Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 18, 2009
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — When the U.S. Marines burst into Khan Neshin with guns blazing early this month, they quickly defeated insurgent forces in the volatile district of southern Helmand province and declared it Taliban-free.
But the military assault also left a void that urgently needed to be filled and a host of problems that posed very different challenges. There was no sign of official services or control in the long-conflicted region: no aid agencies, no judges to settle land disputes and no officials to register voters for presidential elections next month.
The Marines, drawing on their experiences in Iraq and working closely with British forces and newly arrived teams of U.S. civilian specialists, did not let Khan Neshin languish for long. Within several days they had sent in a small international “stabilization team,” installed a new Afghan district governor and raised an Afghan flag in the central market.
“This fight must not be focused on the Taliban but on the people,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary force in Helmand, speaking Thursday at a base near this provincial capital. As soon as an area is cleared of insurgents, he said, “the key is how to quickly reach into a community that has been terrorized, that is not sure whether the Taliban will come back and whether we will stay.”
But while U.S. and British officials in Helmand told U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry during a day-long visit that the Khan Neshin operation could be a “model” for Washington’s new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, they also cautioned that an equally important element — the effective establishment of Afghan authority and services in former insurgent strongholds — is still badly lacking.
The officials said several factors, including a lack of qualified and educated workers in the remote province, a shortage of housing and office facilities for professionals from larger cities like Kandahar or Kabul, and a series of tensions and rivalries among various Afghan agencies, were impeding the kind of follow-up needed to convince residents that the Afghan government is credible, committed and a better alternative than the Taliban.
“What we need is to put visible Afghan government in these areas,” John Weston, a U.S. civilian aide in Helmand who also worked in Iraq, told Eikenberry and two Western journalists who traveled with him. “Later we can work on making it accountable and effective.” Without a solid Afghan presence, he added, “we will have a lot of well-meaning Americans doing good things, but it will be a trap.”
The combination of a major new military campaign involving 4,000 Marines and a fledgling application of Washington’s new civilian-oriented strategy here make Helmand a critical and closely watched laboratory for the wider application of U.S. policy in Afghanistan during a year that will be critical to the country’s political future and stability.
U.S. and NATO officials are especially eager to ensure that at least a substantial portion of Helmand’s adults will be able to vote for president and provincial council members on Aug. 20 despite the threat of insurgent attacks. They are worried that a low turnout here could dangerously skew the ethnic breakdown of election results.
The officials said they have received special permission to keep registering voters in Helmand as they are liberated from Taliban control, even though the registration deadline has long passed. They predicted that 50 to 60 polling stations would be open and that up to 80 percent of the population might be able to vote.
But Helmand has far more entrenched problems than an election can cure, and both foreign troops and Afghan officials here face an array of local adversaries in addition to the Taliban — a situation that makes Helmand a unique and especially daunting place to test the new U.S. strategy.
First, the province is a vast and lawless desert bordering Iran, which makes it ideal for international smuggling and spying. More important, it is the central stronghold of Afghanistan’s highly lucrative opium production and trafficking industry, whose powerful leaders have formed ties with Taliban forces and provincial officials.
Until recently, U.S. anti-drug programs in Helmand have focused on eradicating opium poppy crops, introducing other legal crops and giving farmers incentives to switch. But that effort has floundered, and now U.S. officials are shifting their emphasis to better law enforcement and interdiction of drug traffickers — a much trickier and more dangerous task.
The current Helmand governor, Gulab Mangal, is highly regarded by Western officials as an honest and professional public servant. But diplomatic and political observers here said his power is constantly threatened by local strongmen and former officials with drug money behind them.
Moreover in several districts tribal and political leaders reached an understanding with Taliban forces several years ago, including a controversial accord in Musa Qala district that was brokered by British forces based there. It is far from clear where the loyalties of those leaders now lie.
“Both the central and provincial governments are not strong here,” said one Western official based in Helmand, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There is no narco-insurgency, but the Taliban and the drug barons are two forces of instability that must both be taken on. So far no one has gone after the kingpins, and they still have a lot of sway.”
Mangal, who hosted a lunch for Eikenberry on Thursday and held a brief news conference in his elaborately decorated new compound, was frank about the challenges he faces, especially the powerful role of drugs in every aspect of provincial life.
“All of Helmand’s problems are tied to poppies,” Mangal told his visitors, asking for U.S. support for the creation of a fruit processing and exporting zone that could compete with poppy cultivation. He also complained that many people in areas like Khan Neshin are convinced that U.S. forces are there temporarily. “They believe you will leave after the elections and the Taliban will return, so they are afraid to help us,” he said.
Eikenberry, a retired Army general who often mingled with the public when he was senior military commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, decided to take a short stroll in the Lashkar Gah bazaar, wearing a sport shirt and no flak jacket but surrounded by armed guards. He astonished shopkeepers as he bought tea and asked their children whether they were going to school. After 10 minutes he was whisked away in a convoy of bulletproof vehicles.
On the flight back to Kabul, the U.S. envoy said he had been impressed by the high level of Western civilian and military cooperation in Helmand but was worried about the lack of Afghan capacity and engagement needed to restore public confidence in the government — and in democratic rule — after years of lawlessness and conflict.
“It is evident to me now that we must shift even more rapidly to developing Afghan civil capabilities,” Eikenberry said. “The government of Afghanistan does not have the ability to go in quickly and build and govern after our troops clear areas of the Taliban threat. We must redouble our efforts to help them do that.”