Mar 18, 2010

Taliban Fighting Back in Marjah

Taliban Hit Back In Marja With A Campaign Of Intimidation
By Rod Nordland
New York Times
March 18, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban have begun waging a campaign of intimidation in Marja that some local Afghan leaders worry has jeopardized the success of an American-led offensive there meant as an early test of a revised military approach in Afghanistan.

The Taliban tactics have included at least one beheading in a broader effort to terrorize residents and undermine what military officials have said is the most important aim of the offensive: the attempt to establish a strong local government that can restore services. The offensive ousted the Taliban from control of their last population center in southern Helmand Province, but maintaining control over such territory has proved elusive in the past.

Though Marja has an occupation force numbering more than one coalition soldier or police officer for every eight residents, Taliban agitators have been able to wage an underground campaign of subversion, which residents say has intensified in the past two weeks.

“After dark the city is like the kingdom of the Taliban,” said a tribal elder living in Marja, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of the Taliban. “The government and international forces cannot defend anyone even one kilometer from their bases.”

The new governor of Marja, Haji Abdul Zahir, said the militants were now holding meetings in randomly selected homes roughly every other night, gathering residents together and demanding that they turn over the names of anyone cooperating with the authorities.

Mr. Zahir said the Taliban also regularly issued “night letters,” posted at mosques or on utility poles, warning against such collaboration, and often intimidated residents into providing them with shelter and food, even in densely populated neighborhoods of the city, which has a population of 80,000.

“They are threatening and intimidating these people who are cooperating,” he said in a telephone interview. “They have been involved in the area for a long time and they know how to intimidate people. They threaten them with beheadings, cutting off hands and feet, all the things they did when they were the government.”

More than 6,000 American soldiers, Marines and British soldiers fought their way into Marja beginning Feb. 13, along with thousands of Afghan troops and police officers. Many others have reinforced the occupation since to protect an influx of Afghan officials and Western experts to build an effective government in Marja. That effort to win over the local populace is at the heart of the American and Afghan government strategy, and NATO officials have said it is proceeding well.

Journalists have still not been allowed to visit Marja independently; they must be embedded with the American military. Marja is meant to be a template for a similar campaign aimed for spring in neighboring Kandahar Province, the Taliban’s heartland.

NATO and Marine Corps spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the situation in Marja.

Mr. Zahir said it was difficult for the authorities to counter the Taliban’s campaign because the militants were mostly moving around without guns, relying on fear rather than threats. “If they are detained, they claim they are just ordinary citizens,” he said. “At the same time, they still have a lot of sympathy among the people.”

He said it was impossible to estimate how many Taliban fighters remained in the city. “It’s like an ant hole,” he said. “When you look into an ant hole, who knows how many ants there are?”

The tribal elder declared that in his area, called Block 5, the Taliban had complete freedom of movement after dark. He said he believed that was true in many other parts of the city as well. He and the governor were among five community leaders in Marja who expressed similar concerns about the Taliban intimidation campaign.

On March 10, the elder said, a resident of the same area named Nissar Ahmad, 25, was abducted from his home and beheaded, and his body was dumped at night next to the main local school, where residents would be certain to see it in the morning.

“I saw his body myself,” the elder said, adding that he had heard of other beheadings. Mr. Ahmad had previously been a Taliban supporter but had switched allegiance after the city fell, the elder said.

Mr. Zahir dismissed reports of beheadings as rumors. Mr. Ahmad, he maintained, was killed as the result of a personal dispute. However, he said there had been Taliban beatings, including that of a teacher at a new school who was severely beaten on Tuesday.

Walid Jan Sabir, the Afghan member of Parliament for Marja and the surrounding Nad Ali District, said he had heard reports from Marja elders visiting his office in Kabul this week of two beheadings of pro-government elders, both members of the government’s Community Development Council.

Mr. Sabir scoffed at Mr. Zahir’s denial of beheadings, saying, “He is not from the area and he is only staying in his office so he doesn’t know what is happening.” Mr. Zahir lived for many years in Germany, where court officials said he was jailed for stabbing a stepson. Mr. Zahir has denied that.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Zemarai Bashary, said the police in Marja had been told to investigate the beheading reports.

“We don’t know if it’s one person or many cases and many persons, but we are investigating and we will soon have an answer,” he said.

The Marja elder also said there were many accounts of the Taliban’s forcing residents to attend night meetings where they threatened retaliation against anyone cooperating with the government or NATO and warned that anyone who took even a low-paying government job would have his earnings confiscated. Mr. Zahir said there were many accounts of such confiscations from new employees in government work programs.

The elder said most people in Marja supported the government’s efforts to restore control, but most were also afraid to challenge the Taliban.

“I’m not saying the Taliban will win this war,” he said. “If the government strengthens their positions and creates small bases all over town close to one another and then permanently patrols between these bases, they can get rid of the Taliban.”

Mr. Sabir was critical of American and Afghan forces for surrendering the night. “At night the local people are the hostages of the Taliban,” he said. Since many tribal leaders have fled out of fear, and many of the Afghan officials coming in now are not from Marja, it is difficult for them to know who the Taliban activists are.

“The Taliban and the Marja residents all have beards and turbans so it’s impossible to distinguish them,” he said. “If it goes on like this I’m sure the situation will deteriorate and we’ll find it’s chaos there again.”

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul, and an employee of The New York Times from Helmand Province.

Mar 17, 2010

The Glimmers of Success in Marjah

Marine Foward Operating Base Marjah Takes Root
By Dion Nissenbaum
Checkpoint Kabul (
March 16, 2010

When U.S. Marines set up shop in the ruins of a Marjah high school after pushing Taliban rulers out of power, they were hoping to be welcome

Instead, they were forced to quickly pack up after local residents complained directly to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that not even the Taliban took over schools when they controlled this area.

The Marines thought the government-owned chunk of dirt nearby might be better. But that drew complaints that the Americans were taking over the site of a weekly flea market.

Once they sorted through that problem, they ran into a protest from local farmers who wanted the Marines to stop using a nearby poppy field as a helicopter landing zone. Then their new neighbors came out to grumble about the route of the Marine compound wall.

At every turn, the U.S. Marines called on Maj. David Fennell to calm down angry Afghans and try to broker a happy compromise.

“We’re just trying to be good neighbors,” the 36-year-old Denver reservist told anxious Afghan neighbors who came out last weekend to make sure the wall of the newest Marine forward operating base wouldn’t cut through a path connecting two parts of Marjah.

Using his skills as one-time trial lawyer, a few essential Pashto words, an evolving understanding of local tribal culture, and backpacks stuffed with Afghan money, Fennell is at the forefront of the next phase of the American-led campaign to transform this Taliban heartland into a critical wedge of pro-Western stability in Helmand province.

“Every day that we are able to walk around freely with the population solving their problems is a day we take away from the Taliban,” said Fennell, a laid-back Marine who sports a (technically out-of-regulation) mustache as one way to score points with the bearded Marjah men he deals with every day.

Marines here understand that they don’t have much time. They have to convince wary Marjah residents that the U.S. military won’t soon shift strategy again and relinquish this agricultural region to lurking Taliban forces.

They’ve seen the U.S.-led coalition take over parts of Helmand before and then quickly withdraw, allowing the Taliban to return to power and punish residents who risked their lives to work with the Westerners.

This time around, with thousands of U.S. forces still scheduled to arrive as part of President Barack Obama’s push to regain the advantage in Afghanistan, the U.S. Marines say things will be different.

“They are willing to give us a chance,” said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment now based in the heart of Marjah. “They understand right now that we are the strongest tribe, and we are moving the ball forward.”

The success of Fennell and the other civil affairs Marines in Helmand could be pivotal. So far the American plans for planting a “government in a box” have gotten off to a slow start.

Haji Abdul Zahir, the newly appointed Marjah district governor, relies on a small team of Western advisers who operate out of a Spartan district center guarded by U.S. Marines and a small contingent of Afghan police. Local Marjah leaders living the nearby provincial capital of Lashkar Gah have been hesitant to return to help Zahir. And the new government is still laying plans for long term development.

While the new government struggles to gain traction, Fennell and the Marines are filling the void.

In the past two weeks, Fennell and his team have spent more than $300,000 to clear rubble from the high school, clean local canals, repair markets, rebuild bridges, and pay families who lost relatives lost during the recent fighting. They are paying Afghans $5-a-day to work on the projects and offering lucrative contracts to Helmand companies willing to step in to the dangerous environment.

It’s a strategy that has worked for Fennell and U.S. forces in other parts of Helmand.

So far, the initiative appears to be paying dividends.

Marines here are getting more help from local residents coming forward to tell them where to find newly planted roadside bombs. And Taliban fighters have so far had less success here in intimidating residents in the area where the most money has been spent, said Fennell.

“I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that when you spend the most money and show the most results that you get more local intel and cooperation,” Fennell said. “In other areas they seem to be chasing the dragon.”

But Taliban fighters are still making their presence known.

On Monday, five or six Taliban fighters staged an afternoon attack that injured several Marines and Afghans. The foot patrol near the heart of Marjah hit a roadside bomb and then came under fire from the three Taliban fighters, according to the U.S. military.

Checkpoint Kabul is written by Dion Nissenbaum, who covers south Asia with a focus on Afghanistan as bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. Other McClatchy journalists occasionally contribute.

Mar 16, 2010

Army gives up Bayonets - M16's next??

Army training: Bayonets out, ‘ab blasters’ in
Five-mile runs also nixed in first changes to regimen in 30 years

The Associated Press
updated 12:00 p.m. ET, Tues., March. 16, 2010

FORT JACKSON, S.C. - At 5 a.m. on the Army's largest training base, soldiers grunt through the kinds of stretches, body twists and bent-leg raises that might be seen in an "ab blaster" class at a suburban gym.

Adapting to battlefield experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army is revamping its basic training regimen for the first time in three decades by nixing five-mile runs and bayonet drills in favor of zigzag sprints and honing core muscles.

Trainers hope the switch will better prepare soldiers physically for the pace of combat, with its sudden dashes and rolling gun battles.

They also want to toughen recruits who are often more familiar with Facebook than fistfights.

The exercises are part of the first major overhaul in Army basic fitness training since men and women began training together in 1980, said Frank Palhoska, head of the Army's Fitness School at Fort Jackson, which has worked several years on overhauling the service's fitness regime.

'Training warriors'

The new plan is being expanded this month at the Army's four other basic training installations — Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Knox, Ky.

"We don't run five miles in combat, but you run across the street every day," Palhoska said, adding, "I'm not training long-distance runners. I'm training warriors" who must shuttle back and forth across a back alley.

Drill sergeants with combat experience in the current wars are credited with urging the Army to change training, in particular to build up core muscle strength to walk patrols with heavy packs and body armor or to haul a buddy out of a burning vehicle.

One of those experienced drill sergeants is 1st Sgt. Michael Todd, a veteran of seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

On a recent training day Todd was spinning recruits around to give them the feel of rolling out of a tumbled Humvee. Then he tossed on the ground pugil sticks made of plastic pipe and foam, forcing trainees to crawl for their weapons before they pounded away on each other.

"They have to understand hand-to-hand combat, to use something other than their weapon, a piece of wood, a knife, anything they can pick up," Todd said.

The new training also uses "more calisthenics to build core body power, strength and agility," Palhoska said in an office bedecked with 60-year-old black and white photos of World War II-era mass exercise drills.

'A more obese, sedentary generation'

Over the 10 weeks of basic, a strict schedule of exercises is done on a varied sequence of days so muscles rest, recover and strengthen.

Another aim is to toughen recruits from a more obese and sedentary generation, trainers said. Many recruits didn't have physical education in elementary, middle or high school and therefore tend to lack bone and muscle strength.

When they ditch diets replete with soda and fast food for healthier meals and physical training, they drop excess weight and build stronger muscles and denser bones, Palhoska said.

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, the three-star general in charge of revamping all aspects initial training, said his overall goal is to drop outmoded drills and focus on what soldiers need today and in the future.

Bayonet drills had continued for decades, even though soldiers no longer carry the blades on their automatic rifles. Hertling ordered the drills dropped.

"We have to make the training relevant to the conditions on the modern battlefield," Hertling said during a visit to Fort Jackson in January.

The general said the current generation has computer skills and a knowledge base vital to a modern fighting force. He foresees soldiers using specially equipped cell phones to retrieve information on the battlefield to help repair a truck or carry out an emergency lifesaving medical technique.

But they need to learn how to fight.
"Most of these soldiers have never been in a fistfight or any kind of a physical confrontation. They are stunned when they get smacked in the face," said Capt. Scott Sewell, overseeing almost 190 trainees in their third week of training. "We are trying to get them to act, to think like warriors."

For hours, Sewell and his drill sergeants urge on helmeted trainees as they whale away at each other with pugil sticks, landing head and body blows until one falls flat on the ground. As a victor slams away at his flattened foe, a drill sergeant whistles the fight to a halt.

"This is the funnest day I've had since I've been here!" said 21-year-old Pvt. Brendon Rhyne, of Rutherford County, N.C., after being beaten to the ground. "It makes you physically tough. Builds you up on the insides mentally, too."

The Marine Corps is also applying war lessons to its physical training, adopting a new combat fitness test that replicates the rigor of combat.

The test, which is required once a year, has Marines running sprints, lifting 30-pound ammunition cans over their heads for a couple of minutes and completing a 300-yard obstacle course that includes carrying a mock wounded Marine and throwing a mock grenade.

Capt. Kenny Fleming, a 10-year-Army veteran looking after a group of Fort Jackson trainees, said men and women learn exercises that prepare them to do something on the battlefield such as throw a grenade, or lunge and pick a buddy off the ground.

Experience in Iraq has shown that women need the same skills because they come under fire, too, even if they are formally barred from combat roles. Fleming said those who had some sort of sports in high school can easily pick up on the training, while those who didn't have to be brought along.

One hefty soldier in a recent company he trained dropped 45 pounds and learned to blast out 100 push-ups and 70 sit-ups, he said.

"We just have to take the soldier who's used to sitting on the couch playing video games and get them out there to do it," Fleming said.

Mar 15, 2010

CIA & Taliban Both Illegal Combatants??

America's Unlawful Combatants
By Gary Solis
March 12, 2010

In our current armed conflicts, there are two U.S. drone offensives. One is conducted by our armed forces, the other by the CIA. Every day, CIA agents and CIA contractors arm and pilot armed unmanned drones over combat zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Pakistani tribal areas, to search out and kill Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. In terms of international armed conflict, those CIA agents are, unlike their military counterparts but like the fighters they target, unlawful combatants. No less than their insurgent targets, they are fighters without uniforms or insignia, directly participating in hostilities, employing armed force contrary to the laws and customs of war. Even if they are sitting in Langley, the CIA pilots are civilians violating the requirement of distinction, a core concept of armed conflict, as they directly participate in hostilities.

Before the 1863 Lieber Code condemned civilian participation in combat, it was contrary to customary law. Today, civilian participation in combat is still prohibited by two 1977 protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Although the United States has not ratified the protocols, we consider the prohibition to be customary law, binding on all nations. Whether in international or non-international armed conflict, we kill terrorists who take a direct part in hostilities because their doing so negates their protection as civilians and renders them lawful targets. If captured, the unlawful acts committed during their direct participation makes them subject to prosecution in civilian courts or military tribunals. They are not entitled to prisoner-of-war status.

If the CIA civilian personnel recently killed by a suicide bomber in Khost, Afghanistan, were directly involved in supplying targeting data, arming or flying drones in the combat zone, they were lawful targets of the enemy, although the enemy himself was not a lawful combatant. It makes no difference that CIA civilians are employed by, or in the service of, the U.S. government or its armed forces. They are civilians; they wear no distinguishing uniform or sign, and if they input target data or pilot armed drones in the combat zone, they directly participate in hostilities -- which means they may be lawfully targeted.

Moreover, CIA civilian personnel who repeatedly and directly participate in hostilities may have what recent guidance from the International Committee of the Red Cross terms "a continuous combat function." That status, the ICRC guidance says, makes them legitimate targets whenever and wherever they may be found, including Langley. While the guidance speaks in terms of non-state actors, there is no reason why the same is not true of civilian agents of state actors such as the United States.

It is, of course, hardly likely that a Taliban or al-Qaeda bomber or sniper could operate in Northern Virginia. (In 1993, a Pakistani citizen illegally in the United States shot and killed two CIA employees en route to the agency's headquarters. He was not, however, affiliated with any political or religious group.)

And while the prosecution of CIA personnel is certainly not suggested, one wonders whether CIA civilians who are associated with armed drones appreciate their position in the law of armed conflict. Their superiors surely do.

Gary Solis, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, is the author of "The Law of Armed Conflict."

Mar 14, 2010

Marine Success in A'stan...leads to Army jealousy

At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; A01

DELARAM, AFGHANISTAN -- Home to a dozen truck stops and a few hundred family farms bounded by miles of foreboding desert, this hamlet in southwestern Afghanistan is far from a strategic priority for senior officers at the international military headquarters in Kabul. One calls Delaram, a day's drive from the nearest city, "the end of the Earth." Another deems the area "unrelated to our core mission" of defeating the Taliban by protecting Afghans in their cities and towns.

U.S. Marine commanders have a different view of the dusty, desolate landscape that surrounds Delaram. They see controlling this corner of remote Nimruz province as essential to promoting economic development and defending the more populated parts of southern Afghanistan.

The Marines are constructing a vast base on the outskirts of town that will have two airstrips, an advanced combat hospital, a post office, a large convenience store and rows of housing trailers stretching as far as the eye can see. By this summer, more than 3,000 Marines -- one-tenth of the additional troops authorized by President Obama in December -- will be based here.

With Obama's July 2011 deadline to begin reducing U.S. forces looming over the horizon, the Marines have opted to wage the war in their own way.

"If we're going to succeed here, we have to experiment and take risks," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Afghanistan. "Just doing what everyone else is doing isn't going to cut it."

The Marines are pushing into previously ignored Taliban enclaves. They have set up a first-of-its-kind school to train police officers. They have brought in a Muslim chaplain to pray with local mullahs and deployed teams of female Marines to reach out to Afghan women.

The Marine approach -- creative, aggressive and, at times, unorthodox -- has won many admirers within the military. The Marine emphasis on patrolling by foot and interacting with the population, which has helped to turn former insurgent strongholds along the Helmand River valley into reasonably stable communities with thriving bazaars and functioning schools, is hailed as a model of how U.S. forces should implement counterinsurgency strategy.

But the Marines' methods, and their insistence that they be given a degree of autonomy not afforded to U.S. Army units, also have riled many up the chain of command in Kabul and Washington, prompting some to refer to their area of operations in the south as "Marineistan." They regard the expansion in Delaram and beyond as contrary to the population-centric approach embraced by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and they are seeking to impose more control over the Marines.

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, recently noted that the international security force in Afghanistan feels as if it comprises 42 nations instead of 41 because the Marines act so independently from other U.S. forces.

"We have better operational coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we have with the U.S. Marine Corps," said a senior Obama administration official involved in Afghanistan policy.


Some senior officials at the White House, at the Pentagon and in McChrystal's headquarters would rather have many of the 20,000 Marines who will be in Afghanistan by summer deploy around Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, to assist in a U.S. campaign to wrest the area from Taliban control instead of concentrating in neighboring Helmand province and points west. According to an analysis conducted by the National Security Council, fewer than 1 percent of the country's population lives in the Marine area of operations.

They question whether a large operation that began last month to flush the Taliban out of Marja, a poor farming community in central Helmand, is the best use of Marine resources. Although it has unfolded with fewer than expected casualties and helped to generate a perception of momentum in the U.S.-led military campaign, the mission probably will tie up two Marine battalions and hundreds of Afghan security forces until the summer.

"What the hell are we doing?" the senior official said. "Why aren't all 20,000 Marines in the population belts around Kandahar city right now? It's [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar's capital. If you want to stuff it to Mullah Omar, you make progress in Kandahar. If you want to communicate to the Taliban that there's no way they're returning, you show progress in Kandahar."

Marines support Marines

Until earlier this month, McChrystal lacked operational control over the Marines, which would have allowed him to move them to other parts of the country. That power rested with a three-star Marine general at the U.S. Central Command. He and other senior Marine commanders insisted that Marines in Afghanistan have a contiguous area of operations -- effectively precluding them from being split up and sent to Kandahar -- because they think it is essential the Marines are supported by Marine helicopters and logistics units, which are based in Helmand, instead of relying on the Army.

After concern about the arrangement reached the White House, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who heads the Central Command, issued an order in early March giving McChrystal operational control of Marine forces in Afghanistan, according to senior defense officials. But the new authority vested in McChrystal -- the product of extensive negotiations among military lawyers -- still requires Marine approval for any plan to disaggregate infantry units from air and logistics support, which will limit his ability to move them, the defense officials said.

"At the end of the day, not a lot has changed," said a Marine general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did several other senior officers and officials, to address sensitive command issues. "There's still a caveat that prevents us from being cherry-picked."

The Marine demand to be supported by their own aviators and logisticians has roots in the World War II battles for Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Marines landing on the Pacific islands did not receive the support they had expected from Navy ships and aircraft. Since then, Marine commanders have insisted on deploying with their own aviation and supply units. They did so in Vietnam, and in Iraq.

Despite the need to travel with an entourage, the Marines are willing to move fast. The commandant of the Corps, Gen. James T. Conway, offered to provide one-third of the forces Obama authorized in December, and to get them there quickly. Some arrived within weeks. By contrast, many of the Army units that comprise the new troop surge have yet to leave the United States.

"The Marines are a double-edged sword for McChrystal," one senior defense official said. "He got them fast, but he only gets to use them in one place."

Marine commanders note that they did not choose to go to Helmand -- they were asked to go there by McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, because British forces in the area were unable to contain the intensifying insurgency. But once they arrived, they became determined to show they could rescue the place, in much the same way they helped to turn around Anbar province in Iraq.
They also became believers in Helmand's strategic importance. "You cannot fix Kandahar without fixing Helmand," Nicholson said. "The insurgency there draws support from the insurgency here."

'Mullahpalooza tour'
The Marine concentration in one part of the country -- as opposed to Army units, which are spread across Afghanistan -- has yielded a pride of place. As it did in Anbar, the Corps is sending some of its most talented young officers to Helmand.

The result has been a degree of experimentation and innovation unseen in most other parts of the country. Although they account for half of the Afghan population, women had been avoided by military forces, particularly in the conservative south, because it is regarded as taboo for women to interact with males with whom they are not related. In an effort to reach out to them, the Marines have established "female engagement teams."

Made up principally of female Marines who came to Afghanistan to work in support jobs, the teams accompany combat patrols and seek to sit down with women in villages. Working with female translators, team members answer questions, dispense medical assistance and identify reconstruction needs.

Master Sgt. Julia Watson said the effort has had one major unexpected consequence. "Men have really opened up after they see us helping their wives and sisters," she said.

The Marines have sought to jump into another void by establishing their own police academy at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand instead of waiting for the U.S. military's national training program to provide recruits. The Marines also are seeking to do something that the military has not been able to do on a national scale: reduce police corruption by accepting only recruits vouched for by tribal elders.

"This is a shame culture," said Terry Walker, a retired Marine drill instructor who helps run the academy. "If they know they are accountable to their elders, they will be less likely to misbehave."

Then there's what Marines call the "mullahpalooza tour." Although most U.S. military units have avoided direct engagement with religious leaders in Afghanistan, Nicholson has brought over Lt. Cmdr. Abuhena Saifulislam, one of only two imams in the U.S. Navy, to spend a month meeting -- and praying with -- local mullahs, reasoning that the failure to interact with them made it easier for them to be swayed by the Taliban.

At his first session with religious leaders in Helmand, the participants initially thought the clean-shaven Saifulislam was an impostor. Then he led the group in noontime prayers. By the end, everyone wanted to take a picture with him.

"The mullahs of Afghanistan are the core of society," he said. "Bypassing them is counterproductive."

Reviving a ghost townIn December, columns of Marine armored vehicles punched into the city of Now Zad in northern Helmand. Once the second-largest town in the province, it had been almost completely emptied of its residents over the past four years as insurgents mined the roads and buildings with hundreds of homemade bombs. Successive units of British and U.S. troops had been largely confined to a Fort Apache-like base in the town. Every time they ventured out, they'd be shot at or bombed.

To Nicholson and his commanders, reclaiming the town, which the Marines accomplished within a few weeks, has been a crucial step in demonstrating to Helmand residents that U.S. forces are committed to getting rid of the Taliban. To other military officials in Afghanistan, however, the mission seemed contrary to McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy.

"If our focus is supposed to be protecting the population, why are we focusing on a ghost town?" said a senior officer at the NATO regional headquarters in Kandahar.

Nicholson notes that Helmand's governor supported the operation, as did many local tribal leaders. Hundreds of residents have returned in recent weeks, and at least 65 shops have reopened, according to Marine officers stationed in Now Zad.

"Protecting the population means allowing people to return to their homes," he said. "We've taken a grim, tough place, a place where there was no hope, and we've given it a future."

Nicholson now wants Marine units to push through miles of uninhabited desert to establish control of a crossing point for insurgents, drugs and weapons on the border withPakistan. And he wants to use the new base in Delaram to mount more operations in Nimruz, a part of far southwestern Afghanistan deemed so unimportant that it is one of the only provinces where there is no U.S. or NATO reconstruction team.

"This is a place where the enemy are moving in numbers," he said, referring to increased Taliban activity along a newly built highway that bisects the province. "We need to clean it up."

Nicholson contends that if his forces were kept only in key population centers in Helmand, insurgents would come right up to the gates of towns.

Other U.S. and NATO military officials say that what the Marines want to do makes sense only if there were not a greater demand for troops elsewhere. Because the Marines cannot easily be moved to Kandahar, U.S. and British military and diplomatic officials have begun discussions to expand the Marine footprint into more populous parts of Helmand with greater insurgent activity where British forces have been outmatched. That shift could occur as soon as this summer, when a Marine-run NATO regional headquarters is established in Helmand.

Until then, however, Marine commanders want to keep moving.

"The clock is ticking," Nicholson told members of an intelligence battalion that recently arrived in Afghanistan. "The drawdown will begin next year. We still have a lot to do -- and we don't have a lot of time to do it."

Mar 8, 2010

The Rebirth of Now Zad

Signs Of Life Return To An Afghan Ghost Town

A campaign has begun to lure residents back to war-ravaged Now Zad in Helmand province, with Marine and Afghan guards posted 24 hours a day to ward off Taliban attacks.

By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times
March 8, 2010

Reporting from Now Zad, Afghanistan--Under a late winter sky, surrounded by mountains left verdant by recent rain showers, is one of Afghanistan's spookiest-looking and most dangerous places: the once-vibrant but now war-ravaged and virtually empty city of Now Zad.

For decades, it was among Helmand province's largest and most prosperous cities, thanks at least in part to the profitable opium poppy crop grown by local farmers, many of whom are sharecroppers.

Dozens of shops, numerous schools, government offices and mud-built homes for 25,000-plus residents were arrayed in a crowded pattern that resembled the Western idea of a city. One bakery produced 1,200 loaves of stone-baked bread daily; the main school had 2,500 students.

But residents fled four years ago amid fighting between the Taliban and the U.S.-led coalition. Only howling dogs remained.

The Taliban, seizing the city as a buffer against U.S.-led forces to the south, swooped in and planted hundreds of roadside bombs to block their enemy from using the streets to mount an advance or to set up more than a tiny outpost.

In the middle of last year, 200 Marines assaulted the Taliban in Now Zad and an encampment north of the city, but the result was a stalemate. Then, in December, the Marines launched a new assault, this time with 1,000 troops and several 70-ton assault breacher vehicles to clear a path through the buried bombs.

After several days of fighting, the Taliban dispersed. The Marines and Afghan soldiers and police moved cautiously into Now Zad.

Now there is a campaign to lure the residents back with promises of security, healthcare and schools. A few thousand have returned and Marines and Afghan forces have posted 24-hour guards in a city where nearly all the structures show the ravages of bitter war and harsh winter weather.

"There is no place like Now Zad," said Michael Ronning, a U.S. foreign service officer and Agency for International Development official, noting that the city's history makes it unique among the communities where the U.S. is attempting to persuade the population to turn on the Taliban.

The threat of bombs remains high despite the efforts of Afghan contractors, paid by the U.S., to find and dig up the explosives.

Large areas remain off-limits, red-tagged as too dangerous while the slow work of de-mining continues, giving the city the look of a ghost town.

Eleven members of a family were killed by an explosion Feb. 28 just a few blocks from their home. That day, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro was visiting U.S. troops in Now Zad.

Despite some setbacks, U.S. officials present Now Zad as a story of how a more-aggressive use of military power, backed by a well-organized reconstruction effort, can wrest control of former Taliban strongholds. More VIP visits are expected.

Although Now Zad is nothing like it was before 2006, there are encouraging signs, including a willingness by early returnees to defy the Taliban, officials said.

A health clinic has opened, with a midwife. A school, for boys and girls, is open. Some shops in the main bazaar are selling goods again.

The Taliban is no longer inside the city limits, but fighters can strike on the surrounding roads. Marines based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., provide security in the city and constantly patrol the surrounding foothills.

And five Marines from Camp Pendleton, assigned as part of a "female engagement team," are hoping to arrange classes and outreach for women. But first they need to convince the women's husbands of their good intentions. "The men are curious, at least they haven't said no," Cpl. Christina Arana said.

In many Helmand province communities, having boys and girls in the same school is unthinkable because it might draw an attack by the Taliban. Nawa, for example, has 11 public schools, but none enroll girls. In Now Zad, the school is open to all, but girls and boys are in separate classrooms.

"I'm not sure what victory looks like, but I think it looks like this," said Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson as he looked at a classroom where giggling girls read from spelling books provided by UNICEF.