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.

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