Progress in Marjah, But Civilian Trust Elusive

Daily News Article   —   Posted on February 22, 2010

(by Michael M. Phillips, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) MARJAH, Afghanistan – Ten days into the fight for Marjah, U.S. and Afghan troops continue to seize ground, often battling the Taliban from one mud-walled compound to the next. But progress has been slower in winning over local civilians, many of whom are unsure which side will make life safer for their families.

The Marjah offensive-the biggest since the Taliban regime fell in 2001-is being conducted on fronts both military and social.

It’s a high-stakes operation. Kabul’s international backers have ready tens of millions of dollars in aid for Marjah, and the Afghan authorities have promised to make the town of 75,000-which has been under Taliban rule for years-a model of good government once the fighting stops. …

The town measures roughly six miles by 12 miles, most of it thinly inhabited compounds and farm fields, sprouting with alfalfa, opium poppy and other crops.

A relatively small portion of that expanse is under military control, but U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers dominate the most densely populated areas already and are now pressing outwards, a few hundred yards at a time. Senior commanders are pushing field officers to pick up the pace and establish a sufficient security bubble to allow Afghan government officials and aid workers to get to work.

“We’ll be in the attack,” in the days ahead, said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of the 1,500-soldier 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “He’ll have a choice of whether he wants to fight, put down his weapons or fade away into the desert,” he says of the Taliban.

Many Taliban have apparently chosen the first option, with firefights and ambushes daily occurrences. As Marines pushed east from the Koru Chareh bazaar on Sunday, bullets began snapping around their heads, signaling the start of a three-hour running firefight. Marines sprinted through furrowed fields and splashed across irrigation canals under fire, eventually calling in a missile strike on an insurgent stronghold.

As the shooting tapered off, and a sandstorm kicked up, the Marines spotted six or eight unarmed men leaving the area. The troops say the insurgents frequently drop or stash their weapons when they’re done fighting for the day, knowing the American and Afghan forces won’t shoot unarmed people.

The Marines virtually always end up on top in such direct fights, though they have also suffered steady casualties. The tougher challenge is engaging in combat while also winning over the locals. Many residents have left town to avoid the fighting, perhaps leaving a teenage son to watch their property.

“For the next 100 or 200 meters everything is fine,” Rahim Khan, a 31-year-old diesel generator mechanic, told Marines patrolling through the Koru Chareh bazaar. “But after that people are still scared, and they won’t come out of their houses.”

Mr. Khan said the locals are worried that the Taliban will use their homes as firing positions, drawing the Marines’ fire in return.

Marines around the commercial district held two meetings with local shopkeepers over the weekend. The Marines learned afterwards that three Taliban ((EDS: unarmed, so no action taken)) were among the 50 locals who attended.

Nonetheless, some 10 merchants opened their shops and stalls on Monday, although the U.S. and Afghan troops were the bulk of the few shoppers. Much of the produce – tangerines, bananas and apples from Pakistan – had gone bad during the battle.

“All I want is security to return to Marjah,” Abdul Achakzi, a farm worker, told a Marine patrol.

During the Marines’ push east, one young man, Khan Mohammed Noorzai, complained that the troops had kicked in four doors in his family compound. Lt. Col. Worth advised him to go to the Marine outpost to receive compensation for the broken locks.

“Aren’t they going to arrest me?” Mr. Noorzai asked.

“No, no, no,” the colonel replied. “Not unless you’re carrying a weapon or making bombs.”

At the bazaar on Monday, shopkeepers asked passing Marines when they would get compensation for broken locks, crushed display stands and other damage. Mr. Khan sought compensation for his prize Jersey cow, who produced 40 kilograms of milk a day before the troops shot her during a firefight, he said.

“It’s going to be a few stressful months trying to satisfy people and convince them we’re here to help,” said Cpl. Douglas Woltz, a 25-year-old from Hampstead, Md.

The colonel describes the locals he has met as “very pragmatic and stoic,” but not yet friendly. Some Marjah residents say they fear both the Taliban and the troops-and they still resent the way government officials trampled on tribal traditions in the past.

“They know we are now the strongest tribe,” Lt. Col. Worth said. But “trust is a long way away.”

The troops’ mission continues to be complicated by the array of homemade bombs the insurgents hide around town.

Over the weekend, the colonel’s convoy hit a small one while traveling a route that had been cleared of booby traps just 24 hours earlier. Nobody was hurt, and explosives specialists detonated a second bomb buried nearby.

Near the Koru Chareh bazaar, insurgents packed a yellow plastic jug with homemade explosives and floated it down an irrigation canal, detonating it next to a U.S. armored vehicle. The bomb caused no damage.

On Saturday, just as officers were meeting at the Loy Chareh market with local farmers, the Afghan Civil Order Police discovered a 100-pound bomb on the roof of a shop. The device-packed with auto parts, nuts and bolts-was set to detonate if someone opened the shop door or moved it from the roof. Explosives experts say it would have inflicted mass casualties on troops and civilians alike.

The Marines also spotted two insurgents traveling along a ditch when the improvised explosive device they were carrying went off, apparently killing them both.

“That’s the kind of IED I like,” said Capt. Ryan Sparks, commander of the battalion’s Company B.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at michael.phillips@wsj.com.

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com.

Questions

1. What happens to Taliban fighters who put down their weapons and walk away from the fight?

2. What is a tougher challenge for U.S. Marines than just fighting the Taliban?

3. a) How does the U.S. military respond to civilian complaints of property damage caused by the fight with the Taliban?
b) Do you think Afghan civilians lodge the same complaints with Taliban fighters? Explain your answer.

4. Why don’t locals trust U.S. troops?

5. Read the “Background” and visit the links under “Resources” below. What do you think of the way the U.S. military is proceeding in the Marjah offensive?


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Background

The War in Afghanistan is an ongoing coalition conflict which began on October 7, 2001, as the U.S. military’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) that was launched, along with a number of coalition allies, in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. … The U.K. has, since 2002, led its own military operation, Operation Herrick, as part of the same war in Afghanistan.The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established by the UN Security Council at the end of December 2001 to secure Kabul [Afghanistan] and the surrounding areas. NATO assumed control of ISAF in 2003. By July 2009, ISAF had around 64,500 troops from 42 countries, with NATO members providing the core of the force. The NATO commitment is particularly important to the United States because it gives international legitimacy to the war. The U.S. has approximately 29,950 troops in ISAF. (from wikipedia.org)

Operation Moshtarak is an Afghan-led initiative to assert government authority in the centre of Helmand province. Afghan and ISAF partners are engaging in this counter-insurgency operation at the request of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Helmand provincial government.  Moshtarak is a Dari word for “together”. The security forces that make up the combined force are serving side-by-side, representing partnership in strength.  Insurgents who do not accept the government’s offer to reintegrate and join the political process will be met with overwhelming force. However, the strongest of measures will be taken to protect the civilian population. (from isaf.nato.int/images/stories/File/2010-02-CA-059-Backgrounder-Operation%20Moshtarak.pdf)

Resources

Visit NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) website at isaf.nato.int for updates on the Marjah offensive (Operation Moshtarak).  (See map of Afghanistan on homepage.)

A NATO air strike killed approximately 27 civilians in southern Afghanistan, Afghan and U.S. officials said Monday.  NATO had mistaken the convoy as carrying insurgents preparing to attack coalition soldiers.  U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, has made minimizing civilian casualties a top priority since assuming command in Afghanistan last year. In recent months, NATO forces have taken increased precautions before launching air strikes in Afghanistan.  Read about some of the measures the U.S. military takes to prevent civilian casualities in the Wall Street Journal article “Civilians in Crosshairs Slow Troops