Afghan town re­born af­ter U.S. routs Tal­iban

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY RICHARD TOMKINS

NOW ZAD, Afghanistan | Signs of re­birth are grow­ing in this for­mer Tal­iban strong­hold in Hel­mand prov­ince just days af­ter U.S. Marines stormed it in a groun­dand-air­borne as­sault that caught its Tal­iban oc­cu­piers by sur­prise.

In the once de­serted bazaar area in the west­ern por­tion of town, hun­dreds of men from nearby vil­lages defy Tal­iban threats and clear de­bris from fight­ing in ex­change for pay from U.S. troops.

In the district cen­ter next to the main U.S. mil­i­tary base, more than 100 chil­dren at­tend ad hoc classes in read­ing and writ­ing. The classes, ini­tially started by Afghan-Amer­i­can in­ter­preters work­ing with the Marines, are now con­ducted by four lo­cal Afghans who have com­pleted high school.

Next door, U.S. Navy corps­men tend to a steady stream of vil­lagers who have been without med­i­cal care for years.

“It’s good to see,” said Lt. Col. Martin Wet­ter­auer, com­man­der of the 3rd Bat­tal­ion, 4th Marines in Now Zad, about the new ac­tiv­ity. “It gives hope to the lo­cal pop­u­lace that they can re­turn to their homes one day, and it gives hope to the Marines. Th­ese young [Marines] need to see the good be­ing done by them be­ing here.”

Now Zad is in north­west­ern Hel­mand, about 50 miles from the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Lashkar Gah. It was a main Tal­iban com­mand-and-con­trol and sup­ply cen­ter for the north­ern and cen­tral part of the prov­ince as well as for nearby por­tions of Farah prov­ince. In early De­cem­ber, how­ever, 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan sol­diers staged Op­er­a­tion “Co­bra’s Anger,” which broke the stale­mate that had ex­isted here since 2006.

“We came at them in a dif­fer­ent way,” Col. Wet­ter­auer ex­plained.

An as­sault force of Marines, us­ing he­li­copters and V-22 Osprey air­craft, dropped in be­hind Tal­iban lines north of the town and pushed south while a sec­ond force pushed from east to west. As many as a dozen Tal­iban were killed as they fled in dis­ar­ray with no loss of Amer­i­can lives.

“We ex­pected the en­emy to fight a bit more than they did,” Col. Wet­ter­auer said, “but I be­lieve that the way we came at them caught them off guard, and th­ese guys just aren’t that good go­ing toe-to-toe with us.”

Be­yond the dead and a hand­ful cap­tured, other fight­ers dropped their weapons and ran off to blend in with the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion in out­ly­ing vil­lages or es­caped into the moun­tains that sur­round the town.

Marines are try­ing to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships with lo­cal peo­ple to help iden­tify re­main­ing Tal­iban. They also are es­tab­lish- ing a num­ber of se­cu­rity out­posts out­side Now Zad to in­ter­dict Tal­iban in­fil­tra­tors.

“There’s no doubt there are a few Tal­iban walk­ing the streets right now, try­ing to get an as­sess­ment of what’s go­ing on and how they can counter it,” the com­man­der said. “That’s one of the rea­sons we have to de­velop that close re­la­tion­ship [with the peo­ple] so they can help us iden­tify them.”

The Tal­iban hold on Now Zad, the prov­ince’s sec­ond-largest town, had been long-stand­ing. Small num­bers of Bri­tish troops at first, and then Amer­i­cans, had oc­cu­pied For­ward Op­er­at­ing Bases (FOBs) on the edge of town since 2006, but their num­bers were in­ad­e­quate to clear and hold much else. As a re­sult, the Tal­iban ruled the roost be­yond the FOBs.

They had am­mu­ni­tion and sup­ply bunkers through­out the town and had houses for tran­sit­ing and re­sup­ply­ing com­rades. Marines said about 3,000 pounds of home­made ex­plo­sives were found in en­emy caches in the town this month as well as hun­dreds of stashes for com­po­nents for im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices (IED).

The Tal­iban had fixed po­si­tions with IEDs planted along their outer perime­ters and booby traps planted within.

En­emy strength was es­ti­mated at 100 to 200 hard-core res­i­dent gun­men at any given time, the Marines said.

As a re­sult, for the past few years, Now Zad has been a ghost town. The town’s 20,000 to 30,000 res­i­dents had fled to out­ly­ing vil­lages be­cause of fight­ing and a Tal­iban dic­tate to lo­cals not to re­turn.

The clear­ing out was sud­den. In shops along the main street of the bazaar, some goods are still on the shelves. In houses close by, clothes are still in clos­ets and toys are scat­tered on floors. The old U.N.-spon­sored med­i­cal clinic at the gov­ern­ment cen­ter near FOB Now Zad was found un­looted and still stocked with sup­plies from 2006.

“We went to live in [the vil­lage of] Sarakalah about four years ago,” said Haji Mo­hib Ul­lah, who with his son was help­ing clean de­bris from Now Zad’s streets. “It was too danger­ous to stay.”

He said nearly 50 mem­bers of his ex­tended fam­ily went with him.

“We don’t have any hopes but for peace and se­cu­rity,” he said through a U.S. in­ter­preter. “We want to come back and re­build our homes.”

Marines said Tal­iban still hid­ing in the area are try­ing to stop that mi­gra­tion. Vil­lagers help­ing with the town cleanup — they earn about $6 per day for their la­bor [. . . ] tell of Tal­iban “night let­ters” that ap­pear in vil­lages warn­ing peo­ple not to co­op­er­ate with the Amer­i­cans, said Capt. Ja­son Bre­zler, who is in charge of the re­build­ing.

How­ever, the num­ber of vol­un­teer work­ers and chil­dren in school shows that vil­lagers are de­fy­ing those warn­ings for now. The money paid for cleanup work is the only in­come for many. What’s more, the emo­tional ties to the town for for­mer res­i­dents are strong. When the Marines of­fered to build schools and clin­ics in the nearby vil­lages, the for­mer Now Zad res­i­dents turned them down.

The first day of the U.S.-spon­sored cleanup of Now Zad, about 110 men ap­peared. On the sec­ond day, there were more than 200. Four days later, more than 600 ap­peared.

“They want this town,” said Col. Wet­ter­auer. “There is pride go­ing on here; you can see it on the faces of the grown men in a drainage ditch dig­ging out the garbage. They were kicked out of their homes, their com­mu­nity, and they’re de­ter­mined to take the place back.”

Still, the ques­tion be­ing asked by Marines here is not “if” the Tal­iban will re­group and re­tal­i­ate, but when.

“The more this place im­proves, the mad­der they’re go­ing to get,” said 1st Lt. John Pickup of Lima Com­pany. “They’ve lost face with the peo­ple. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if some bodies [of co­op­er­a­tive vil­lagers] star ted tur ning up soon.”

Hun­dreds of IEDs are be­lieved to have been sown in­side the town. Capt. Bre­zler said peo­ple are not be­ing al­lowed to re­turn to most ar­eas yet be­cause of safety con­cerns, but work­ers in the bazaar are none­the­less branch­ing deeper into sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods.

Ac­cord­ing to Capt. Bre­zler, U.S. of­fi­cials are ne­go­ti­at­ing a huge mine-clear­ance project with a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion. U.S. mil­i­tary and diplo­matic of­fi­cials in Kabul, the na­tional cap­i­tal, are also press­ing for a re­turn of the district gov­er­nor.

“There are some things, some is­sues, I can’t han­dle here,” Capt. Bre­zler said. “It has to be an Afghan. If the district gov­er­nor doesn’t re­turn soon, we’re go­ing to have a su­per-Shura [coun­cil of vil­lage el­ders] and have them elect a tem­po­rary one.”

A U.S. Marine keeps watch in Now Zad as for­mer res­i­dents hop­ing to re­turn clean up their town. Clean­ing up Now Zad is a job for ever yone, in­clud­ing young chil­dren.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY RICHARD TOMKINS/SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Afghans from vil­lages sur­round­ing the de­serted town of Now Zad clean up de­bris to en­cour­age dis­placed peo­ple to re­turn to the com­mu­nity. The town was a Tal­iban strong­hold un­til re­cently, when U.S. Marines stormed it and drove out the Tal­iban oc­cu­piers.

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