Winning Afghans' trust is key
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SEMITAY BAZAAR, Afghanistan -- After the declaration this weekend that the battle for the Taliban enclave of Marjah had been won, for the Marines standing behind sandbags and walking patrols, the more complicated work has begun.
With it will be a test of the strategy selected by President Barack Obama and the generals now running the Afghan war.
After months of preparation for the largest offensive in Afghanistan since 2001, and two weeks of fighting and moving forces around a sprawling desert battlefield, the last pieces of the campaign's opening push into a Taliban enclave had come together by the weekend.
Marine units were finishing sweeps of contested ground, clearing the last stretches of roads of hidden bombs, and reinforcing hastily erected patrol bases and outposts. More Afghan government forces were arriving, increasing the manpower to counter the Taliban fighters engaged in the guerrillas' routine of emplacing booby traps and challenging Marine patrols with hit-and-run fights.
The transition from deliberate combat operations to creating security for the often lackluster Afghan government was under way. A set of tasks more complex than fighting was ahead: encouraging the population of Marjah to accept, much less support, an outside government presence.
"We have a fleeting opportunity to earn limited trust," said Col. Randall P. Newman, who commands the Marine ground forces in Helmand province, in an interview. He summed up the state of relations now: "They don't trust us."
Part of the suspicion was related to the recent military action. Seeking local support would be difficult enough after almost two weeks of fighting, house searches, artillery fire and airstrikes, the Marines said.
But another element of the disaffection reached back further, to previous pledges by the Afghan government to provide services and improve living conditions in Helmand province.
On Friday evening, Col. Newman and Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, who commands the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, met with local men who complained that the government had a record of failing them.
"They told us, 'We've been at this eight years and we've heard a lot of promises,' " Col. Newman said. "From a human standpoint, I can't say I blame them. Trust is earned, not given. We've got to provide."
As part of Mr. Obama's decision last year to increase the U.S. commitment to the war, an increasing number of Marine infantry battalions and their supporting elements have arrived and fanned across the province's villages and the farmland that follows irrigation canals across the arid steppe.
Less than a year ago, much of the area was wholly outside of Afghan government influence. Helmand was Taliban turf. Today, the troop number is still rising. The Marine Corps says nearly 20,000 Marines will be in Helmand before the year's end.
Fundamental to plans for undermining the insurgency is to set up Afghan security forces -- robust, competent, honest, well-equipped and well-led. If such forces can be created, then the plan is to hand them responsibility for the security achieved by the Army and Marines, allowing for a U.S. withdrawal.
But the bad reputation of the Afghan police forces, in particular, along with the spotty performance of Afghan forces in Marjah, suggests that the work and the spending of billions of U.S. dollars to date had not achieved anything like the desired effects.
The Afghans in the meeting with the colonels were blunt. "They said: 'We're with you. We want to help you build. We will support you. But if you bring in the cops, we will fight you till death,' " Col. Newman said.
The plan is to bring in the cops; already they are arriving at U.S.-built outposts.
And so a complex and difficult strategy was evident on the ground.
Even while the Marines continued securing Marjah and its environs, Col. Newman was ordering a shift to engagement: paying Afghans for damage to their homes and shops; holding meetings with elders to discuss development contracts that can be started quickly; and putting Afghans to work at quick projects
First Published March 1, 2010 12:00 am