Taliban Pushed Out, U.S. Troops Turn to a More Civil Challenge

U.S. Marines launched a pre-dawn mission in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province in an effort to wrest control of the area from Taliban insurgents.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 18, 2009

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- When the U.S. Marines burst into Khan Neshin with guns blazing early this month, they quickly defeated insurgent forces in the volatile district of southern Helmand province and declared it Taliban-free.

But the military assault also left a void that urgently needed to be filled and a host of problems that posed very different challenges. There was no sign of official services or control in the long-conflicted region: no aid agencies, no judges to settle land disputes and no officials to register voters for presidential elections next month.

The Marines, drawing on their experiences in Iraq and working closely with British forces and newly arrived teams of U.S. civilian specialists, did not let Khan Neshin languish for long. Within several days they had sent in a small international "stabilization team," installed a new Afghan district governor and raised an Afghan flag in the central market.

"This fight must not be focused on the Taliban but on the people," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary force in Helmand, speaking Thursday at a base near this provincial capital. As soon as an area is cleared of insurgents, he said, "the key is how to quickly reach into a community that has been terrorized, that is not sure whether the Taliban will come back and whether we will stay."

But while U.S. and British officials in Helmand told U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry during a day-long visit that the Khan Neshin operation could be a "model" for Washington's new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, they also cautioned that an equally important element -- the effective establishment of Afghan authority and services in former insurgent strongholds -- is still badly lacking.

The officials said several factors, including a lack of qualified and educated workers in the remote province, a shortage of housing and office facilities for professionals from larger cities like Kandahar or Kabul, and a series of tensions and rivalries among various Afghan agencies, were impeding the kind of follow-up needed to convince residents that the Afghan government is credible, committed and a better alternative than the Taliban.

"What we need is to put visible Afghan government in these areas," John Weston, a U.S. civilian aide in Helmand who also worked in Iraq, told Eikenberry and two Western journalists who traveled with him. "Later we can work on making it accountable and effective." Without a solid Afghan presence, he added, "we will have a lot of well-meaning Americans doing good things, but it will be a trap."

The combination of a major new military campaign involving 4,000 Marines and a fledgling application of Washington's new civilian-oriented strategy here make Helmand a critical and closely watched laboratory for the wider application of U.S. policy in Afghanistan during a year that will be critical to the country's political future and stability.

U.S. and NATO officials are especially eager to ensure that at least a substantial portion of Helmand's adults will be able to vote for president and provincial council members on Aug. 20 despite the threat of insurgent attacks. They are worried that a low turnout here could dangerously skew the ethnic breakdown of election results.

The officials said they have received special permission to keep registering voters in Helmand as they are liberated from Taliban control, even though the registration deadline has long passed. They predicted that 50 to 60 polling stations would be open and that up to 80 percent of the population might be able to vote.

But Helmand has far more entrenched problems than an election can cure, and both foreign troops and Afghan officials here face an array of local adversaries in addition to the Taliban -- a situation that makes Helmand a unique and especially daunting place to test the new U.S. strategy.

First, the province is a vast and lawless desert bordering Iran, which makes it ideal for international smuggling and spying. More important, it is the central stronghold of Afghanistan's highly lucrative opium production and trafficking industry, whose powerful leaders have formed ties with Taliban forces and provincial officials.

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