Time, Trust Key to Progress in Afghanistan
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 2010 Before he went to the southern area of Afghanistan’s Helmand province in October 2009 he wondered whether success was possible, a Marine Corps colonel said during an interview here today.
“I’m now convinced that it absolutely can be done, having watched the Marines do it on a regular basis for a year,” said Col. Randy Newman, commander of the 7th Marine Regiment based in Twenty Nine Palms, Calif.
As commander of Regimental Combat Team 7, Newman led Marine Corps forces fighting to establish security in Marjah, while working to stabilize Nawa and Garmsir, where Marines had largely cleared out insurgents.
“In Nawa, we’re seeing great progress,” Newman said. “The Afghans were able to assume some of the security, as I left [in November]. We still have work to do in developing the government and the economic base, but it’s headed in the right direction. Same thing in Garmsir, we’re seeing progress.”
In Marjah, where Marines have operated since February 2009, the fighting isn’t over, he said.
“It will take us some time, but I saw all the encouraging signs that we would expect to see out of Marjah, given where it is in the process,” he said.
The Marine strategy in southern Helmand is to place eight-to-10-man groups in villages to ensure security for the locals.
“I think it’s a partnership with the Afghan people that formed out of being there with them on the ground, in their village, living there with them,” Newman said. “The benefits of that just come automatically.”
After 30 years of conflict, Afghans are ready for something else, he said, adding, “You give them the opportunity to pick that something else, they will do so.”
Comparing Afghanistan counterinsurgency operations to those in Iraq, he said fighting the threat is similar in some ways, but the people are very different.
“In Afghanistan the population is widely dispersed, with very little of what we consider the modern effects on infrastructure: electricity and paved roads, things like that,” Newman said. “Whereas Iraq was used to having robust government, robust infrastructure, and I guess I would say more modern in terms of the infrastructure and how it touched the people.”
That means that counterinsurgent forces in Afghanistan have to be widely dispersed, where the people live, he said.
“Small units of men partnered directly with small groups of people in as wide an area as we can reach - that’s what the Marines are doing in the Helmand river [valley],” he said.
Those small groups of Marines see success in ways that others can’t, Newman said.
“They are in place where before they got there, a guy told these people how to live, treated them brutally and gave them very little freedom,” he said. “[The Marines] come there, that man leaves, and the Afghan people get to determine what they want their future to be – for their kids, for themselves, for everyone. I think that’s why the Marines enjoy going back, because they can see success, very clearly.”
Newman said there are three groups in Helmand that the Marines are contesting with: the Taliban, an ideologically based group; people who are hungry for power or are in powerful positions and want to keep them; and people who are “just trying to make a buck, money.”
“So whether it be ideology, politics or money, I think we find three groups of people who will find nothing of benefit from us coming there and providing additional security and making their government more effective,” he said.
Newman said in the Afghan struggle for money, power, and ideological control – “the way things ought to run there” – the Marines are working to disarm the various factions.
“We’ve got to get them to understand that they can’t pursue it by means of force [or by] threatening people,” he said. “If they want to enter into the political realm and discuss, and vote, that’s the right way to go about letting them decide what their future is. It can’t be done by force of power.”
Meanwhile, the population is skeptical of Marine efforts, he said.
“I think what they’ve conditioned themselves to now is to play their cards very close to their chest, take a look at who’s there and what their intentions are and how trustworthy they are,” he said. “And earning the trust of the people takes time – we go back to that issue in counterinsurgency of time. With the Afghan people especially, we’ve got to take the time to earn their trust, before we can take great steps forward.”
Marine forces are earning the trust of the people by being present and demonstrating their intentions are in the Afghans’ interest, he said.
“In the Helmand river valley, the places where we’ve been long enough to start to earn trust, two years or so, I think we begin to see the people recognize that they can trust what we’re showing them as an option for the future,” Newman said.
Helmand has a primarily agrarian economy, and one focus in more secure areas is establishing legal crops, he said.
“Farmers are growing whatever farmers can make money on. Before we got there it was poppy. But in the area where we’ve been for a while, like Nawa, the poppy production fell off and they were more than happy to grow wheat, cotton, or any other crop,” he said. “In places we haven’t been yet, it’s poppy, but that’s changing as we spread our influence through the Helmand river valley.”
The three groups fighting for control in Helmand make it almost risk-free for people to grow poppy, he said.
“There’s a high profit margin for the farmer. They’ll come to the farmer and get it, they’ll give the farmer the supplies to plant it, so it eliminates a lot of the risk that can be associated with farming,” Newman said.
Now, Newman said, the Marines have proven to the people they can grow other crops and still support their families.
In discussing what the Afghan people need to sustain the gains coalition forces have helped make possible, Newman said a couple of resources are the most critical.
“If they say a school needs to be built, they’re more than happy to build a school. They don’t want somebody to come in and build it for them, all they’d like for us to do is help with the resources, and then let them build a school,” he said. “It will be the school that they want, and most importantly the one that they built. So they need help with materials, and most importantly they need human resources.”
Establishing local governments in Afghanistan requires a level of literacy and education in the population, Newman said. While coalition nations and the Afghan government are working to educate more of the remote population, those efforts will take time.
“When you talk about them moving forward in their ability to govern themselves, there may be a period of time where that’s not achievable, for them to have local representation that meets all those requirements,” he said. “So I think it’s resources, again – all they’re looking for is a little bit of peace and security for them to operate within, with some resources that we provide them, both human and material.”