FORWARD OPERATING BASE MARJAH, HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
A little more than a week since it first began, the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition program has begun to gain momentum in Marjah, Afghanistan, April 14. The program is one of several others, including programs provided by non-governmental organizations, which the Afghan government and coalition forces are conducting in order to foster agricultural growth.
The programs are designed to assist farmers and landowners in their transition to alternate and licit crops. In many, but not all cases, this involves the switch from opium, the illicit product of poppy cultivation, to other crops that will allow participants to make a living, legally.
Designed as a short term solution meant to give the city’s citizens a leg to stand on, MAAT is aimed specifically at residents of Marjah and only for the current harvest season, in order to stabilize the city’s market and provide residents with a viable and legal source of income.
“We are trying to ease the transition from illicit crops to licit in order to prepare for next year,” explained Maj. David Fennell the Civil Affairs team leader attached to 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “We want the Afghan people to understand that we’re trying to help them transition even though we’re interfering with [the opium] market.”
The registration for the program is a multistep process where those wishing to participate first sign up with the NGO’s, from whom they will receive seeds and fertilizer. Next, they can choose to participate in the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition program. If they decide to take part in MAAT, they will register where they live, the amount of land they farm on, and what crop they grow.
Participants will be issued ID cards as well as vouchers, which will be used later on when they run across Marine patrols, who will look in on those who have signed up for the program, in order to gauge whether or not they have made the change to their target crop.
If MAAT-registered land owners make the change to licit crops, they will then receive payment, 3,000 Afghanis and new tools, including wheelbarrows, shovels, and a new water pump.
To date approximately 1,000 people have registered for the program, Fennell explained, adding that although the turnout wasn’t as large as was first anticipated, it is seen as a good sign in light of reports from locals stating that residents have received threats from the Taliban. Many of which came in the form of night letters, which are written warnings delivered in the evening, forbidding locals from interacting with coalition forces.
“We’re here to make a good will gesture,” said Fennell. “The thing I personally like about [MAAT] is that the Taliban don’t like it. Once we started this, reports of night letters and death threats arose, and engagements with the Taliban in the area increased. Once that happened, it was a sign that this was working.”
“The Taliban haven’t had the effect that they wanted,” said Fennell when he referenced a protest that broke out in front of the government center a few days prior. “The protest wasn’t the end goal for the Taliban, it was meant to be a catalyst designed to create a riotous event, but the Marines, through strength and discipline kept it from happening by defusing the situation. At that moment, they fought the Taliban and won.”
Projects of this nature affect the insurgency on two fronts. The first is by challenging one of the core aims of the Taliban, which is the interaction of coalition forces with locals.
“Any contact you have with a local national is a good thing,” said Fennell. “The goal of the Taliban is to keep us from engaging with the government or populace in any way. This program creates another opportunity for us to interact with them and vice versa.”
The second front is more direct. By assisting farmers and land owners in changing their crops, it allows many of them to switch from growing opium, which is one of the Taliban’s primary sources of income, explained 1st Lt. Michael Thatcher, the platoon commander for 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapon’s Company, 1/6.
“This provides the opportunity and incentive [for farmers] to move away from illicit crops and denies the Taliban money to fight as well as benefiting the local populace,” said Thatcher.