Defense Secretary Gates greets troops, tours Afghan 'city that had been dead'

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

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 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. Larry 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 that 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 Taliban fighters from the city, located in Helmand province. But the land mines that remain 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 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 some 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 months ago, the city was 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 people now live in the city.

U.S. officials have plans to refurbish 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."

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