Friday, December 18, 2009
Afghan Town's Progress Provides Encouragement
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 18, 2009 - An irrigation ditch bisects the main thoroughfare of this town in Helmand province, and shops line each side of the street. The shops sell everything from fresh vegetables to livestock to snack foods and transistor radios.
The town looks like nothing special, but it is. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff showed just how special it is when he walked down the street here yesterday, speaking with shop owners and officials and meeting children.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen's four stars were on his soft cap, not a helmet. And he was not wearing his flak jacket – none of the party with him needed to.
When the Marines went into Nawa on July 2, it was a Taliban stronghold. The town is a market center, so few people actually live there. But it is an important town for the prosperity of the region; there is a government center, and in better days, thousands went to Nawa to buy goods, meet friends, see the doctor and exchange gossip.
Under Taliban control, Nawa was the scene of daily gunfights, said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander in Helmand province. Only one or two shops were open when the Marines came into the town. The irrigation ditch in the middle of town, roughly 20 feet deep, was choked with weeds. Stagnant water oozed through the town.
But since then, Nawa has become a secure island in a province once dominated by the Taliban and serves as an example that the counterinsurgency strategy can work.
The big market day is Friday, when 1,500 to 2,000 people come to the town. But even Thursday was busy this week as the chairman walked down the street. He saw open shops and spoke with residents through a translator about how things have changed. Children flocked around the party, and some of the Marines in the group handed out pencils and notebooks. Others gave the boys puppets. Mullen saw a weed-free irrigation ditch that had water flowing through it to the farmlands beyond the village.
District Gov. Abdul Manaf accompanied the admiral on his walk. The governor was beaming with pride at the change in the village. He pointed out how the government buildings were being renovated and showed the chairman a rebuilt clinic that is due to open in the next few days.
After his walk, Mullen spoke with the Marines. "One of the folks I was walking with told me about the kids who keep coming up to you," he said. The fact that they are doing this shows they and their families feel it is safe, he noted.
"You represent the best of what we are, and that connection," he said. "The people are coming back [to Nawa]. I'm proud of you. You've made a big difference, and you will continue to do that."
This was Mullen's second visit to the area. When he visited a week after the Marines went into the area, he had to wear full "battle rattle."
"Now there are four towns like this where we can walk around and the insurgents are essentially gone," he told the Marines. "That's to your great credit, and the sacrifices that it takes to make that happen."
Mullen told the Marines their work and their partnership with Afghan soldiers and police have been revolutionary. "It's changed lives," he said. "You're a great example of this strategy, and that this will succeed."
The strategy that worked in Nawa and Garmsir and other areas of the province will be expanded, Nicholson said. He stressed that the Marines have been in the area for only five months, yet have accomplished a lot. Creating security has allowed projects to start and the economy to move, he said, and most of the people who fled the Taliban are back. "That's a good metric to measure success," he said.
In any new operation, Nicholson said, the Marines are going to go in big. That may not mean gun battles, he said, but the troops will be ready for anything.
More Marines are flowing into the region now – half of the battalion ordered in under President Barack Obama's new strategy has arrived, and another 29,000 American troops will surge in to Afghanistan in the first part of 2010.