HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
“Marines, good; Taliban, no good.”
It’s the phrase on the lips of children in Central Helmand province while Marines patrol through the bazaars.
“Glasses,” says another smiling child, gesturing toward a Marine’s protective eye wear. “Two dollars.”
Predictably, the transaction is declined, but you can’t blame him for asking. Sunglasses are small change compared to what International Security Assistance Force has invested here. The multi-national coalition force is building schools, clearing canals, repaving roads, and mentoring government officials. Marine battalions are providing microgrants to small business owners. To discuss ongoing progress in the region, Col. David Furness, the commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 1, the headquarters element of four infantry battalions in Central Helmand province, met here with Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the commanding general of Regional Command Southwest, Nov. 17.
In the weeks prior to Mills’ visit, Furness had been touring Central Helmand Province.In Marjah, he chatted with the battalion commanders and mingled with the locals, many of whom are becoming familiar faces. While patrolling with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, he climbed a crude step ladder leading to a patio with a thatched roof. Beef kabobs sizzled on a small grill. The embers glowed faintly in the shade as tiny wisps of smoke dissipated almost instantly. The locals offered him something to eat.
“The Marines are well respected throughout Central Helmand by the local people because we have demonstrated through our actions that we respect their culture, religion, and we have protected them from the Taliban,” Furness said.
Rewind one day and Furness is on another bazaar walk in Nawa. This time, Senators McCain, Lieberman, Graham and Gillibrand are there, having just arrived in the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey. Seated on the floor, in the peace and quiet of the governor’s Marine house in the district governance center, they discuss future plans and current progress in the area while enjoying a traditional Afghan meal. This time, a few of the Marines huddle expectantly by the door. The Afghan children like tactical sunglasses, and patrolling Marines like kabobs.
To anyone following the counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, it’s no secret that Nawa is the model of success. What pundits disagree on is if that success can be replicated in other, more troubled areas and if so, how.
“Progress is won in this fight by persistent presence in the small villages where 90 percent of the population of Central Helmand province resides,” Furness said. “Over time, securing the population allows reconstruction and development to occur. As the local Afghan’s life improves, as he enjoys the benefits of improved security, development and reconstruction, he begins to believe that [the Afghan government’s] vision of the future is a better alternative to the life he led under the Taliban, and he begins to help coalition forces deny the Taliban freedom of movement, logistical support, and money. This is how sustainable progress is attained in this type of struggle, and it is won one village at a time, one Afghan at a time.”
Furness said his Marines have clearly gained the initiative over the Taliban in Central Helmand province. Marjah, the center of focus for RCT-1, reflects the momentum that coalition forces have built, he said.
“More village elders are offering up their young men to join the local Afghan Uniformed Police,” Furness said. “They are frequently providing local Afghan forces information on Taliban movements, weapons caches, and the location of IEDs. This greatly reduces the ability of the Taliban to operate in Marjah. As more and more blocks in Marjah reject the Taliban and deny him safe haven and logistical support, he is forced into marginal terrain where the people do not live. There, he is much easier to target and kill. He has a choice: reintegrate into the new Afghanistan or die.”
Furness believes progress here is clear. He cited a 50 percent reduction in the enemy’s rate of activity in his area of operation, which includes the Marjah, Garmsir and Nawa districts, during the past year. He stated that the local government has taken the lead in handling civil disputes. But most importantly, he said, younger Afghans are being groomed to bear the responsibilities of democracy so that future generations can reap the rewards.
“In the three districts that make up the RCT-1 area of operations, we have about 10,000 children attending school every day,” said Furness. “Those children are the future of Afghanistan and are the most precious asset of the local Afghan people. Sending your children to school is a vote for the Afghan government and the best gauge of progress in the security situation.”
Later during his tour of Marjah, Furness visited one of the schools ISAF and the Afghan government helped build.
“Marines good; Taliban, no good,” the boy chirped at one of the Marines in Furness’ entourage.
Then came the predictable request – or the request to which Marines patrolling Marjah have grown the most accustomed. Eyes wide and hopeful, the boy wasn’t looking at the Marine’s weapon or sleek, black sunglasses. He didn’t ask for candy.
After checking to make sure no other children were watching, the Marine handed a simple but powerful tool to a boy who may one day write a happier page of history for himself and his people.