By: Sgt. Jesse Stence
CAMP DWYER, Helmand province, Afghanistan – When Gen. Stanley McChrystal applied the label “bleeding ulcer” to a Helmand district in May of 2010, he raised the international community’s awareness of the difficulties involved in counterinsurgency operations in the province.
The quote appeared last spring in a McClatchy Newspapers article, which described the effects of insurgent resistance in Marjah and correctly predicted that coalition forces would need months to raise a permanent police force capable of pacifying the district.
Nevertheless, Marjah, once considered the insurgent capital of southern Afghanistan, is a much more peaceful place today. This month, International Security Assistance Forces shifted a significant number of Marines north, out of Marjah, due to a greater-than 60 percent decrease in coalition casualties between February-August this year and the same six-month period in 2010.
The drop in casualties is only one effect, albeit the most important, of general counterinsurgency progress in the region. The same trends are visible throughout Southern Helmand, the area that Regimental Combat Team 1 handed over to RCT-5 Aug. 28.
A More Secure Marjah
The most telling aspect of the turnaround in Marjah may be the emergence of Interim Security of Critical Infrastructure, an all-volunteer local defense force that vastly outnumbers the approximate number of insurgents in the district. Capt. Paul J. Kasich, the commander of the Marine police mentoring team in Marjah, estimates ISCI to be almost the size of a battalion.
At that size, ISCI is approximately three times larger than the insurgent force in Marjah was last summer, when resistance to coalition forces was notably stronger. At that time, there were between 200 and 300 insurgents, according to a Small Wars Journal article written by Brett Van Ess last July.
The emergence of ISCI has several implications regarding the counterinsurgency campaign in Marjah. The first is coalition forces obvious size advantage – ISCI being only a sliver of the total coalition force, which also includes a Marine battalion, an Afghan National Army Kandak, and various departments of Afghan National Police.
The deeper implication, however, lies in the composition of the force itself. Unlike the ANA and ANP, which are comprised of Afghans from all over the country, the ISCI is made up entirely of local citizens led by local elders. Members of ISCI patrol their own neighborhoods, which are delineated by a canal system the U.S. helped build during the 1950s. In essence, the local ISCI force represents a grass-roots resistance to insurgents.
This grass-roots resistance stands in stark contrast to the conditions Van Ess described in his article last summer.
“The issue of ISAF and Afghan security force commitment was especially tricky,” wrote Van Ess, summarizing the counterinsurgency campaign in the first half of last year. “Some in Marjah feared long-term American occupation and imposition of foreign values. Many others did not trust ISAF and Afghan forces after past commitments were ineffective at establishing security and preventing the Taliban’s return. Others feared a return to the exploitative government behavior that led to the Taliban’s rise.”
The local ISCI force, however, has garnered public support. Furthermore, members of ISCI are being converted to permanent Afghan Local Police, thereby making up the law enforcement shortfall described in Nissenbaum’s McClatchy article.
Governance and Infrastructure in Marjah
Marjah’s first District Community Council election is emblematic of increased security within the district and the public’s growing acceptance of the official government. More than local 1,000 elders and community leaders, 75 percent of all registered voters, traveled to the district center, March 1, to elect the DCC, which advises the district governor and manages a $1-1.7 million local budget for developmental projects.
“The implications are huge for Marjah,” said Lt. Col. James Erwin, the Marine advisor and mentor for Marjah District Governor Abdul Mutalib Majbor. “Marjah, one year ago, was a center of Taliban efforts and the efforts of the narcotics industry in Central Helmand. No one would even fly [helicopters] over Marjah. Now, the District Center is packed with people from all over the district openly supporting [the local government] and looking to participate in the process of government.”
Governance and security tightly intertwine in every ordered society, and given Marjah’s turbulent recent history, the interplay between the two is even more important. Moreover, the gradual process of empowering the local government while marginalizing insurgents requires a mix of diplomacy and force. This mix is a staple of counterinsurgency operations.
Capt. Walker Koury, the commanding officer of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, described counterinsurgency theory while discussing his company’s efforts in Northern Marjah this spring.
“You can kill every [insurgent], but if you don’t have the support of the people, it doesn’t matter,” said Koury, whose company uncovered more insurgent weapons caches than any other Marine company concurrently deployed to Afghanistan. “In fact, you don’t have to kill any [insurgents], and you can win.”
Rather than hunting trouble, Marines and Afghan National Security Forces invested the majority of their time in the growth of communities. Partnered patrols provided security for the construction of schools and refurbishment of mosques. Battalion commanders used Commander’s Emergency Relief Program funds to help farmers recoup loss of equipment or livestock due to clashes between coalition and insurgent forces. Civil affairs Marines administered microgrants that helped resurrect centers of commerce, such as the Loy Chareh Bazaar in South-Central Marjah; and this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture facilitated an Afghan-led farming cooperative course, which taught farmers how to increase profits with more efficient farming techniques.
Col. David Furness, the Regimental Combat Team 1 commanding officer, said coalition forces' holistic assault on terrorism has turned the tide against the insurgency in Marjah. As citizens see government officials and coalition forces consistently demonstrating a commitment to enhancing security, improving the economy and respecting the local culture, the insurgents' ruthless brand of order becomes unneeded and unwanted, he said.
To illustrate the changing tide throughout the district, Furness cited an ISCI figure: fifty-two of 56 blocks in Marjah now have a volunteer ISCI unit, and he expects every block will have one soon.
“They made a decision on their own to stand up for their own security,” he said.
Throughout Southern Helmand
The neighboring districts of Garmsir and Nawa are a preview of what Marjah can become. The security in these areas, especially Nawa, was already robust when RCT-1 arrived last year. Thus, the coalition campaign in both districts has focused more squarely on infrastructure and ANSF development.
In Nawa, Khalaj bazaar exemplifies coalition success. Second and 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment collaborated on the construction of more than 70 shops there, which were completed this spring. The bazaar, located just outside Patrol Base Jaker and the Nawa District Center, is home to approximately 4,000 Afghans.
Capt. Mike Regner, the commander of Golf Company, 2/3, oversaw Marine operations in Khalaj bazaar this past winter and spring. The Charleston, S.C., native said merchants from as far as Herat province, in western Afghanistan, visit the bazaar to purchase goods, such as produce, livestock, textiles, meat and poultry.
“Bazaar Friday” is the busiest day at Khalaj. On Fridays, about 3,000 people set up shop in an open field behind the bazaar storefronts.
With growing commerce and no Marine combat-related deaths over the past year, Nawa has become a popular stop for politicians interested in seeing a model of progress in Afghanistan. John McCain, the district’s most high-profile visitor, toured the district with Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham in November.
"Nawa has made great strides over the past year in governance and development,” said Lt. Col. John Carson, who oversees all non-kinetic operations in RCT-1 as the regiment’s Effects Cell officer-in-charge.
“We have seen the District Community Council grow into a vibrant body where active debate occurs. Governor [Haji Abdul] Manaf is a respected leader. The new Governance and Justice Facility opened in the spring. The paved road connecting the Nawa District Center and Lashkar Gah will be started soon, and the recent training programs for cotton farming and cooperatives are generating agribusiness. The recently improved bazaars are vibrant and full of people. There is no doubt that Nawa has a bright future ahead of it."
Meanwhile, security and infrastructure in Garmsir district is approaching the level seen in Nawa.
In January, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment cleared Durzay village, Garsmir district, the last suspected insurgent hub before the Pakistan border.
The operation concluded without a shot fired. The Marines spent the majority of the operation sweeping for leftover improvised explosive devices and collecting census data from the villagers, which is the essence of what Marine patrols have done in Garmsir over the past year.
Today, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment strives to integrate military efforts even more closely with the needs of the Garmsir community.
“In a counterinsurgency environment, the military establishes the baseline for security,” said Maj. John Black, the executive officer for 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. “After that is established, civil agencies come in and help improve governance, rule of law, reconstruction and development. Everything the military and civil agencies do ties together.”
Charlie Company in particular has coordinated numerous civil affairs projects, including the ongoing refurbishment of Safaar Bazaar, which 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment seized from insurgents last year. At the time, the bazaar was used extensively by insurgents routing contraband, such as drugs and weapons, along the Helmand River.
Cpl. Colby Brown, a combat correspondent with 1/3, described the bazaar as it is today.
"Now, thousands come each week to take part in commerce," he wrote in "Moving On Up..." published on the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System website, Aug. 3. "Partnered coalition forces and the Afghan government continually work to further develop the bazaar. Roads have been improved, a water reservoir is being built and solar streetlights are being installed. The local citizens are adding second floors to display more goods at their shops, and new shops open every week."
Approximately 30 more civil affairs projects are currently underway at Forward Operating Base Rankel, a Charlie Company base, including mosque refurbishments, construction of a high school, and numerous grants for small businesses.
"Shuras are held [there] every Monday, which are usually attended by more than 25 elders from the area," wrote Brown.
Defeating Insurgent Ideology
Whether helping construct mosques or reaching out to local religious leaders, Marines throughout RCT-1 have accepted the prominent role of Islam in Afghan society.
The concept is simple. When local citizens see that coalition forces respect their culture, the insurgent propaganda campaign is undercut; the insurgents have a more difficult time portraying the Marines and ANSF as Western puppets trying to ideologically invade Afghanistan.
The most tangible example of this acceptance is the program Voices for Religious Tolerance, which featured a trip to Amman, Jordan, in April. During the trip, Afghan community leaders and elders from Southern Helmand were escorted to the capital of Jordan, where they were exposed to a moderate Islamic society. The trip featured a tour of historical sites and lecture series on religious tolerance, which included Islamic scholars and Western speakers.
This program feeds into the ongoing Religious and Cultural Affairs Officer program, which involves National Army mullahs, or spiritual advisers for the ANA, meeting on a monthly basis with RCT-1 chaplains at Camp Dwyer. There, during regularly scheduled commanders conferences for all coalition commanders in Southern Helmand, Afghan religious advisers and RCT-1 chaplains team up to discuss ways that the ANA can address the spiritual needs of the communities it serves.
At the battalion level, Marines have developed a relationship with the mullahs that helps them communicate with the local people. Marine commanders and mullahs regularly work together to rally local men to assist in the refurbishment of mosques and other local civil affairs projects. Mullahs are also instrumental in driving the reintegration program, which gives reformed insurgents an avenue to lay down their arms and rejoin mainstream Afghan society.
“-Working with the mullahs to employ local people counters the need for younger men to go to insurgent forces to make money for their families,” explained Capt. Daniel Petronzio, the officer-in-charge of 1/3's Embedded Training Team and a native of Beverly, Mass.
As Afghan society more readily perceives the relationship between Islam and Afghan National Security Forces, insurgent dogma will further lose legitimacy, said coalition officials.
In Southern Helmand, where change is gradual but undeniable, there is more than a reason to hope for a brighter future; there is record of progress. As formerly embattled districts cool, commerce bustles, buoying the hopes of newly-empowered citizens. Coalition forces bulldoze away the debris of bad ideas and help the local citizens build something that is modern - yet distinctly Afghan.
Meanwhile, Marjah district continues to be center of focus in southern Helmand. As ANSF takes on more responsibility for security within the district center, Marines move to the district's periphery, rooting out insurgent enclaves and interdicting contraband and fighters.
In the neighboring provinces of Garmsir and Nawa, the same counterinsurgency model continues to transform former insurgent safe havens into freer, more Democratic societies.
Furness mentioned three operational areas he believes will be critical for RCT-5's continuing success in Marjah, Garmsir and Nawa. He believes that Col. Roger Turner, the incoming commander, will focus on developing local defense forces in Garmsir and Nawa, mentoring and expanding the police force across southern Helmand, and providing further training to the Afghan National Army.
If the local infrastructure continues to improve and increasing security causes insurgents to lose more revenue and freedom of movement, the insurgency will soon be reduced to a small number of ideologues, Furness said. If Afghanistan's history is any indication, the rest of the insurgents will settle with the government and reintegrate into society, effectively ending the insurgency, he added.
For now, however, it's a hypothetical scenario – one which RCT-5 will explore in the upcoming year.
|Date Posted:||08.29.2011 05:48|
|Location:||CAMP DWYER, HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN, AF|
This work, Healing the Bleeding Ulcer: A more hopeful prognosis in Southern Helmand province, by SSgt Jesse Stence, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.