Nawa: hearts and minds, one community at a time

Marjanne is so shrunken that from a distance she looks like a heap of black velvet that someone carelessly tossed onto the chaff-strewn ground. Six months ago, she and the dusty little boy she travels with—a nominal chaperone—would never have ventured down from her home in Lashkar Gah (Lash to the locals) to Nawa unaccompanied and in her case, uncovered. Today she squats balanced on two ancient ankles patiently waiting in the scorching heat: the only woman of among a group of one hundred men and two marines. What looks to be some kind of skin cancer is eating away at the tip of her nose, but her sunken black eyes are sharp and penetrating. Her purpose? To gather an allotment of cut-rate seed, a USAID-backed scheme designed to encourage local farmers to grow wheat instead of opium poppy.

“The Taliban and Mujahedeen are bad people,” Marjanne says fixing the reporter with a fierce stare. “Under Zahir Shah (the former king), Afghanistan was a good place. People were safe and women could go to school and move around uncovered. None of this nonsense,” she says sweeping a scrawny but contemptuous arm over the all-male crowd. “Many of these here,” she says gesturing again and speaking even more loudly. “Are Taliban. They are unarmed because of the marines but they harassing the people to make sure they do not vote.”

Haji Mohammed is the Deputy Police Chief of Nawa. A round man, with a snowy beard he would look like a Central Asian iteration of St. Nick if it weren’t for the elegant but slightly soiled turban perched atop his round head. One year ago the Taliban came in the middle of the night and burned his house to the ground. Although no one (“Inshallah” he says lifting his arms) was killed, he, his wife and their ten children had to march through the night to Laskar Gah 18 miles away to seek refuge with family members.

Today he stands outside a ramshackle compound, surrounded by flowering shrubs that glow fluorescent red and purple in the soft evening light. “I am a poor man and still don’t have enough to pay rent,” he says. “But I am safe and so is my family.”

A few short months ago, few of Nawa’s estimated 80,000 inhabitants would have been able to make that same claim. Taliban routinely cruised the village’s unpaved streets to beat up men who were not praying in the mosque at the appointed times, went about without a beard or otherwise violated their strict but capriciously enforced coda. Woman were not only banished from the streets but also from the schools and clinics. Many were raped.

In the middle of the night, Taliban forces would burst into homes and demand to be fed—effectively starving impoverished families of one month’s food in just one brutal episode of coerced hospitality.

Family members disappeared only to show up as a headless torso or a torsoless head. Garrotting was common. “The object was to sow fear,” says District Administrator Haji Mohammed Khan, the father of 20 children by two wives. “We never knew who would be taken or what would happen to us. We did not go out. Our children could not attend school and we could not grow food.”

Aside from a two shops, the bazaar was shuttered and the dusty streets silent. Then in July 2009, the US Marines swooped in to replace the beleaguered British, a force of only 40 men, who were both outnumbered and outgunned by an increasingly confident and bellicose enemy.

After two weeks of intense fighting, the marines flushed out the ‘bad guys’—US militaryspeak for insurgents, Taliban, terrorists and other criminal elements—and cleared approximately 320 square kilometres around Nawa. Within months the numbers of shops leapt from two to 70 and then to 120. From only a few frightened traders on the Muslim holy day—Friday—the numbers of market goers had swollen to almost 2000 by the end of October.

Afloat in a sea of insurgency Today Nawa is a relatively secure district floating in a sea of insurgency. Bridges are being repaired and built, bazaars cleaned, clinics and schools refurbished and councillors and other officials inculcated with the basics of good governance and rule of law. Police forces are being trained.

In the context of a war that has dragged on for eight long years, what is happening here is, by any definition, good news. US and NATO Commander-in-Chief Stanley A. McChrystal recently characterized Nawa as, “a petrie dish”: A microcosm of counterinsurgency (COIN) in action. Not the discredited version that sullied the image of the United States in Vietnam and in Latin America during the 1980s, but a newly-minted variety that puts the protection of civilians at centre and emphasizes stabilization and development—that is, rule-of-law, good governance, healthcare, education and jobs—as key to a lasting and durable peace.

Charlie Company Lieutenant-Colonel William McCollough is the commanding officer of Jaker Base, the Marine compound at Nawa. A literature graduate, he likes to wander around with a copy of the New Yorker rolled up in his hands. Prior to their deployment to Nawa, he and his 1,500 men, many of who are Iraq veterans, spent nine months preparing to pacify one of the most intransigently violent regions of Afghanistan.

During the initial two weeks of fighting, McCollough wanted “everyone in this community to see a marine at some point”. The aim was to get residents to grow accustomed to the presence of marines and to ‘feel free to talk to us, to not run away.” Not for his men the kinds of actions that have led to so much hostility elsewhere in the country: No aerial bombardment, no rockets, no home invasions in the middle of the night and no trampling through farmer’s fields. The objective: to win trust and elicit cooperation.

The “talking points” drummed into every single recruit were simple: “We are here in partnership with your government; we are here as your friend; we won’t stay forever; we are here only long enough to protect you from the people who are intimidating you; and when the government can provide security we will leave”.

McCollough encouraged regular foot patrols but always in the presence of either Afghan National Forces or the police. The object he says, was to move beyond ‘clear’ operations to ‘hold’ and then ‘build’—all part of the counterinsurgency lexicon designed to encourage communities to cast their lot with local government.

Tipping the fence-sitters But it is a combination of unusual competence at the district level, combined with a unique military and civilian partnership, McCullough says, which is also responsible for the success here. Key to this is the Local Governance and Community Development programme (LGCD) a USAID-funded initiative that implements relatively inexpensive but high-impact development projects in highly volatile and insecure regions of Afghanistan.

The aim is reinforce COIN activities by ‘tipping’ fence-sitting communities away from the insurgents and towards legitimate community and district governments—no easy task given the country’s multiple ethnicities, chronic instability, grinding poverty and widespread illiteracy.

The four aims of LGCD—to strengthen local government; develop communities, promote stability and support the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs)—are a central aspect of COIN. At the center of stabilization efforts are Small Community Grants or SCGs. These are designed to provide beneficiaries with inexpensive and quick improvements that generate both good-will and trust.

Johnny Lee Park, the youthful LGCD Provincial Stabilization Director for Helmand, maintains the one of the reasons why the program is so successful lies in the fact that CSGs are relatively modest and thus can be disbursed quickly and with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. These grants—of between $1,000 and $10,000—go towards anything from cleaning bazaars, refurbishing schools, government buildings and clinics and building footbridges.

These low cost but high impact projects are a key component of stabilization and the larger COIN strategy—one that appears to be working well in Nawa.

In Nawa, LGCD stabilization officers along with their USAID counterparts, routinely attend village Shuras, and head out on foot patrols to determine local needs. As much as possible, officers ensure that community projects are then agreed upon using the more formalized decision-making mechanisms that Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) governance teams are seeking to promote by training locally elected councillors in basic governance procedures and accountability mechanisms.

According to Park, it is the communities themselves—working in partnership with the PRTS and LGCD—that decide how the money will be spent and on what. They undertake the construction with LGCD providing the expertise and technical support.

During the past six months, USAID-LGCD has provided schoolchildren with backpacks filled with school supplies; repaired or constructed bridges from outlying neighborhoods into Nawa; renovated and refurbished the local community centre and re-gravelled and refurbished the bazaar. Future projects include a plan to re-open, renovate and refurbish the local gym in a bid to attract youth and to upgrade a number of roads into Nawa that are impassable during the winter.

The idea is not only to build infrastructure, but capacity as well. Projects also provide the simple incentive of work for cash—something that is sorely lacking in this desperately impoverished country. Getting unemployed young men off the streets and into some kind of training or occupation is critical to stabilization efforts, he says. Owing to low life expectancy, Afghanistan has the highest proportion of young people under the age of 25 in the world—something that numerous reports, including the World Bank’s The Devil in the Demographics identify as a risk factor for ongoing instability and future conflict.

A cooperative effort In essence, Nawa is a cooperative effort with military, USAID, State Department, LGCD and PRT staff working out of the same cramped and ramshackle mud-brick hut located at Jaker Base. Conditions are primitive (no running water, no showers and thick dust everywhere—the talcum variety that clogs sinuses and paralyzes the guts of computers) but close proximity has fostered an unusually efficient relationship between the various players. Uncomfortable maybe, but it works.

It is also hazardous. Given the need to move into the hold phase as quickly as possible, USAID-LGCD staff routinely work in rural districts too dangerous even by the standards of most humanitarian organizations.

Just minutes after alighting from a military transport flight on his first day on the job in neighbouring Khaneshin, Park recalls a group of grunts scooping him up and heading out on a foot patrol. “The area was still pretty insecure,” he says with characteristic understatement. “I was a bit nervous because we were getting rocketed. I think we only made it out about a 100 metres”.

Immediately Lee-Park, a dedicated group of Afghan national staff, marines and a group of village leaders went to work identifying needs, prioritizing and then disbursing funds. “We did it all for very competitive prices,” he says. “We were doing it very cheaply—contrary to what a lot of people think, the marines and USAID were not just throwing money around. They were assessing every penny, demanding receipts and always looking to save.”

Scott Dempsey, 26, is USAID Field Program Officer for Nawa District and former marine. One of the key challenges he maintains, is persuading locals that the marines, USAID and LGCD are there to stay—at least long enough to make a lasting difference.

Effectively without governance for 30 years, locals are understandably reticent about putting their trust in foreigners—particularly given the deteriorating situation elsewhere in the country. Moreover, if the Coalition were to leave, all of those who have contributed to, or benefited from, stabilization efforts—council members, interpreters, police forces, schoolchildren—could well wind-up the victims of retributive Taliban terror.

“We have yet to develop a cohesive strategy to address this,” says Dempsey. Nevertheless, “everyone thought the marines would leave after the clear, but we stayed. Then everyone thought that we would pull out after the election but we still stayed.”

“The only thing we can do at this point is to persuade them that we are here to engage the population; and that we are here to make a lasting difference is their lives”. Adds LGCD Provincial Stabilization Officer Peter Sawyer; “People here get it. Many of the marines were stationed in Anbar (Iraq) and have learned some valuable lessons. Nawa is important because it shows the world what ‘winning’ actually looks like. It is about stabilization, not victory”.

But Nawa’s nascent stability has not come without cost. Three marines, two Afghan soldiers and two police officers lost their lives during the initial marine engagement. Unknown numbers of civilians were also killed during the two-week fire fight and the ensuing clearing operation. During the writing of this article, insurgents abducted the newly appointed chairman of the Nawa social and economic council and murdered him.

Moreover, even if Nawa remains tranquil, there are no guarantees that success here can be replicated elsewhere. Achieving the same troop-to-population ratio as recommended by COIN doctrine (and incidentally undertaken in Nawa) will require at minimum, more than 100,000 NATO or US troops in addition to thousands of Afghan security forces whom, all the players agree, are not yet up to the job.

Fearing for the future Back in Nawa, many locals worry that the marines will leave too soon. Marjanne is one of them. Although now a resident of Lashkar Gah, she owns land in the district and has seen the changes first hand. “Nawa is safer than it has been in decades,” she says. “But what happens when they,” she sweeps her hand towards Jaker base, “leave?” “It will be as it was before but even worse. The Taliban will come back. They will close all of the schools and terrorize the women. They will kill anyone who has worked for the marines.”

Says Khan. “We worry about this a lot. You can leave but we have to stay.”

Despite these losses and their own fears, many villagers also say that they are relieved that peace, however fragile, has finally come to the valley. Khan in particular, who lost his own brother when marine forces accidently killed him in a case of mistaken identity, gently points out that there is a big difference between intentional and unintentional killing. He for one is grateful.

“The Marines made a mistake and tried to make amends for what they did, but the Taliban were very cruel,” he says. “They chopped off heads and terrorized the people—all in the name of Islam, except it was not Islam. It was criminal”.

Says Marjanne, “It is getting better here—but for how long?”