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In Afghanistan, why does counterinsurgency work in some places but not others?

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Sunday, July 25, 2010; B01

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- The distance from here to success is only 15 miles.

There, in the community of Nawa, a comprehensive U.S. civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy has achieved what seems to be a miracle cure. Most Taliban fighters have retreated. The district center is so quiescent that U.S. Marines regularly walk around without their body armor and helmets. The local economy is so prosperous, fueled by more than $10 million in American agriculture aid, that the main bazaar has never been busier. Now for sale: shiny, Chinese-made motorcycles and mobile phones. There's even a new ice cream shop.

But here in Marja, the same counterinsurgency strategy has not suppressed the insurgent infection. Dozens of Taliban fighters have stayed in the area, and despite aggressive Marine operations to root them out, they have succeeded in seeding the roads with homemade bombs and sniping at patrols. The insurgent presence has foiled efforts to help and protect the civilian population: Taliban threats -- and a few targeted murders -- have dissuaded many residents from availing themselves of U.S. reconstruction assistance.

In my five trips to the area over the past year, Nawa has felt like progress, while Marja still feels like a war zone. Together, they illustrate the promise and limits of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and the central challenge facing the new U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Marja and Nawa have much in common. Both are home to about 80,000 people, almost all of them ethnic Pashtuns. Both are farming communities where opium-producing poppies have been the cash crop of choice. Both are socially conservative southern Afghan backwaters, where tribal chiefs hold sway and women are rarely seen in public, even in head-to-toe burqas.

Both were stricken by the Taliban insurgency four years ago. And over the past year, both have been treated with America's new counterinsurgency formula: Each community has been flooded with U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces, at troop levels that meet or exceed what counterinsurgency theorists prescribe. Each has received a surge of cash and civilian experts in an effort to provide public services, rebuild infrastructure and dole out basic economic assistance. Each has been described as a priority by the central government in Kabul.

So why did all this work in one but not the other?

U.S. military officials contend that Marja needs more time to resemble Nawa. The Nawa operation began last July; efforts in Marja didn't start until February. But when the Nawa campaign was five months old -- where the Marja mission is now -- the district was just as quiet as it is today. The improvements in Nawa occurred quickly, and they seem to have lasted.

By now, Marja was supposed to be a success story as well, demonstrating to a skeptical public in America and Afghanistan that countering the insurgency with more troops, more money and a new strategy could resuscitate a foundering war. Perhaps more important, counterinsurgency proponents in the Pentagon and the State Department hoped to use both towns to make the case to President Obama that counterinsurgency works in Afghanistan and that he should attenuate -- or postpone outright -- his planned drawdown of troops starting next July.

The uneven progress complicates that case. But so, too, does Nawa, for those who maintain that counterinsurgency won't work in Afghanistan because the government is too corrupt, the security forces too inept and Pashtuns too distrustful of foreign troops.

So, which community is the rule? And which is the exception?

It is tempting, and perhaps fair, to view Marja as an outlier with unique tribal and geographic challenges. A patch of desert in Helmand province that was transformed into farmland by canals designed by American engineers in the 1950s, Marja was populated from scratch by the country's late king with settlers from a variety of tribes. The rank and file moved to Marja, but the chiefs didn't. This decades-old experiment in Afghan social engineering has now complicated efforts to find the same sorts of tribal leaders who influence the population in other Afghan communities. They simply don't exist in Marja.

The network of canals created incredibly fertile land, which initially was used to grow wheat and cotton. Then, in the lawlessness that enveloped the country after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, residents began growing poppies. In recent years, Marja was home to perhaps the largest concentration of poppy fields in Afghanistan, enriching not just farmers but drug processors and smugglers, as well as the Taliban, which levied taxes on the crop.

For the Taliban, Marja was also an ideal location to establish bombmaking factories. The canals and the surrounding desert provided a natural defensive perimeter. It worked for years -- the British troops who were responsible for the area before the U.S. Marines largely stayed out. So did Afghan security forces.

Although there were poppy fields and bomb facilities in Nawa, too, they did not match what existed in Marja; as a result, Nawa may have been easier for the Taliban to abandon. Timing further complicated the Marja mission. When the Marines landed in Nawa, last year's poppy harvest was finished; they arrived in Marja two months before this year's harvest. "Our presence in Marja created an economic catastrophe for the Taliban that led them to fight back," said a senior Marine officer involved in both operations. "The guys in Nawa had a full belly when we showed up."

Marja also served as a retreating ground for insurgents in Nawa who did not forsake the Taliban. It is only a short drive away. For insurgents in Marja, there's no similar sanctuary. To the south and west, it's open desert all the way to the borders with Pakistan and Iran. "For the Taliban, Marja was a case of fight, or drop your weapon and pretend you're a civilian," the officer said. "There was no place for them to go."

Because of those complications, the Marja operation involved far more resources and planning than the push into Nawa. Two Marine battalions and three Afghan army battalions -- more than 3,500 total troops -- were devoted to Marja. Hundreds of Afghan paramilitary police were summoned to help secure the markets once they had been cleared of insurgents. There were a half-dozen U.S. and British civilians, assembled into a "district stabilization team," ready to work on governance and reconstruction. And the U.S. Agency for International Development had millions of dollars earmarked for quick-impact projects and assistance to farmers there.

None of that happened in Nawa. Only one Marine battalion, with a handful of Afghan troops, was sent into the district. There was no civilian stabilization team on standby, no ready spigot of aid money.

Why, then, did the Taliban fold in Nawa? Residents interviewed in the bazaar earlier this year said it was in part because the insurgency enjoyed little support in the community. Locals chafed at the Taliban's taxation, and they grew tired of the near-constant firefights between the insurgents and a team of British police trainers holed up in the district center. Tribal leaders made it clear they wanted the bad guys out, in part so they could reassert themselves as the chief power brokers in the area.

But the residents also emphasized that the Taliban fighters left of their own accord. "They chose to flee from here," said one shopkeeper. "They drove away as soon as the Marines arrived."

Marine officials don't dispute that assessment. "The design [of the Nawa operation] was to allow them to get away," the senior officer said. "There was a built-in release valve."

Nonetheless, Marine commanders contend it was the application of overwhelming force that led the Taliban to depart from Nawa. But even more overwhelming force was applied to Marja, and it didn't achieve the same results.

How, then, can Petraeus create more Nawas? There simply are not enough troops to apply a similar degree of force -- either at a Nawa level or a Marja level -- to dozens of other insurgent-controlled districts in Afghanistan. Even though most of those districts are probably more similar to Nawa than Marja in terms of tribal dynamics and popular sentiment toward the Taliban, it appears that more Nawas will be in the offing only if the Taliban decides to give them up. But the Taliban doesn't seem willing to repeat its abandonment of Nawa anywhere else, and even if it wanted to, there are fewer sanctuaries to which its fighters can retreat as more U.S. forces pour into southern Afghanistan.

Marja may not be representative in terms of geography or drugs or bomb factories, but it may be closer to the norm in one key respect: The Taliban is contesting it.

In that sense, the insurgents themselves possess the power to give us more Nawas. That may not mean Marja is a lost cause, but it does mean it will take much longer to achieve similar results.

Consider Garmsir, the district south of Nawa. It, too, was infested with insurgents, some of whom chose to stay and fight. The Marines arrived there in the summer of 2008 to begin counterinsurgency operations, and it was not until earlier this year -- about 18 months later -- that the area was deemed by Marine commanders to have been cleared of the Taliban. "Garmsir is a better model for what will happen in Marja," the senior Marine officer said. "Nawa is the gold standard, not the example."

In many ways, what happens in Nawa and Marja will be far more indicative of the success of the overall counterinsurgency campaign than what occurs in Kandahar over the next several months. The insurgency in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, is fueled by unique factors -- it is largely a competition for resources and a reaction to government corruption -- that do not mirror the forces driving the conflict elsewhere.

You can't have peace in Afghanistan without pacifying Kandahar, but doing so won't deal a death blow to the insurgency. For that to occur, the roughly two dozen districts in southern Afghanistan in which U.S. and NATO troops are conducting counterinsurgency operations need to look more like Nawa than Marja.

Aides to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, called Nawa his "number one Petri dish." He had hoped the antibodies generated there could be harnessed and replicated. But that hasn't yet happened.

"We all like to think Marja was the exception, but what if it really was a place like Nawa?" wondered a civilian U.S. official in southern Afghanistan. "It doesn't mean the war is lost. It just means that we shouldn't expect everywhere else to turn around overnight."

rajiv@washpost.com

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an associate editor at The Washington Post, covers the war in Afghanistan.

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