NAWA, Afghanistan — On a hot May afternoon, an angry group of 30 Afghan men strode up to Nawa’s district police headquarters and demanded the chief’s help in settling a pay dispute.
All but one of the men accused a contractor of paying 1,500 workers just two days’ wages for five days’ work. The lone man out, a paymaster of sorts for the contractor, didn’t dispute shorting the workers’ wages. He didn’t have enough money left, he said, after he was forced to pay a Taliban tax.
The chief listened, but didn’t buy the Taliban part of the story. In other districts, such an account might have been believable, but not in Nawa.
Since a battalion of U.S. Marines stormed this district in Helmand province in July 2009, insurgents are only an occasional nuisance. The Marines of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, who now oversee most of the district, have had no combat injuries or fatalities and no serious firefights in the first six months of their deployment.
“This is what winning looks like,” said Marine Capt. Mike Regner, the company’s commander. “You know you’ve won when the fourth-string bad guy is your No. 1 target.”
Far ahead of Marjah and Garmsir, two of its neighboring districts, Nawa has already entered what the military calls “transition,” a phase of the war that involves the slow handover of responsibility to Afghan institutions. Episodes like the police mediation session are common. Nawa has a functioning government and security forces that residents feel comfortable approaching — even when the Taliban attempt to intimidate them, Regner and other Marines said.
Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, has hailed the district as a model for counterinsurgency, an approach that puts protecting civilians and winning the hearts and minds of the population ahead of crushing the enemy by force.
It is not unusual to find a helicopter load of Washington officials poking around, eager to see what triumph in Afghanistan might look like.
But Nawa is not as close to independence as these Marines believed just six months ago.
While security here is no longer in question, the Afghans’ ability to sustain it without assistance is. The Afghan police forces, key to the transition of security, are understaffed and hampered by illiteracy. The abundance of aid has created a nanny state in the heart of Helmand, where Afghans have little interest in solving their own problems.
Even as delegations of Washington insiders continue to pile out of Marine choppers, questions are growing as to whether Nawa can serve as a broader template for success in the nearly 10-year-old war.
Finding what works
Regner arrived in this district on the west bank of the Helmand River with a plan. He was to facilitate the transition to Afghan control by immediately spreading his company across the battle space, freeing up other combat forces to go north to contested areas. Afghan soldiers and police were to provide the bulk of security, and Regner’s Marines were to advise and assist them as needed.
“Never happened,” he said.
“So, did we have to adjust? Absolutely. Because we’re still here.”
The Marines had good reason to pin their hopes on Nawa’s security forces in the beginning. The unit of 500 Afghan National Army soldiers assigned to the district is headed by a capable commander who works well with Nawa’s District Chief of Police Maj. Sayfullah, who like many Afghans uses one name. The locals approached Sayfullah with their pay dispute, which is a sign of progress, even though he was unable to resolve the matter and had to pass it on to the U.S. agency that hired the contractor.
Sayfullah, an import from Helmand’s Sangin district, brought in a Turkmen from Jowzjan who recruited about one-half of Nawa’s force from among his family and friends back home.
Despite the language barrier — the Turkmen don’t speak Pashto — the Marines and their civilian counterparts believe importing police has been good for Nawa.
“If you’re from the local area, you’re much more susceptible to pressures from individuals, you’re much more easily threatened,” said Phillip Horne, the district’s interim stability adviser.
But when Company G arrived, the police were incapable of operating without their help, and they still are. While police in at least one precinct run two or more independent security patrols a day in addition to their daily patrols with Marines, they are hampered by mediocre logistical and administrative support at the district and provincial levels, and rely on the Marines for basics like water.
Rampant illiteracy compounds their problems. Only one officer at Fasludeen, the precinct that Company G Marines believe is most prepared to take the lead, can read and write. That officer, Lt. Samula, said the precinct needs more literate officers to help with paperwork and about 70 more police — joining the 20 it has — before the Marines can leave. He’s unlikely to get that.
The Afghan government has authorized 52 police for Fasludeen precinct, Regner said. He blames inept higher-level Afghan police administration for failing to reallocate police from overstaffed areas such as Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, to understaffed districts like Nawa, which has less than 80 percent of its allotted force, he said.
Still, that force would be able to do the job alone if the Afghan supply chain worked, according to Company G Marines who mentor the police.
“We get them … supporting themselves logistically at this level, these precincts will be able to function without us,” said Marine 1st Lt. Todd Miller, who oversaw Fasludeen for the first five months of Company G’s tour. He said that if that issue alone were worked out, the precincts could be ready for complete turnover in seven months, while the district headquarters might take a year.
Samula is less confident of his force’s capabilities and Miller’s time line.
“Maybe it’ll take five, six, 10 more years,” he said when asked to assess when his precinct will be ready to function independently. “We need intelligent ANP. However long that takes.”
Still moving forward
Despite the setback, security is so improved here that the Marines have thinned their ranks considerably. The majority of the battalion is being reallocated to areas with heavier fighting. By summer, a fraction of the number who rode in two years ago will remain.
And while a full transition is stalled until the police catch up, it is moving forward, Regner said.
He and his company, along with a Marine civil affairs group, a British-run district support team and the U.S. Agency for International Development, continue to support and mentor Afghan security forces and the local government.
As head of that government, District Governor Abdul Manaf boasts that he’s met all but three U.S. government officials: the defense secretary, the FBI director and President Barack Obama. There are certainly others, but the list seems to get shorter every week as more officials, members of Congress and senators eager to see progress in Afghanistan visit and meet the governor.
Manaf has ministers assigned to all key positions, and a community council with elected representatives from all seven of Nawa’s sub-districts meets weekly to hash out issues. There are new government buildings, schools, a health clinic, even a bank.
All of those things were paid for or facilitated by the Marines and their civilian counterparts, who have supplied about $30 million in assistance into the district.
Though there is no accurate count of how many people live here, the Marines’ best estimate is 160,000. For every man, woman and child, the Marines and their civilian counterparts have spent nearly $200. While not a staggering sum, it is a windfall in a country where the minimum wage for private-sector workers is roughly $43 per month.
At least in part, the cash boon has had its intended effect.
A large chunk of the $30 million came from the U.S. Agency for International Development for a program that triggered a widespread shift from poppy to wheat, which now blankets Nawa’s fertile fields. The few small poppy plots still found among the wheat are likely for “personal use,” Regner said.
The aid also revitalized the local bazaar, which was all but shuttered before the Marines’ arrival, and generated jobs and income.
All this gives needed clout to Manaf’s government. But at the same time, it has squashed any motivation the Afghans had to find solutions to their own problems. Compared to the security forces, the district government is behind on the development curve, Regner and Horne said.
The abundance of aid has had one big unintended consequence: The Afghan people know where the money comes from, and they expect it to keep coming.
Marine Maj. Jason Johnson runs the civil affairs group that oversees many of the development and direct-aid projects in Nawa. He has in his office four or five applications for micro-grants — essentially free money.
In April last year, the civil affairs group gave out more than $92,000 in such grants to locals. At the time, the Marines announced that a micro-financing company would follow on its heels, giving the district access to even more cash.
Soon after, a bank opened in the bazaar.
“But they charge interest, and so no one wants to use them,” Johnson said. “They’d rather get stuff for free from us.”
That expectation goes all the way to the top.
In a May 10 interview with Johnson present, Manaf said he’d like for the Marines to build an electrical system to power the whole district and corn and wheat processing factories so the people wouldn’t have to buy flour from Pakistan. Before the interview, Manaf asked Johnson to replace a faulty air conditioner in his living quarters.
An hour later, the district’s education minister met with Johnson and Horne, the interim stability adviser, to discuss building projects. The minister’s top priority: a bathroom for his office. After Johnson and Horne tabled that to focus on schools — many students here learn in open-air classrooms because there aren’t enough schools — the minister left in a huff. “You talk a lot, but give me nothing,” he said through an interpreter.
Regner acknowledges that the Marines have inadvertently created this culture. Last spring, the Marines hired about 7,000 villagers to clean out their canals. This spring, the Afghans expected the same thing — to be paid to maintain their own property.
“They learned to stop doing for themselves,” Regner said.
While the villagers appreciate the long-sought security and the millions of dollars spent, they want the Marines to fix the rest of their problems, too.
Regner and others question the wisdom of applying the strategy used here to other parts of Afghanistan.
“I’m right now dealing with the unintended consequences,” Regner said, “of overspending [and] overreliance on Marines — overreliance which has caused atrophy of some of the natural capabilities of the people.”