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Afghan strategy a matter of trust

BAKWA, Afghanistan — Haji Gran, a 70-year-old poppy and wheat farmer, wants a pump for his well.

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By Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
March 30, 2009

U.S. Marine Sgt. Joshua Randall has an answer: "If (you) start telling us where the Taliban is and where they're placing bombs on the road, I can start asking for water pumps," he tells Gran and his family through an interpreter.

Gran, wearing a white turban and shalwa kameez, the local dress of loose pants and shirt, says he will be glad to provide information about the Taliban. "The bombs are not good for us either," he says.

There are smiles and handshakes all around as Randall's Marines climb back into Humvees and head off on another bone-jarring drive across fallow and drought-hardened fields to the next compound.

Randall's approach is at the heart of the Afghanistan war strategy that President Obama announced Friday. The additional troops Obama is sending to Afghanistan will focus not on battling Taliban insurgents face-to-face, but on improving security in far-flung villages such as Bakwa by winning the trust of the local population, one farmer at a time.

"The Taliban is not my focus," says Marine Capt. Mike Hoffman, a company commander, who lives on a dusty outpost in southern Afghanistan. "If I focus on the people, I'll get (rid of) the Taliban or make them irrelevant. I didn't come out here to kill bad guys."

That philosophy is drawn in part from hard-earned lessons in Iraq, where a strategic shift toward protecting the local population in 2007 helped turn the war against Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda. Commanders here caution that Afghanistan is different in many ways but say they're confident the additional troops Obama is sending finally will give them the manpower necessary to secure long-neglected areas — and turn back a reinvigorated offensive by the Taliban and their al-Qaeda counterparts.

"I think we got the concept right," says Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif, the Dutch commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. "We are finally resourcing the concept."

The 4,000 troops Obama ordered to Afghanistan on Friday will train their peers in the Afghan army and police — who are crucial to confidence-building because they are tasked with holding territory once it has been cleared of insurgents by U.S. and NATO forces. Obama's plan calls for nearly doubling the size of Afghanistan's security forces by 2011, as well as an increased emphasis on diplomatic cooperation from regional countries such as Pakistan and Iran.

The reinforcements will join an additional 17,000 troops that Obama previously ordered deployed, bringing the overall U.S. presence in Afghanistan to nearly 60,000 by the end of the year.

After seven years of war, winning the locals' confidence isn't easy. Hundreds of Afghan civilians died during NATO airstrikes and other raids against militant hideouts last year, according to the U.N., eroding the coalition's popularity. And many people still fear the Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan until the U.S. invasion in 2001 and still exerts influence over broad swathes of the country, including the lucrative opium smuggling trade.

So when the Marines go out on patrol, the primary mission is often to make small talk — to question the locals about their daily work and living habits, for example. Sometimes a breakthrough comes over a meal of lamb or some other local dish.

Hoffman, the unit commander, says his Marines have detained only about a dozen suspects during the past five months. A larger focus is trying to gather intelligence — and break down cultural barriers along the way.

Such was the case when Randall, the Marine sergeant, was interviewing Gran, the poppy farmer.

Gran, a grizzled village elder in a country where age is revered, cocked an eyebrow at Randall, a 23-year-old with smooth cheeks and a youthful face. "Are you the commander?" Gran asked.

Randall explained he was the commander of the patrol and continued the questioning.

After a while, Gran finally seemed to let his guard down. He said he is watchful during the day. "It's impossible to see Taliban during the night," he told Randall.

'We're going in to stay'

NATO and U.S. forces are not clearing an area of insurgents unless they have enough foreign or Afghan forces to then hold the town or village once insurgents have been pushed out. That was a key lesson from Iraq, when American troops cleared regions only to have insurgents pour back in after the U.S. forces left.

"Our techniques have changed since five or six years ago," says Army Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which commands troops in eastern Afghanistan. "When we go in, we're going in to stay."

Commanders say they expect a rise in violence as more U.S. troops move into areas that have seen few foreign forces during the current conflict, particularly in parts of the volatile south. The warmer weather also signals the start of a new fighting season as snows recede and mountains become passable again.

"It will be a spike — not a continuous upward trend," says U.S. Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, deputy commander of the southern region.

About 60% of the 3 million people in southern Afghanistan live in areas that are completely secured, de Kruif, the Dutch commander, said in an interview in his headquarters in Kandahar. That leaves much of the rest of the region without a significant NATO presence.

Apart from the military trainers, most of the other new American forces — which include an Army Stryker brigade, a brigade of U.S. Marines and an aviation brigade — are heading for southern Afghanistan where they are expected to confront insurgents.

"This is going to take time and it's going to be bloody along the way," Milley says. "At the end of the day, it's going to work."

Counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq were boosted by a tribal revolt in western Iraq that American commanders were able to harness to build local security. Afghanistan's tribal structure is very different, making such a revolt here unlikely, commanders say.

The forbidding terrain means that tribes in one valley often mistrust people in the next valley over. Tribes in Afghanistan are much smaller and more isolated and so are unlikely to form the kinds of loose alliances that helped push al-Qaeda out of Iraq, Julian says.

The strategy in Afghanistan is also being pursued with far fewer troops. At the peak of the U.S. troop escalation, or "surge," there were 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — compared to the 90,000 coalition troops expected by the end of the year in Afghanistan, which is about one-and-a-half times the size of Iraq.

Commanders say Afghanistan would have a hard time absorbing a large number of foreign troops. Much of the insurgency in Afghanistan is rooted in rugged mountains and countryside, making it difficult to mass troops in any one area to achieve quick results. Obama's plan to increase the number of police and army trainers is designed to make Afghan forces shoulder a larger burden of security so foreign troops don't have to.

Giving farmers a hand

In Bakwa, Company I, 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, has built small outposts to secure a 30-mile stretch of road to the nearby village of Delaram. The security allows farmers to get their produce to a local market.

When the battalion arrived, the road had been seeded with deadly roadside bombs. Two Marines were killed clearing the road in January, but since then the number of roadside bombs on the route have been declining. Once it was cleared, Marines set up outposts to keep it secure.

Local police who live next door to the Marine base recently told the U.S. forces where three roadside bombs were placed on the road. All three were safely removed.

Hoffman and several other Marines joined Bakwa Police Chief Dagarman Ikal for lunch in his mud-walled compound last week. The Marines talked about security as they struggled to eat joints of lamb that were placed in communal bowls without any silverware. Hoffman told Ikal if he can come up with more police, the Marines can build them another station.

Living among the population often means U.S. forces are enduring primitive conditions. Here in Bakwa, the Marines eat field rations — either portable MREs (meals ready to eat) or precooked food in large trays. Occasionally, frozen steaks and lobster tail are airdropped or flown into the tiny base. When that happens, a Marine cooks the food on a makeshift grill, burning wooden pallets for fuel.

Unlike the early days of Iraq, when Iraqis could never get through the maze of security at large U.S. bases, here Marines encourage locals to come over to the outposts anytime they need help.

"We've come here and embraced the way they do things," says Hoffman, whose feet rest on a makeshift plywood table, alongside a coffee urn. Nearby, a puppy stretches in the sun.

From poppies to wheat

Taliban and other insurgents have been using proceeds from the drug trade to fund their insurgency. NATO commanders have said they will target traffickers and processing labs, but farmers will be encouraged to plant other crops.

Indeed, the outpost here is surrounded by lush fields of wheat — and poppy growing in plain view. Afghanistan produces around 90% of the world's opium, and the money that poppy produces is tough for many poor farmers to resist. "I don't have a problem with them making money off this season's crop with the understanding the next crop that goes into the ground will be wheat or melons," Hoffman says.

"We've told the farmers you can't grow poppies next year," Hoffman says. "You have to grow wheat."

Plus, there are other pressing matters as insurgents lash out against the greater U.S. presence. The police station in nearby Delaram was attacked recently with a suicide bomb that killed a Marine and three Afghan police.

Days later, U.S. Marines and Afghan police were still cleaning up the damage and putting up new blast walls around the station.

Abdul Qudus, the 52-year-old police chief, was wounded by shrapnel in the attack but declined to be evacuated. "The enemy realizes we're making progress with the people," Qudus says. "This is why they made the attack."