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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

North County Times July 25, 2009

MILITARY: Local Marines holding ground in Helmand's Nawa District

By Mark Walker

"Shape, clear, hold and build."

That's the mantra of Camp Pendleton's 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, now firmly entrenched in the volatile southern Afghanistan province of Helmand some 7,700 miles from home.

The battalion's 1,000 Marines and sailors arrived in late May as part of the massive troop buildup ordered by President Barack Obama. And while July has proven to be the deadliest month of the nearly 8-year-old war, with 37 U.S. service members killed as of Friday, the locally based battalion has not suffered any fatalities.

"We've done the 'shape' and the 'clear,'" the battalion commander, Lt. Col. William McCollough, said during a telephone interview from his headquarters in Helmand on Thursday. "Now we're executing the 'hold.'"

In the military's counterinsurgency doctrine, "shape" is defined as the territorial objective. "Clear" means to rid the territory of insurgents, while "hold" means to maintain a presence. "Build" is defined as working with the local populace and government to strengthen governmental and security institutions so the insurgents will not return.

"We've overrun the Taliban that used to be in this district and we're beginning the 'hold' by training the army and police and building up the rule of law," McCollough said.

The troops are scattered in posts throughout the expansive Nawa District of Helmand, an agricultural region that supports a population of about 180,000.

"We estimated there were between 250 and 500 Taliban fighters here when we arrived," said McCollough, 40, a Minnesota native. "They were well-entrenched and had been running the district for over a year."

The Marines experienced their heaviest fighting in their first 10 days in the district, he said: "We would go out and have a good, solid firefight with the enemy."

The troops were dispatched to Nawa in waves, arriving at multiple locations by helicopters at night.

"For the first few days, all the Marines had was what they were able to carry on their backs," McCollough said. "They were completely dependent on having a resupply helicopter come in each night with food and fresh water."

Since clearing the area of insurgents, the most emergent threat is from roadside bombs, the improvised explosive devices that, as in Iraq, are now the favored weapon for anti-government fighters.

"It's an uncommon day when we don't find at least one or two IEDs," McCollough said. "We know the danger is out there, and it's constantly on our minds."

A contingent of British troops is working with the Marines, who are scattered among dozens of villages.

"We're working in a heavily canaled area where there really aren't many roads -- many are just trails," McCollough said. "Not everyone is friendly, but there is a solid group of folks now enjoying freedom from violence.

"The Taliban would tax and threaten them, and in some cases brutalize people. I believe that family by family, they are learning to trust us and that we are here with all the best intentions."

Election looms

The surge of troops into Afghanistan that began in the spring is intended in part to stabilize the country in advance of the presidential election on Aug. 20. About 57,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan, and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai praises the role of foreign troops, but has said the rules governing their presence will change if he wins re-election.

Few expect the balloting to go smoothly in what will be only the second time in its history that Afghanistan has conducted a presidential election.

"Elections here will be imperfect," the Associated Press quoted U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, saying Friday. "But I am an American who lived through an imperfect election eight years ago. I am not going to hold Afghanistan to standards which even the United States does not achieve. What we want is an election that reflects the legitimate will of the Afghan people, and whoever wins, the international community will support."

John Pike at GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington military monitoring group, said the Afghan government needs the U.S. and NATO troops to reduce the violence and the Taliban's hold on the countryside.

But all the military might now in Afghanistan isn't enough to convert the entire country into a Western-style democracy, he said.

"I think our troops are going to face a very difficult time in making the security hold," Pike said.

The poppy crop

The Helmand Province is a key poppy-growing area, and the Taliban relies on its production to fuel the opium trade and fund the insurgency.

The U.S. and NATO are increasingly going after those crops and major traffickers, but McCollough's troops arrived just as the harvest in Nawa was completed.

"We are hoping our efforts convince the people not to grow poppy next year," he said. "A lot of the farmers we have talked to were under orders from the Taliban to grow it."

The U.S. has dispatched agricultural teams to work with Afghan farmers to produce cash crops other than the poppy, an effort that strategists say is an attempt to overcome more than a century of drug trade but is one of the keys to success in Afghanistan.

As part of the effort to win over local hearts and minds, McCollough and other U.S. commanders took part in a shura, or consultation, with Nawa tribal elders and other officials last week.

"We had more than 400 elders, and the provincial governor flew in," McCollough said. "Until now, the governor couldn't come here because of the Taliban, so this gave him and us a chance to speak to the elders near their homes."

Heat and hope

The Marines are operating in small groups in Nawa and have learned to cope with daytime temperatures that soar to 115 degrees and hotter.

"You feel the heat as it comes up," McCollough said. "It burns the skin, but the Marines have acclimatized well."

There is no electricity or running water, and the troops rely on satellite telephones to stay in contact with commanders. McCollough said he tries to give each Marine a chance to make a call home each week to stay in touch with family and loved ones.

The biggest surprise he's encountered, McCollough said, is the relative ease with which the troops have connected with the people of Nawa.

"The Marines have been very patient, and that's starting to pay off," he said. "They're learning how to judge when people are being honest with them, and what makes a particular community tick and what motivates its people."

McCollough said the villagers' needs are no different from our own.

"They want to feel safe where they live, and they don't want to have to confront violence," he said. "They have the same desires for their kids that we do. They also keep asking about schools. The Taliban wouldn't let them go to school, and they want to see the schools reopened."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009, North County Times - Californian