Marines face big challenges in Afghanistan
BAKWA, Afghanistan — Seven years ago, the bazaar in this barren and desolate corner of southwestern Afghanistan’s Farah province was a bustling hub of economic activity, serving as the primary trading center for a district of about 120,000 people.
But that was before the Taliban came. According to a local story, within a year after the fundamentalist regime was ousted by the U.S.-led coalition in 2001, a group of Taliban fighters went on a rampage in the Bakwa bazaar, setting people on fire and committing other acts of violence.
"I’m not sure if the story about them burning people is true," said 1st Lt. Kenneth McKenzie, the officer in charge of a small outpost of U.S. Marines here. "But they clearly did some pretty bad things. They made it so that people don’t want to come to the bazaar anymore."
Now the Bakwa bazaar is a ghost town, abandoned and empty except for stray dogs, an Afghan police checkpoint and the occasional passer-by. But the Marines hope they can make the market vibrant once again.
As President Barack Obama dispatches 17,000 more U.S. troops to try to reverse gains the Taliban have made across Afghanistan in recent years, the situation in Bakwa represents in miniature many of the challenges that U.S. and allied forces face across much of the southern provinces.
U.S. forces will seek to re-establish security, rebuild local governments and kick-start economic activity, but in many areas — especially rural ones — they will be starting virtually from scratch.
For the past 11 months, Marines have worked to deter the militants’ influence in an area that stretches about 75 miles from east to west and 40 miles from north to south across parts of Helmand and Farah provinces.
Their primary mission is to conduct counterinsurgency operations and to train the Afghan National Police, the success of which is a key component to any eventual U.S. exit strategy.
That effort was started last year by the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from Twentynine Palms, Calif., and was taken over in November by a larger force of 2,300 Marines, including the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Their mission, in turn, will be taken over by 8,000 more troops of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which is scheduled to arrive in coming months.
Until the Marines arrived last year, the presence of foreign troops in this sector of Afghanistan was minimal. Until four months ago, Route 515, the road between Delaram and Farah, was essentially impassable.
The Marines have since carried out three major operations to clear Route 515 of mines and other bombs. They’ve built a string of outposts along the road that are manned by Marines and Afghan police. Senior officers say the effort has produced results.
"We’ve reduced IED activity significantly," said Lt. Col. Jeff Holt, the operations officer for Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Afghanistan, using the military’s term for makeshift bomb.
Still, 10 Marines have been killed since their arrival, most of them bombing victims.
In recent months, the Marines, along with a provincial reconstruction team based in Farah, have provided money to rebuild the district government center in Bakwa. Two weeks ago, the district subgovernor came back and now lives on the site.
The Marines and the reconstruction team also paid for a new mosque and an adjacent site for ablution, the ritual washing that Muslims undertake before conducting prayers. They hired villagers to haul away mounds of trash that had accumulated in the bazaar. They provided money to drill four new wells. They have plans to rebuild a medical clinic destroyed last year by the Taliban and to even plant trees.
"One of the key things my team has been working on is getting locals involved in the pride of having a local bazaar again," said Staff Sgt. Jack Williams, 49, of Orange, Calif., chief of the civil affairs team that’s organized the projects.
Williams and other Marines with the civil affairs team point out that local villagers proposed the projects they’ve funded and that these were later approved by the district subgovernor. It’s an effort to get local government working again. Their goal is to help the villagers come up with "Afghan solutions for Afghan problems," they say.
"We don’t want to do it for them," said Cpl. Christopher Parra, 29, of Long Beach, Calif. "We want to do as little as possible so that they learn to utilize their local government."
The Marines say they’re seeing more cars and people passing through the market, which they describe as an encouraging sign. Some villagers are beginning to use the wells on a regular basis.
Even so, the bazaar remains abandoned, and most of the shops are just empty concrete or mud-brick stalls. The next step is to provide metal doors for the shops. But the owners must be willing to install the doors themselves, the Marines say.
Still, it was evident during a recent patrol that security remains a top concern and villagers remain fearful of the Taliban.
A man named Abdul Kayum, a spry 74-year-old village elder, approached the Marines as they headed back to camp. The old man shook each of their hands, and invited them to sit for a while and chat. He asked the Marines where they had been and why he hadn’t seen them in several days. He said he was grateful for their efforts to reopen the market.
"Before, people were afraid to come out of their houses," he said. "But now that you’re here, people feel safe to come out and walk around the bazaar. If we have peace here and our shops again, we will be happy."
But then, a white Toyota Corolla hatchback appeared in the distance, stopping at the police checkpoint. The old man suddenly stood up and announced that he had to go.
The Marines understood the danger.
"If they see him talking to us, then that’s not a good thing," Williams said.