Gates tours broken, abandoned market that has come to symbolize progress in Afghanistan

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; 3:27 PM

NOW ZAD, AFGHANISTAN -- This southern Afghan city has been touted as a symbol of the progress U.S. troops have made in recent weeks. But when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates swung through the main market on Tuesday, it seemed mostly to be a symbol of the work that remains to be done.

One of the main streets was empty. Shopkeepers' stalls were abandoned. There was no electricity and no sewer system.

Still, Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, who escorted Gates through town, said: "This represents the rebirth of a city that had been dead."

Although Now Zad hardly appeared to be the picture of health, senior Marine officials pointed out it had been a virtual no-go zone for U.S. and Afghan government forces for the past four years; the Taliban had seeded the city with as many as 5,000 land mines, which kept large swaths of Now Zad off-limits to average Afghans.

In December, though, Marines mounted a major push to drive the Taliban from the area and reestablish an Afghan government presence. The operation, dubbed "Cobra's Anger," helped clear out Taliban fighters from the city, located in Helmand province. But the land mines that remain in the city have slowed the return of locals who had fled. Even now, on most days, only about 70 of the 1,500 shops in the Now Zad's main bazaar are currently up and running.

Dressed in a blue-and-white-striped shirt, khaki pants and a blue Marine Corps baseball cap, Gates chatted with a half-dozen shopkeepers in Now Zad who were manning their small stalls. Spools of razor wire ran down the middle of the street. Helicopters circled overhead and a squad of Marines, carrying rifles, stood watch on the roofs of nearby buildings

"I am glad your shop is open," Gates told one shopkeeper whose small store consisted of a few bottles of soda and a few boxes of potatoes. The store owner told Gates that the massive number of land mines left behind by the Taliban was making it difficult for local residents to return to the city and for him to restock his store. Most of the shopkeeper's customers were local Afghan army and police officers.

As Gates chatted with the shopkeeper, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the second highest-ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan, bought a soda from the market stall. He was the only customer.

Asked about the absence of people on the streets during his visit, Gates said that he tried to remind himself that when the Marines pushed into Now Zad town months ago the city was completely devoid of Afghan citizens and under the control of insurgents.

Nicholson, the brigadier general escorting the secretary, said that a "security bubble," designed to protect Gates, had made the streets appear more desolate and deserted than normal. "I wish you could come back tomorrow," the Marine commander told reporters. "We call this [place] the Christmas miracle."

Marines said that about 15 families a day were returning to Now Zad, which prior to 2006 was home to about 20,000 people. About 1,000 residents currently live in the city.

U.S. officials have plans to refurbish the local government offices, the city's main mosque and the area's irrigation canal system, said Marine Capt. Andrew Terrell. But the reconstruction work can't begin until local Afghan firms clear the town of explosives. The Marines said that the de-mining work will provide jobs to dozens of Afghans.

Despite the difficult conditions in town, Gates said that his trip to southern Afghanistan and his walk through the Now Zad market reinforced to him that U.S. forces were now on the right path in Afghanistan. "This is a poor country to start with and has been through 30 years of war," he said. "So it is important to keep some context and perspective here. It seems to me that somebody having a roof over their head and being able to work their farm and send their children to school for a lot of Afghans today sounds like a pretty good life."

Prior to visiting Now Zad, Gates visited a U.S. base just north of Kandahar, which is likely to be the site of a major push by U.S. and NATO forces this summer. He met with troops from an 800-soldier Stryker battalion from which 21 soldiers had been killed and 62 wounded during its deployment, making it one of the hardest-hit units of the nine-year war. The battalion, which had been focused on clearing a dense sector of farmland and irrigation canals of entrenched Taliban forces, was recently reassigned to provide security on the main roads surrounding Kandahar. Since its reassignment, the unit had suffered fewer serious casualties.

Surrounded by soldiers in dirty camouflage uniforms, Gates praised the battalion for its resilience in the face of heavy losses and noted that the unit's commander had written with a series of suggestions for bolstering its armored vehicles against roadside bomb attacks.

Gates also told the troops that they would face more tough missions in the near future as U.S. forces and Afghan forces focused on driving the Taliban from the districts around Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.

"Once again you will be the tip of the spear," he told the troops.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company