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

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 12:00 AM

IN NAWA, AFGHANISTAN When Gen. David H. Petraeus makes his case that the military's strategy in Afghanistan is succeeding, he cites the evolution of this community of mud-walled homes and wheat fields:

June 2009: In the throes of the Taliban. A few dozen British soldiers holed up inside a small base in the center of Nawa. Nightly gun and grenade fights. Schools and markets closed. Residents terrorized.

The following 17 months: A 1,000-strong surge battalion of U.S. Marines arrives July 2009. Focuses on protecting the civilian population. American and British advisers build local government. Tens of millions of dollars are pumped in to fund reconstruction projects.

Today: One of the safest districts in southern Afghanistan. Marines who live at former British base have not fired a single bullet while on foot patrol in the past five months. Classrooms packed. Bazaar thriving.

Spring 2011: Afghan forces assume principal responsibility for security. Marines provide emergency backup.

To Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, what has occurred here validates his contention that a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy can reverse Taliban momentum and stabilize Afghanistan after years of downward drift. In presentations to senior members of President Obama's national security team who are participating in an evaluation of the war, he has displayed a PowerPoint slide titled, "Nawa: Proof of COIN [counterinsurgency] Concept."

"We started achieving progress with security, then governance, and then citizen confidence - that's literally how it plays out," Petraeus said in a recent interview at his headquarters in Kabul. "It's the kind of progression we're trying to achieve in other areas."

It is undeniable that Nawa has undergone a remarkable transformation since the Marines swept in, and it represents what is possible in Afghanistan when everything comes together correctly. But five visits by this reporter since July 2009 suggest that the changes in this district are fragile and that much of what has transpired here is unique rather than universal.

"Nawa is not like the rest of Afghanistan," said district governor Abdul Manaf. "It is a great success because many things have happened here that have not happened in other places."

The ratio of troops, both American and Afghan, to the population is higher than in most places. The Afghan army battalion that is partnered with the Marine battalion here has greater experience than many other units in the area. And unlike the vast majority of districts, the contingents of Afghan soldiers and policemen are at full strength.

On the civilian side, Nawa is blessed with a far more harmonious relationship among its tribes than most other districts; Manaf is regarded by U.S. and Afghan officials as an unusually competent governor; and the U.S. Agency for International Development has poured in more money here, per capita, for reconstruction and short-term employment projects than any other part of the country.

Many civilian officials who track the war at the White House, the State Department and the CIA remain unconvinced that other parts of Afghanistan will turn around as quickly as Nawa has. They argue that weak local governance, tribal rivalries, inept development projects and incompetent Afghan security forces remain the norm.

Petraeus disagrees. He contends that many of the positive developments in Nawa - improved security, governance and development - can be replicated in the country's other insurgent-controlled districts.

But for those conducting the White House review, a central question is whether this place actually proves that counterinsurgency strategy can work across Afghanistan and end a conflict that has become the longest war in American history.

"It's either a road map for the future, or an alignment of the stars, the likes of which we're unlikely to see anywhere else," said a senior administration official who is participating in the review.

Why Nawa matters

The story of Nawa is only one chapter in a narrative of progress Petraeus is presenting to claim that the United States is finally starting to win a war that it had won but then started to lose.

He points to major security improvements in and around Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, because of operations conducted by newly arrived U.S. soldiers. He notes that secret missions by Special Operations Forces over the past six months have resulted in the death or capture of hundreds of mid-level Taliban leaders, resulting in growing demoralization among insurgent commanders. And he expresses optimism about a new 20,000-man village defense program that is expanding law enforcement into areas the police do not patrol.

(View an interactive graphic describing the state of the Afghan war.)

Despite the incipient signs of progress, Afghanistan still remains a violent, chaotic nation with as many signs of American defeat as of victory. There were, on average, more than 75 insurgent attacks on U.S., NATO or Afghan forces every day this summer - a rate significantly higher than last year. Assassinations of government officials and people working with international troops and development firms are an almost-daily occurrence.

Late last year, the NATO command decided to concentrate its efforts on several dozen "key terrain" districts. Not only have most of those places not improved, but Taliban activity, once concentrated in the south and east, has metastasized to northern and western parts of the country.

Military commanders express confidence that their counterinsurgency strategy, coupled with the additional troops authorized by Obama, will eventually turn the tide. But they acknowledge that their efforts could come to naught if Pakistan does not eliminate sanctuaries for Afghan Taliban on its side of the border, and if President Hamid Karzai's government does not seize the opportunity afforded by improved security in places such as Kandahar to improve civil administration by cracking down on corruption and appointing more qualified people to official posts. Thus far, there is little sign of progress on either front.

One possible solution may be a power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Although recent attempts to kick off a dialogue faltered after Afghan officials discovered that they had been meeting with an imposter, not with the group's second in command, U.S. officials still hold out hope for a peace settlement. If it happens, however, it could rile Afghans who are not ethnic Pashtuns - about half the country consists of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - and possibly plunge the nation into another civil war.

That is why Nawa becomes so important. If Afghanistan is to achieve a semblance of stability without a negotiated end to the conflict, more districts need to look like this one. What has occurred in Nawa over the past 17 months highlights what needs to break America's way in order to win the war.

Continued lawlessness

The Taliban didn't put up much of a fight.

When the Marines arrived in July 2009, most of the insurgents who lorded over the district fled to the neighboring district of Marja. Others buried their weapons and blended back into the community. Very few decided to challenge the Marines, and those who did usually wound up dead.

The Marines also got lucky with the Afghan army. The battalion sent to Nawa had been part of a national drug-eradication force. They did not have extensive military training, but the soldiers had worked together for more than a year, yielding a degree of cohesion that few other units sent to southern Afghanistan had.

After months of joint operations with the Marines, the Afghans have been deemed capable enough to take charge of five small patrol bases - the first step in a gradual process of transition to full Afghan control over the district. The next phase, which could occur as early as the spring, would involve moving most of the Marines here to bases in the surrounding desert, where they would be available to provide emergency backup for Afghan soldiers and to interdict insurgents seeking to enter the area.

The police are far more ragged. Until just a few months ago, this district of 75,000 people had two rival chiefs: One controlled the northern half; the other had the south. Both men have been removed and replaced with a new commander, but most officers still remain loyal to their old bosses.

In the southern village of Pinjadoo, the police "have no loyalty" to the new commander, said Lt. Brad Franko, who serves as a mentor to the force. Most of them, he said, are related to the previous chief, Ahmed Shah, who "is like the Godfather here."

The area is quiet, Franko said, because Shah's men have struck a deal with the Taliban to conduct their operations elsewhere. "The Taliban don't come here to mess with these guys, and in return these guys don't mess with the Taliban," he said.

The town of Nawa - home to the base from which Marines on foot patrol have not fired a bullet in five months - has seen almost no insurgent activity this year, but criminal behavior has been growing, prompting concern among some U.S. and Afghan officials because the Taliban has successfully pitched itself in the past as an antidote to lawlessness. More than half of the new solar-powered streetlights installed by USAID are not working because their batteries have been stolen.

Even more worrisome was the nighttime robbery of the district's largest money changer. His shop is directly across from the police station, and many people here believe the culprits were officers loyal to the former northern chief. But there is no conclusive evidence.

"I trusted the Marines when they said they would bring security," said the money changer, Abdul Sattar. "But Nawa doesn't feel secure."

The situation is more problematic outside the main town. The Taliban may not be here in large numbers or with the same arsenal of roadside bombs as in other places, but they have managed to sow fear with a flurry of nighttime warning letters and a few well-aimed bullets. One recent victim was the training coordinator for a USAID-funded agriculture project who was assassinated as he prayed in his neighborhood mosque.

"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.

Akhundzada's supporters, who include aides to Karzai, dispute the U.S. characterization of his tenure and insist that the province would be safer today if he had been left in control.

After two incompetent replacements, Karzai eventually gave the job of governor to Gulab Mangal, who had run two smaller provinces with distinction. With the help of the British and later the Marines, Mangal set out to improve Helmand's government by appointing more competent district leaders - Manaf has a physics degree from Kabul University - and focusing on delivering basic services to the population.

That has helped Mangal build popular support. But even more significant is that he is regarded by many Helmandis as the first leader who has been willing to stand up to Akhundzada - and, by extension, Karzai, whom people here fault for appointing Akhundzada. In Nawa, there may be no Karzai photo on the wall, but there is a giant poster of Mangal in the hallway leading to the district governor's office.

Many people here said they are willing to put some faith in their local government because they believe it is not simply an extension of the corrupt order in Kabul. "The central government does not help us," said motorcycle salesman Juma Gul. "The only one who does is Governor Mangal."

Mangal's popularity has rubbed off on Manaf, who has thus far managed to run the district without favoring one tribe or clan, as so many other local leaders do in Afghanistan. Manaf's strategy has been to ingratiate himself with the Marines, persuade them to pour millions of dollars into the district for reconstruction projects and then tell the population that he is bringing them much-needed jobs and services. The Marines have not objected.

"He's an effective leader who is doing what any politician would," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Holt, the commander of the Marine battalion here.

Manaf has been aided by Nawa's relatively stable tribal dynamics. The majority Barakzai get along with the smaller tribes in the area. All of them are represented on a 45-member community council, and the elders have been generally willing to work with Manaf to spread the spoils of development projects in an equitable way.

Because central Nawa is so quiet, representatives from several key government ministries, including education, health and agriculture, have arrived in the district - a feat that has occurred in few other districts in southern Afghanistan. The Marines have set up trailers for them to live and work in, although they still lack budgets. A program to provide them money for projects, which is funded by the British government, has not been implemented here because of delays by the central government, despite promises from officials in Kabul last year that it would start within months.

"We keep waiting for word from Kabul," Manaf said.

For the Marines and international civilian reconstruction advisers, perhaps the biggest worry about the government in Nawa is Manaf's health. He was hospitalized earlier this year because of high blood pressure and other issues, but he is doing little to remedy his condition. He still consumes two meals a day of fried chicken enrobed in an inch-thick layer of palm oil. He has refused the Marines' entreaties to exercise on a new concrete track that circles the helicopter pad at the base next to his office. And he frequently mixes the medicines he receives from a Navy corpsman with pills his aide buys at the bazaar.

"We're one heart attack away from a really big problem," said one of the advisers.

Buying goodwill

Good government and stable tribal relations are only part of the story of why Nawa is so quiet. A multimillion-dollar U.S.-funded economic stimulus that has won over much of the population.

In the past year, the Marines and the U.S. Agency for International Development have spent more than $20 million in this district. The money has been used to hire more than 16,000 men for short-term manual labor projects, provide farmers with seeds and fertilizer, equip agricultural cooperatives with new tractors and transform rutted dirt roads into smoother gravel ones so farmers can take their goods to market. Over the next year, the military plans to invest $22 million more to rebuild the road connecting Nawa to Helmand's capital.

The financial assistance has had a direct impact on security: Because seemingly everyone who wants a job has one, many young men have opted to stop working for the Taliban. The cash infusion has also led to increased economic activity in the bazaar. Many residents now have enough disposable income to buy motorcycles and mobile phones.

But there are signs of a growing dependency on the largess of the Americans. When Manaf wants something, he asks the Marines, even when it is something as trivial as a new fabric awning for stalls in the market. Although awnings are something that Afghans have fashioned for centuries out of straw, the Marines agreed to pay, as they do with many of his requests, because they want the people to appreciate Manaf, and in turn, they want Manaf to appreciate the Americans.

"We need this money because the government in Kabul doesn't do anything for us," Manaf said. "The people here support me and Governor Mangal. We should give them something in return."

There is broad concern here about what will happen when USAID's large agriculture program, which has been the principal source of subsidized seeds and day-labor jobs, ends in the spring. USAID officials hoped that the program would allow farmers to employ additional workers on their own, but it does not appear much new employment has been created, certainly nowhere near enough to address the needs here.

A senior USAID official said the agency is readying a massive vocational-training effort to help residents of Nawa and other parts of southern Afghanistan find work or start businesses.

Manaf said he is "very worried" about the end of the agriculture handouts. "If the Americans end their cash-for-work programs, people will go back to fighting for the Taliban," he said.

He is similarly concerned about Marine plans to reduce their presence in the populated parts of the district and pull back to bases in the desert. Although the transition would give him more authority, he remains doubtful that Afghan security forces will be able to prevent a Taliban resurgence.

"We want to be like Japan or Germany," he said. "The Americans should keep their bases here to protect us."

As he proudly showed off framed photographs on his office wall of himself with Marine officers, Manaf said he recognizes that his district has turned into a showpiece for the counterinsurgency strategy, and that means pressure to show it can survive with fewer U.S. troops. But he warned against pushing it too quickly.

"If you move too fast here, the Taliban will return - for sure," he said. "Then what have you proven?"

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