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Nawa turns into proving ground for U.S. strategy in Afghan war

The military calls the area a model of counterinsurgency strategy. But many civilian U.S. officials who track the war remain unconvinced about Nawa as a template for other frontiers.
Nathaniel Vaughn Kelson/The Washington Post - Dec. 12, 2010

"The Marines feel safe, but the ordinary people in Nawa do not," said Khawanin, the headmaster of the main school in the district. He has started varying the routes he travels from his house to the school. "If the Taliban decide to kill you, there's nothing the Americans will be able to do about it."

Despite repeated Marine operations to flush them out, bands of Taliban fighters remain in the treeless desert between Nawa and Marja. Their ability to roam through the more-populated agricultural areas along the Helmand River remains limited, although they still have been able to plant roadside bombs and snipe at Marine patrols. "The enemy does want to come back," Petraeus said.

U.S. Special Operations Forces have targeted the bomb-laying cells repeatedly, providing the Marines with three to four weeks of relative calm until a new group moves in and resumes attacks, the officials said. "The SOF guys are getting a lot of them, but they're regenerating almost as fast as we can kill or capture them," said one military officer familiar with the operations.

Of particular concern to some officers is that improvements in security are not spreading beyond the farming villages along the river. In the White House debate over the troop surge last fall, senior military leaders promised that counterinsurgency operations eventually would enlarge a zone of safety as blots of ink spread on a map.

"The ink blot isn't growing by itself," the officer said. "The only reason it's expanding is because we're adding more ink."

A friendly governor

Unlike most other government buildings in Afghanistan, there is no portrait of President Hamid Karzai on the whitewashed walls of district governor Manaf's office.

"People here don't like Karzai. His government is filled with snakes and spiders," said one local leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from the president's allies. But that attitude may be a key reason why things are working so well in Nawa.

In 2002, Karzai appointed a five-foot-tall warlord, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, as the governor of Helmand province, which encompasses Nawa district. Akhundzada, who hails from a family of wealthy landowners that has long ruled the province, rose to prominence as a commander in the armed resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

In an account corroborated by U.S. intelligence analysts, several residents said his rule, which largely involved consolidating control over Helmand's opium production network, was so brutal and corrupt - his sidekick police chief ran the force as a personal militia - that many residents invited the Taliban to return to the province. By 2004, much of Helmand was under insurgent control.

In 2005, the British government insisted that Karzai remove Akhundzada as a condition of deploying NATO forces to Helmand. The president initially objected. Then nine tons of opium were found in Akhundzada's basement. He was sacked, but he remains a close adviser to Karzai.

On his way out, the analysts said, he told many of his militiamen to join forces with the Taliban to protect his drug interests and drive out the British.


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