Time, Trust Key to Progress in Afghanistan

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.”

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

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