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Marines go shopping to win Afghan hearts and minds

GOLESTAN, Afghanistan — Toting assault weapons while strolling among vegetable shops in combat gear may look strange, but US Marines believe buying groceries is key to winning Afghan hearts and minds.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iFshpUKHiIMceTQGBIgg9AkQIQdA

By Claire Truscott (AFP) – 3 days ago
9/23/2009

Ordinary shoppers aren't dropped off and trailed by armoured Humvees after a 36-kilometre (22-mile) trek through a treacherous, heavily mined pass. But these troops are stuck in the western Afghan desert fighting a war.

The Marines are followed by a crowd of children who scramble for the sweets they toss in the air. Elderly men in turbans and boys in long Afghan shirts stare as this strange parade passes through the tiny bazaar town of Golestan.

The Marines of 2/3 Fox Company are on the frontline of a new strategy to wipe out the Taliban, not with a rising body count but by gaining the confidence of ordinary people whose lives and futures are at stake.

The commander of more than 100,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal, has called for this shift in emphasis and warned his superiors that without more resources, the war could be lost within a year.

His men on the ground agree.

Major Rafael Candelario of the US Marines 2nd Battalion said that after eight years of fighting to stop the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan, humanitarian efforts are now the key to success.

"If we keep killing people we are going to keep coming here. We need to help the local people. As I said to my wife, if we don't do this right our son will be coming here in 10 years' time," Candelario said.

McChrystal's classified assessment of the war was leaked to US media this week. It is being considered by his superiors in NATO and the US military, as well as by President Barack Obama's White House.

In the 66-page document, McChrystal emphasises counter-insurgency tactics that concentrate on protecting the civilian population and enlisting their loyalties for the authorities and not the rebels.

McChrystal will submit a request for more troops this week but the Obama administration will not decide on the issue until it completes a review of war strategy, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

"Definitely we would like to have more people to push into more places," Candelario said. "But for the area we are focused on now, it's for us to spread the message that we are here to stay and to assist."

Success in the Afghan desert is difficult to measure as the villages alternate between hostility and welcome for the Marines.

The unit passed through the Buji Bhast Pass in the western province of Farah -- a minefield that is littered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) deployed by the Taliban with precision to kill troops and civilians alike.

Officers agree that Taliban tactics are evolving -- IEDs are getting bigger and more sophisticated in answer to the developing strategy of the international and Afghan security forces.

But as civilian casualties rise, often the blame is laid on the foreign forces -- not the Taliban who detonate the IEDs -- just for being here.

"This kind of war takes time," said camp commander Captain Francisco Xavier Zavala.

"It takes time to develop this relationship with the locals, it takes time to build trust. It's not something that happens overnight."

The reception the Marines received in Golestan was mixed. Some villagers eyed the soldiers with suspicion. Others said they were welcome if it means the fighting and the killing will stop.

"They can win the war and hearts of the people if they hold meetings, sit together with the elders and the mullahs and talk with them and say 'What's your problem? Why are you fighting me?'" said Abdul Hadi, a 20-year-old shopkeeper.

"But they must be united, fight the Taliban and bring security or the people will not be happy," he said, speaking to AFP through a Marine interpreter.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Rule said he took hope from a Sunni Muslim "awakening" in Iraq, which in conjunction with a US troop surge slashed violence.

"In Iraq in 2007 the first six months had the highest casualties and people were saying the insurgents were winning.

"Then the people made a decision that Al-Qaeda was much worse than coalition forces."