KHALAJ, GARMSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan --
As long as there is daylight at Patrol Base Jaker, the feistiest merchants of Khalaj bazaar stand outside the gate, ceaselessly advertising kabobs and energy drinks in their shrill, adolescent voices.
Turn your head toward them, and their volume and frequency increases. Start talking, and they’ve got you for about eight dollars: the price of naan, a healthy hunk of chicken, stewed potatoes and a standard two-dollar tip.
Since the Marines set up camp in Khalaj, a village in Nawa district, Helmand province, the local economy has done nothing but expand. Already, the six square-mile bazaar is home to approximately 4,000 Afghans, and it’s a venue of merchants from miles around, said Capt. Mike Regner, the commanding officer of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
“Eighty square miles of people are putting their goods in the back of a truck and bringing it to Khalaj Bazaar,” said Regner, from Charleston, S.C.
Khalaj continues to grow. In fact, the Civil Affairs Group with 2/3 is currently supervising construction of 70 new shops that stretch along a canal just outside Jaker’s main gate.
Regner said merchants from as far as Herat province, in western Afghanistan, visit the bazaar to purchase goods, such as produce, livestock, textiles, meat and poultry.
“Bazaar Friday” is the busiest day at Khalaj, according to the Golf Company Marines. On Fridays, about 3,000 people set up shop in an open field behind the bazaar storefronts. There, merchants sell carpets out the back of station wagons, and butchers dangle freshly cut meat from their stands. One vendor sold soft ice cream, which came out of the machine in pink-white twists. With laughing children darting between the booths, Bazaar Friday resembles a small town fair in the United States.
Capt. John Pooler, the CAG team leader with 2/3, said that progressively tighter security and continuing improvements to the local infrastructure have revved up the engine of the local economy.
Where prior CAGs occasionally had to push projects without much community involvement, the 2/3 CAG is now responding to the community’s requests for assistance, Pooler said.
Pooler mentioned that the community is becoming more aware of government programs, such as the Afghan Social Outreach Program, the District Development Plan and the Performance-Based Government Fund.
“I view my job as connecting the people to the government,” Pooler said.
The continued development of Afghan Uniformed Police has also helped the local economy, Regner said. Of approximately 250 stationed in the bazaar and throughout the outlying area, 200 work in close proximity to Patrol Base Jaker, where they benefit from Marine mentors, said Regner. The others are periodically rotated closer to Jaker so all AUP get proper training, he said.
Regner added that AUP Maj. Sayfullah Kahn, the new local police chief, has been an invaluable asset to coalition forces.
“The news police chief is a by the book, professional policeman,” said Regner, contrasting him with the old police chief who was relieved on multiple charges of corruption.
“[Kahn] is probably the best thing to happen to security in Nawa,” Regner said.
According to Pooler, the next step for the Khalaj economy is expansion into new industries.
Khalaj is an agrarian society, where the people’s livelihood comes primarily from livestock and produce -- or peddling goods, such as the energy drinks local children sell to the Marines at Jaker.
Pooler said he is trying to help broaden the economic horizon through more educational opportunities, such as the adult literacy program and a vocational training center. Twelve students are currently enrolled in the literacy program, and the VTC is still in the planning stages.
Khalaj also has a K-12 school with 43 teachers and approximately 2,500 students.
According to Pooler, the community’s continued success after the eventual departure of the Marines remains to be seen.
Until then, kabobs continue to sizzle outside the Jaker gate.