in the coming months.

For now, the Marines are focused on another big risk to progress here -- the lack of basic services. They are working with diplomats and U.N. officials in Kabul to prod key ministries to set up offices in Nawa. The Marines also are setting up their own police training facility in Helmand, working with tribal leaders and local officials to identify solid new recruits and quickly increase the size of the force. Commanders here liken their efforts to the Sons of Iraq program Marines started in Anbar province, but here they are recruiting uniformed police instead of creating tribal militias.

Nonmilitary reconstruction efforts have also begun to gather momentum. The battalion's two civilian advisers are working with a team of U.S.-funded contractors to provide agricultural assistance to farmers, the Obama administration's top priority for Afghan reconstruction. The contractors plan to hand out shovels, gloves and even tractors over the next few months. They hope the goods will increase prosperity and jobs and reduce the number of disaffected young men who want to fight for the Taliban.

"Everyone makes promises to us -- the Americans, our government, even the Taliban," said Mohammed Ekhlas, a snowy-bearded elder of the Noorzai tribe. "If the Marines and the people in our government are true to their words, then there will be peace in Nawa. If not, there will be fighting again."


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