One year ago today, approximately 2,000 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade loaded into dozens of U.S. Army helicopters from the 101st Airborne Division or manned guns in a ground convoy vehicle to begin “Operation Khanjari,” moving into the heart of insurgent-controlled territory in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Intended to surprise, overwhelm, and disrupt insurgents in the Nawa and Garmsir districts who had previously operated with near impunity and little resistance from a small contingent of British and Afghan soldiers, the operation marked the beginning of a successful counterinsurgency operation. With all the difficulties in Afghanistan, and especially in light of the grim fact that June has been the deadliest month since the beginning of the war, it is understandable that some paint a picture of a bleak and hopeless future for Afghanistan and our efforts there. But places like Nawa and Garmsir are an example of our prospects for success and demonstrate that our objectives in Afghanistan can be achieved.
In Nawa, on the morning of July 3, as temperatures quickly rose to nearly 115 degrees, the Marines who hours before had landed under the cover of darkness discovered a scene that in many ways could have been the setting for a creepy Scooby Doo adventure. Any Marine taking part in a foot patrol was almost guaranteed a small arms engagement with our adversaries, some lasting several hours. The nearby local nationals who weren’t shooting at them regarded the Marines with cautious reserve and even mistrust.
But as combat operations subsided over the following weeks and local government officials were able to return to the district, life for the local Afghans began to change for the better dramatically and rapidly. In cooperation with civilian advisors from the NATO-sponsored Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team and the United States Agency for International Development, Marines and their Afghan counterparts quickly turned a formerly lawless and ungoverned district, where local residents lived in fear with little promise of a bright future for themselves or their families, into an example of progress and promise. Three months after Marines gained a foothold in Nawa, scores of teachers who had previously been threatened, beaten or expelled from the district because they worked for the government were able to reopen 11 schools. A major health clinic and two smaller clinics that had been ravaged by the effects of war, neglect and abandonment were being renovated or reopened, supported by competent and eager staffs. Local government officials (who today are supported by representatives from 15 Afghan ministries and a locally elected 45-member community council) hold regular meetings to discuss infrastructure projects, resolve local grievances and coordinate long-term initiatives for the district. A well-trained and equipped police force patrols population centers, including two large market-places that serve as community gathering sites which draw crowds of several thousand on the twice weekly market days. Garmsir, about 25 miles to the south of Nawa, saw similar improvements. In short, the counterinsurgency approach of providing security and then empowering the local government and population worked.
The successes achieved in Nawa and Garmsir were the result of a bottom-up approach where providing security was the foundation upon which to build, followed by maintaining that security through constant and cooperative patrolling by Marines and Afghan security forces. With security came governance, economic growth and resumption of core services like education, healthcare and infrastructure improvements. The tireless and patient approach by the Marines, who listened to the major concerns expressed by the local population – usually over countless cups of tea – revealed the key sources of instability in the district and led to creative dialogue with local Afghan leaders on how best to solve the problems of the districts. The Marines on the ground in Nawa and Garmsir were driven by their relationships with their local Afghan neighbors rather than by Power Point presentations and Excel spreadsheets that weren’t Afghan-generated and weren’t relevant to Afghan capabilities or even needs.
It’s not likely that Afghanistan will become a model state anytime soon. But a bottom-up approach like that exercised by Marines in southern Helmand could build a sustainable foundation for success. This could take time, likely extending past the July 2011 timeframe set forth by President Obama in his December 1, 2009, speech at West Point. That makes one of the biggest potential threats to Afghanistan’s future not only the drug trade, Taliban influence or corruption at the higher levels of government, but rather the patience and persistence of her foreign partners.
There are daunting tasks ahead in Afghanistan, and when I think of the Marines who lost their lives in Nawa and Garmsir, I’m reminded that a truth of any war is that success comes at an awful cost. But there are strategic reasons why it’s worth it—and human ones: A farmer named Wali Jahn who hadn’t had a good job in three years but is now leading a construction crew in the Nawa district center. A widow named Sahaba who cried tears of joy and thanks when Marines gave her enough rice, beans and cooking oil to last a month. Haji Mohammad Hajem, who brought his family back to Nawa after having fled to Lashkar Gah 18 months ago. Or Haji Abdul Ghafar from Khojibaba village who embraced a Marine for a full minute after being given a Koran and a prayer rug, then looked him in the eye and told him in broken English “You are good men. I will pray for you as long as I live.” Afghanistan is tough. But, based on what I saw, we can succeed.
Frank Biggio is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. and reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan from May to December 2009.