4 years, 10 months ago
From the AFP in Marjah, Afghanistan, yet another report that demonstrates that the population may not be the center of gravity of an insurgency in every situation.
When US Major James Coffman presented a plan to restore healthcare to a southern Afghan town after years of Taliban rule and weeks of fighting, he thought it was a winner.
“We need your advice on what and how to bring assistance, training, equipment,” he told four Afghan doctors and pharmacists, who stroked their beards after braving bombs and Taliban threats to meet US Marine commanders.
Too bad for Coffman that the Afghans were unconvinced.
“It’s best for us at the moment if you don’t help. At least not until security returns,” said Doctor Azim softly. His colleagues agreed.
“Crossing Marjah to get here, I was stopped three times by the Taliban who asked me where I was going, if I was working for the Americans. It’s too dangerous,” he said.
The Marines looked like they had been punched.
Last month they led 15,000 troops into Marjah in a massive effort to wipe out Taliban insurgents and return control to the government in what was billed as the biggest military offensive since the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
With the main fighting phase over, Marines are under orders to move to the next level — develop reconstruction and restore services to make it harder for the Taliban to come back, and bring a quick end to the war, in its ninth year …
Despite their best intentions, 3rd batallion, 6th regiment Marines Corp found it difficult to get healthcare workers onside in the rural settlement where homes are built of mud and poppy fields run to the horizon.
“You were brave enough to come this way. We know about the IED (improvised explosive device) threats and Taliban retaliation,” said Coffman, trying to cajole the doctors on Forward Operating Base Sharwali, the US Marine base north of Marjah.
“Afghanistan will be rebuilt by strong men like you,” he said.
US Marines recently conducted a 27-hour operation searching more than 60 farms around Marjah, looking for remnants of the Taliban and defusing bombs left behind by insurgents in the fields and on the roads.
In a small cemetery, the biggest grave contains the remains of a Taliban member killed by “American animals,” according to an inscription.
Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas, the Marine commander for northern Marjah, listened to the doctors’ concerns and promised to take action and continue night patrols.
“If it’s a day where we don’t find IEDs, that I don’t have my guys under small arms fire, that people go to the bazaar and my guys come back safe, it’s a good day,” he told AFP.
“The Taliban are here. They haven’t left. They look at us as well as we look at them.”
To the doctors, he said: “Security is here. There will always be a threat, but the Taliban won’t prevent you from helping your people.”
Doctor Azim appeared to disagree. “The Taliban glue pamphlets on our doors banning us from opening our pharmacies,” he said.
The four visitors were unanimous — there can be no direct contact with American forces. It would be “too dangerous.”
A suggestion that they nominate a trusted go-between to pass on messages was greeted by a polite silence.
But Christmas refused to take no for an answer.
“There are Taliban, but at some point good people from Marjah have to stand up and do something. We’ll work to help you. It’s time for you to stand up and say ‘we want clinics’,” he said.
Doctor Noor Ahmad, who studied at university in Kabul and whose long white beard and golden glasses lend him an air of wisdom, suggests the tribal leaders return. “They are the solution,” he says.
Christmas closes the meeting, acknowledging that the longer they wait to ask the elders to return, the more difficult it will be to get them to come back.
To Azim he says: “I’ll give you my number. Any time you have decided to do something, you tell me.”
Azim’s response is pragmatic: “If they know I’ve got your number, I’ll end up with my head on a spike.”
“Memorise my number then,” fires back Christmas.
“They don’t say ‘no.’ Only the fact they are here means they said ‘yes.’ We just have to find the way out,” the commander sighed.
Colonel Gian Gentile famously says that the center of gravity of an insurgency must be “discovered.” I have pointed out that there can be multiple foci of counterinsurgency campaigns. Security comes first in Marjah (see also “we don’t need your help, just security“). Of course, it will be difficult to find the Taliban since they are embedded with the population and the population is so intimidated by them. But this intimidation is the very reason that it must be done.
Since Marjah is a collection of settlements rather than an urban area, gated communities won’t work. But if the doctor was stopped three times by the Taliban, it’s possible to find them. It may take more Marines, heavy patrolling, snipers, distributed operations, census taking, and other techniques. But it can be done.
Helping the population means killing the Taliban – not capturing them (and releasing them within 96 hours), not capturing and counseling, not reintegrating them into society again, not opening medical clinics, and not paying them to protect the population against themselves. The way out is to kill the Taliban.