MARJAH, Afghanistan --
Marines with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, along with members of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, are helping Marjah farmers cope with one of the toughest harvesting seasons in southern Afghanistan in recent memory through a food zone distribution program.
Right outside the Civil-Military Operations Center at northern Marjah’s Camp Hansen, home to 3/6, Marines and members of the Helmand PRT register local Afghan farmers for the distribution program, and supply participating farmers with 50 kilograms each of urea, DAP, radish, beans and sesame seeds.
“We’re helping out local nationals transition from dependence on poppy as primary crop to alternative crops,” said Maj. James F. Coffman, civil affairs officer for 3/6, who also heads the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition Program in 3/6’s area of operations.
With the combination of combat operations and a harsh winter, the farmers are struggling to maintain their crops to sustain a living.
“The harvest this year has been pretty bad. You can see the negative effects the brutal winter had on the crops. All the farmers are saying this is one of the worst harvesting seasons,” Coffman said.
“We give these people something else so they are not strung out, without any money and nowhere else to turn. We are trying to give them different options, different crops so where they don’t have to turn to the Taliban,” said Coffman, 41, from Rome, Ga.
The participating farmers pay 1,000 Afghanis per package of the fertilizer and crop seeds. One 50-kilogram bag of urea alone can go for as much as 1,000 Afghanis in the local market.
“It’s important that they sacrifice something. It’s more of a symbolic gesture than anything,” Coffman said.
Although not as prominent as a cash crop that poppy has been, Coffman is persistently convincing local farmers that the alternative crops being provided will make them more money in the long run.
“You’re going to profit more in the long run, because you’re not going to have to give your poppy to the Taliban, or other narco-drug lords,” Coffman said.
Similar distribution efforts have been organized in several areas throughout Helmand province, with approximately 16,800 packages distributed to Afghan farmers throughout those areas.
A Taliban murder and intimidation campaign has presented challenges to these programs, but only shows signs of desperation.
Coffman told of one story where the Taliban approached a participating farmer to hand over his fertilizer and seeds. The Afghan farmer refused, causing the Taliban to threaten his life if he continued his cooperation with the Marines. The defiant farmer pledged his continued support of the local NATO forces. The situation escalated to weapons drawn all around. It took the village elders to quell the situation.
“The murder and intimidation campaign shows a desperate Taliban. They are clinging on to this hold that they have on the local populace. And the only way they can hold on to this is to be bullies. Slowly but surely, the light bulb is coming on with the local nationals,” said Coffman, a graduate of Sanford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Afghan farmers like Mohammad Aneb continue to seek Marine support and assistance, in the face of mafia-like tactics from the local Taliban.
“It’s very dangerous. They do not want us to come here,” said Aneb, 30, from Marjah, who is struggling to support his wife and 10 children. “When I come here, I have to make sure my face is covered, and I wear my sunglasses.”
The persistent efforts of the Helmand PRT and the local Marine civil affairs group counter Taliban intimidation tactics, and increase farmer turnout and interaction between NATO forces and local Afghan residents.
“We are poor and jobless in the village. I don’t have anything for my family. That’s why I am happy the Marines are here,” Aleb said.
Andre Meyer, the distribution manager at Camp Hansen, has registered and distributed packages of the fertilizer and seeds to 1,066 Marjah farmers, with an ultimate goal of 4,602 farmers reached by the end of the first week of May. Still, Meyer believes the success of the program hinges on the continued security efforts provided by the Marines of 3/6, who cleared the northern portion of Marjah in mid-February during Operation Moshtarak.
“I’m very happy with it. In the long run, it’s going to be worthwhile, as long as security is kept up,” Meyer said.
Like most counterinsurgency operations throughout southern Afghanistan, the ultimate goal of these programs is the trust and confidence of the Afghans.
“We want them to understand Marines and (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) is here to help, not harm,” said Coffman. “If we facilitate them being in a better position, and break the perpetual cycle of poverty they are in with the Taliban and drug lords, it will show that we are the good guys, we are trying to help.”