Marines show counterinsurgency works in Nawa

LA Times:


(Lt.Col.) McCollough was in the lead helicopter on a moonless night back in June when about 100 Marines arrived to relieve a British army platoon that had been pinned down for months in what had once been the Nawa district government center.

Within minutes, Taliban fighters let loose with automatic weapons from the tree line just 200 yards away. Marines returned fire and began flanking the Taliban. The fight lasted most of the night, with the Marines chasing the militants away from the government center.

The next morning, 50 village elders were banging at the gate of the government center, demanding to know what the Marines were doing.

McCollough explained that they had replaced the British and were there to break the Taliban stranglehold that had closed the village bazaar and led to Taliban checkpoints, extortion and summary executions. He also explained that the U.S. would pay for any damage done by Marines to homes and farms during the fighting.

The incremental work of counterinsurgency had begun.

After weeks of sporadic fighting, the Taliban largely fled to a neighboring village. The government center and the bazaar reopened, and a smiling, glad-handing veteran of the U.S.-backed fight here against the Soviets in the 1980s was installed as district governor. He and McCollough bonded immediately.

The troops in the helicopters were followed two weeks later by hundreds of additional Marines, McCollough's entire battalion. Two dozen highly visible outposts were established. The battalion would not become a "garrison force" bottled up in a large base behind barbed wire -- an early U.S. mistake in Iraq.

"The goal was that every resident in this district would see a Marine within just a few days of us arriving," McCollough said.

With a semblance of safety assured, a "civilian surge" began: U.S. and British government workers who, in tandem with Marine civil affairs officers, met with Afghans to determine a list of priority projects.

"The No. 1 thing was security," McCollough said. "After security, four things came up in talks with the Afghans: roads, clinics, schools, canals. How can you argue with that? That's what America represents to the world."


As McCollough's battalion prepared to return to Camp Pendleton this month -- to be replaced by one from Hawaii -- his counterinsurgency efforts were drawing high marks from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. The Nawa district had begun an evident, but sometimes halting, recovery.

"He gets it," said Michael Butt, director of the small grants program for U.S.-based International Relief & Development. "He makes the Afghans partners. He doesn't dictate or kowtow."

Nawa district Gov. Haji Abdul Manaf, a combat leader during the CIA-backed fight against Soviet forces, said he was sorry to see McCollough and his troops going home.

"Col. Bill thinks like an Afghan," Manaf said. "He helped the bad people die, but he didn't hurt any of the good people."

One way that risk for civilians was reduced was limiting the use of mortars and air power during the summer assault. McChrystal has emphasized avoiding civilian casualties.

At McCollough's orders, the Marines launched foot patrols to rout the Taliban. Now the children of Nawa sing:

"When the British were here, they were afraid the Taliban were in the corn.

"Now the Taliban are afraid the Marines are in the corn."

There is much more.

I like the troops description of McCollough as the Jedi, because of his coolness under pressure. These Marines have demonstrated that counterinsurgency can work in Afghanistan. Hopefully, the administration will give this strategy a chance and will not pull the plug before the Afghans are ready to defend themselves.


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