Afghans Begining to Feel Pride of Ownership, General Says

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2010 — It was­n’t long ago that Afghans liv­ing in the Hel­mand province were wary of police, large­ly because of their bad expe­ri­ences with Tal­iban rulers. Today, how­ev­er, Afghans are more open to rely­ing on their own police force, and even tip them off to Tal­iban insur­gents.

That was the mes­sage Marine Brig. Gen. Joseph Oster­man deliv­ered to reporters today via a video new brief­ing from Task Force Leath­er­neck in Region­al Com­mand South­west, which he took com­mand of in March.

Osterman’s troops are spread through­out Hel­mand, with some forces in Nim­roz province’s Khash Rod area, he said. The three key dis­tricts in the Hel­mand Riv­er Val­ley for which he’s respon­si­ble are the high­ly pop­u­lat­ed Mar­ja, Nawa and Garm­sir.

The task force’s job is to improve com­pe­tence and abil­i­ty of Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces. “To be quite frank with you, they’ve been doing very well,” the gen­er­al said.

In the San­gin area, one of the biggest secu­ri­ty chal­lenges is around the dis­trict cen­ter, Oster­man said, where troops are “expand­ing the secu­ri­ty bub­ble” out from the dis­trict cen­ter into the upper San­gin Val­ley, and also to the west and east, as well as some down to the “south­ern green zone.”

Mar­ja, which now has more than 300 police offi­cers, is one area where Oster­man sees quite a bit of progress.

While the task force is in the “hold” phase of secu­ri­ty oper­a­tions, they are begin­ning to see “lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of peo­ple in the bazaars on Bazaar Day,” the gen­er­al said. “We’re see­ing a lot of free­dom of move­ment on the roads with fam­i­lies mov­ing about, you know, unescort­ed or any­thing like that. We’ve recent­ly seen the gov­er­nor and gov­ern­ment offi­cial trav­el­ing by road from Lashkar Gah into Mar­ja and back, unescort­ed.”

The police force in Mar­ja did not exist even two months ago, he said. “Most of the peo­ple from Mar­ja would tell you they would want noth­ing at all to do with police, and that was because they had such a ter­ri­ble time with the police under the pre­vi­ous Tal­iban regime,” he said.

Recent­ly, when a child was lost, the Afghans went to their own police offi­cials rather than the U.S. mil­i­tary, and the child turned up fine, Oster­man said.

“The Afghan gov­ern­ment and the provin­cial gov­ern­ment has made Mar­ja their effort,” he said. “We have, obvi­ous­ly, the dis­trict gov­er­nor in there. We’ve got a pros­e­cu­tor in there. We’ve also got a direc­tor of edu­ca­tion who has just recent­ly gone out to help with the build­ing of the Mar­ja high school and the voca­tion­al cen­ter that we’re putting in there right now. So there are those gov­ern­men­tal func­tions that are work­ing well in Mar­ja.”

Even insur­gent inci­dents in Mar­ja have dropped to about one per day, Oster­man said, and most­ly to small-arms fires. “We call them ’shoot and scoot,’ mean­ing it may be an insur­gent, but they’ll just shoot a few rounds off to … try to get some atten­tion, and then they move on,” he said. “So we’re in a very pos­i­tive sense, see­ing very few inci­dents that we would call troops in con­tact.”

Osterman’s Leath­er­neck team is men­tor­ing and giv­ing advice to the new police forces in all the dis­tricts, he said, for secu­ri­ty and gov­er­nance.

The gen­er­al refers to two groups of Tal­iban: the “Big‑T” of lead­er­ship financiers and insur­gents; the “Little‑T” of local res­i­dents who coop­er­ate with Tal­iban.

Mem­bers of the Little‑T group, “for what­ev­er rea­son, whether it be mon­e­tar­i­ly or for just vendet­tas or what­ev­er it might be, decide to join the insur­gency,” he said. “Some of these, par­tic­u­lar­ly like in Mar­ja, are left over from pre­vi­ous days.”

Anoth­er show of progress is how the Afghan peo­ple are con­duct­ing a sys­tem of neigh­bor­hood watch­es, Oster­man said. Peo­ple who oth­er­wise might have joined the insur­gency “are essen­tial­ly rein­te­grat­ing into their com­mu­ni­ties” to form local police and neigh­bor­hood watch-type pro­grams that take issues of local con­cern, he said.

One of the biggest lessons learned so far cen­ters on per­cep­tion man­age­ment, the gen­er­al said. “The peo­ple tru­ly are the prize in the coun­terin­sur­gency fight. And in fact, when you make the per­cep­tion of some­thing hap­pen­ing, then basi­cal­ly they expect that to hap­pen and want you to live up to it.”

The way coali­tion troops apply lessons learned “has to be pret­ty sophis­ti­cat­ed and can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly be a cook­ie cut­ter [approach] because of geo­graph­i­cal dif­fer­ences, trib­al dif­fer­ences, and time,” Oster­man said. “Every three months or so I real­ly see it as a dif­fer­ent bat­tle­field. So those are all fac­tors that tie in to that.”

And, the gen­er­al said, he’s seen that sophis­ti­ca­tion in the young ser­vice­mem­bers serv­ing in Afghanistan.

“I real­ly call it being a sophis­ti­cat­ed Marine,” he said. “We have young troops out there who aren’t much more than 19 or 20 years old. They’re doing every­thing from teach­ing class­es to help­ing with gov­er­nance to work­ing micro­eco­nom­ics, and it real­ly is astound­ing to watch the kinds of things that they’re doing and what they’re capa­ble of.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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