Despite Marines’ presence, fear of Taliban persists in Afghan town
Stars and Stripes November 14, 2009
DELARAM, Afghanistan — The Marines were making good on a promise, delivering a dozen backpacks full of pencils and notebooks to a boys school they had discovered just a few weeks earlier while on patrol.
But the schoolmaster’s demeanor was markedly different from the first time the Marines had dropped off supplies. Then, he had said he would invite the Marines for tea the next time they stopped by.
Now, he thanked them politely for the gifts, but was clearly uneasy. So the Marines kept the visit short.
"If there’s anything we can do for you in the future, let us know," said Master Sgt. Warren Coughlin of the 4th Civil Affairs Group. "Otherwise, we’ll stay away. We don’t want to cause you any problems."
It was not what they had hoped for.
"We just wanted to sit down and have a chat with him," Coughlin said. "But, apparently, in the intervening time, some people here said something to him."
Two years after the Marines first deployed to Delaram, a hardscrabble town in southwestern Afghanistan’s Nimruz province, a pervasive fear of the Taliban continues to underlie nearly every facet of life.
Delaram is relatively stable compared to other regions where rebel fighters are battling international troops. Only a few suicide attacks and fatal shootings of Marines and Afghan police have occurred in the last two years.
But U.S. troops, and the civilian specialists who recently joined them, seem to have hit a wall in terms of trying to build trust with the local residents and promote some sort of civilized society.
Their goal has been to create a model of change for one of southern Afghanistan’s most impoverished and lawless regions. But intimidation by the militants is complicating their efforts to improve security, foster local governance and launch developmental aid projects.
"I think [the people] really want to help us, most of them," said 2nd Lt. Troy Gent, 31, of Cedar City, Utah, who commands a platoon from Company I, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, which is posted alongside Afghan police. "But since there’s still that Taliban influence here, they’re still afraid."
It is unclear how entrenched the Taliban truly are in Delaram, a trading hub about 150 miles from the border with Iran. But they have proved capable of influencing townspeople and villagers in dramatic ways.
In early October, townspeople rioted for three days, keeping the Marines and local officers hemmed into the police station after a rumor spread that U.S. forces had burned a Quran and killed a dog and dragged it through a mosque.
U.S. forces said the incident never happened and blame the Taliban for spreading the falsehood. Gunmen fired randomly from the crowd, apparently trying to provoke the Marines and Afghan police into shooting back and killing rioters. But the Marines and police did not return fire, and there were no serious casualties on either side.
"I think the Marines won that battle," Gent said.
Less than a month ago, members of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines became the fourth Marine unit to deploy to the Delaram district in the last two years. The Marines serve seven-month tours, which has made it difficult to sustain momentum from one rotation to the next. But that is a problem consistent with U.S. and other international forces all over Afghanistan, experienced hands say.
"We don’t have eight years of experience here. We have one year of experience eight years in a row," said Dick Cavagnol, a civilian specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development, who was posted to the town in early November.
Cavagnol and a State Department governance specialist are the first civilian technical advisers assigned to the district on a long-term basis. The two men are essentially starting from scratch.
The district governor is usually absent. There is no judge or prosecutor in town. New officials have been assigned to the district, but they have yet to arrive.
A local elder recently told the American advisers that many people in Delaram are tired of the Taliban and want to see them gone, but they are afraid to step forward.
"Each village has two, three, four, five Taliban," the local elder said. "And if someone comes from the village to help the police, the Taliban will kill them."
Local police are poorly led and undermanned and rarely seem to venture beyond the wire. During a recent three-day period, the Marines conducted nearly all of the security patrols, with the Afghan police accompanying them once a day, at most. The Afghans routinely postpone training sessions with U.S. advisers.
"The chief doesn’t want to be here," said Tom Gagne, a civilian police trainer. "He doesn’t lead from the front."
U.S. civilian officials are willing to shell out development dollars, but first they want to see a local council elected from tribal elders who can help determine how aid money is directed.
"Nobody wants to be the leader because the leader would be targeted," Cavagnol said.