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Marine’s success in Afghanistan has a history

It’s not yet 10 a.m., and Lt. Col. William McCollough must confront a pair of problems that threaten to undercut Marine success in this onetime Taliban stronghold.

Two members of the community council, the group organized by Marines to instill confidence among villagers in their government, have been killed, probably by Taliban fighters. The Afghan police response has been sluggish.

Meanwhile, rumors are sweeping the farming community that there is favoritism and corruption in the U.S.-sponsored program to distribute wheat seed and fertilizer. The program is aimed at persuading farmers to forgo planting opium poppies, which are turned into heroin, the proceeds frequently funding the Taliban.

McCollough, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and the son of a Midwestern small-town newspaper publisher, wants to face both issues head-on. But he knows he must work through the shaky government structures of the Nawa district and Helmand province.

He cannot merely tell his Marines to go arrest the killers, nor can he send a sound truck through the villages blaring a message about the wheat seed and fertilizer program, tactics that met with only marginal success in the early years of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

It’s a slow process. “Clear, hold, build and transition” carries little of the high drama of the classic Marine strategy of “locate, close, engage and destroy.” Not every day is an advance, not every attempt at undercutting the Taliban is going to be successful.

McCollough’s task is to take the hard-learned lessons of Iraq -- patience, restraint in the use of force, the need for a local “buy in” for building projects -- and apply them to Afghanistan, a country that is far more socially fractured, war ravaged, impoverished and culturally isolated than Iraq.

It is not a war, McCollough said, that can be won quickly or by killing the enemy and spending lavishly on reconstruction.

“You can’t allow frustration to set in,” he said.

U.S. troops arrive

McCollough was in the lead helicopter on a moonless night back in June when about 100 Marines arrived to relieve a British army platoon that had been pinned down for months in what had once been the Nawa district government center.

Within minutes, Taliban fighters let loose with automatic weapons from the tree line just 200 yards away. Marines returned fire and began flanking the Taliban. The fight lasted most of the night, with the Marines chasing the militants away from the government center.

The next morning, 50 village elders were banging at the gate of the government center, demanding to know what the Marines were doing.

McCollough explained that they had replaced the British and were there to break the Taliban stranglehold that had closed the village bazaar and led to Taliban checkpoints, extortion and summary executions. He also explained that the U.S. would pay for any damage done by Marines to homes and farms during the fighting.

The incremental work of counterinsurgency had begun.

After weeks of sporadic fighting, the Taliban largely fled to a neighboring village. The government center and the bazaar reopened, and a smiling, glad-handing veteran of the U.S.-backed fight here against the Soviets in the 1980s was installed as district governor. He and McCollough bonded immediately.

The troops in the helicopters were followed two weeks later by hundreds of additional Marines, McCollough’s entire battalion. Two dozen highly visible outposts were established. The battalion would not become a “garrison force” bottled up in a large base behind barbed wire -- an early U.S. mistake in Iraq.

“The goal was that every resident in this district would see a Marine within just a few days of us arriving,” McCollough said.

With a semblance of safety assured, a “civilian surge” began: U.S. and British government workers who, in tandem with Marine civil affairs officers, met with Afghans to determine a list of priority projects.

“The No. 1 thing was security,” McCollough said. “After security, four things came up in talks with the Afghans: roads, clinics, schools, canals. How can you argue with that? That’s what America represents to the world.”

Iraq was different

In the last of his two tours in Iraq, McCollough was based in Fallouja, assigned to work as a liaison between the Sunni Arab tribes in then-restive Anbar province and the provincial and national governments.

In Iraq, sheiks could speak for entire tribes. They were businessmen -- in construction, mostly -- and when they decided that the insurgency was bad for business, they switched to the U.S. side.

Afghanistan is more splintered; even the smallest village has multiple elders with equal authority. In rural areas, they tend to be farmers with little exposure to the outside world, unlike the Sunni sheiks in Iraq, some of whom had investments in Europe and watched the U.S. stock market closely.

On the other hand, Afghan needs are more basic than those in Iraq, McCollough said, and there is not the same level of suspicion of U.S. motives, although there is concern that the U.S. will soon reduce its efforts as it did after toppling the Taliban in 2001.

“They’re at the needs stage here, " McCollough said. “In Iraq, they wanted larger things. Sometimes I thought they all wanted to live in San Diego.”

No military operation is a one-man show, but it is also true that a military unit often takes on the tenor and values of its leaders. McCollough, a rock-solid believer in the goals and efficacy of the U.S. counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, is relentlessly optimistic and detail-oriented.

“A leader sets the tone, the pace and the agenda,” said Marine Col. Gerald Fischer, commanding officer of the provincial reconstruction effort in Helmand. “Bill took advantage of the opportunities he found and created even more.”

McCollough says it is important not to promise anything one cannot deliver. If he tells an elder he will investigate why a tribesman was detained as a possible Taliban, he does.

“They can sniff out a faker very quickly,” he said.

As McCollough’s battalion prepared to return to Camp Pendleton this month -- to be replaced by one from Hawaii -- his counterinsurgency efforts were drawing high marks from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. The Nawa district had begun an evident, but sometimes halting, recovery.

“He gets it,” said Michael Butt, director of the small grants program for U.S.-based International Relief & Development. “He makes the Afghans partners. He doesn’t dictate or kowtow.”

Nawa district Gov. Haji Abdul Manaf, a combat leader during the CIA-backed fight against Soviet forces, said he was sorry to see McCollough and his troops going home.

“Col. Bill thinks like an Afghan,” Manaf said. “He helped the bad people die, but he didn’t hurt any of the good people.”

One way that risk for civilians was reduced was limiting the use of mortars and air power during the summer assault. McChrystal has emphasized avoiding civilian casualties.

At McCollough’s orders, the Marines launched foot patrols to rout the Taliban. Now the children of Nawa sing:

“When the British were here, they were afraid the Taliban were in the corn.

“Now the Taliban are afraid the Marines are in the corn.”

A Minnesota boy

McCollough was not destined for a military career while growing up in Brainerd, Minn.

His father, Terry McCollough, was the owner of the Brainerd Dispatch (circulation 16,700), and the young McCollough spent his teen years working in circulation, as a janitor, stuffing inserts into the newspaper, and as a cub reporter.

Instead of his father’s alma mater, Stanford, he chose Norwich University in Vermont, a private military school, where he majored in English literature. Palo Alto, he said, was too far from the woods and hunting grounds that he loved. His father has since sold the newspaper but remains as publisher.

In McCollough’s notebook, crammed with details about meetings with Afghan leaders and facts and figures about drainage projects, are pictures of his wife, Caroline, a former flight attendant, and their sons, Jack, 9, and Hunter, 6.

McCollough, 40, writes and e-mails his family frequently but does not call them often. Phone calls, he said, can be disruptive, leaving family members to fret about what they should have said.

Also in his notebook are copies of the Kipling poem “If” and of an iconic Norman Rockwell illustration, the one of a New Englander standing up at a town meeting, expressing his views, free of fear.

“That reminds me of the kind of thing we want for these people,” McCollough said.

A lean 5 foot 8, and with a youthful appearance, he does not have the overpowering command presence of some Marine leaders. And his language is relatively free of curse words.

The enlisted Marines refer to him, behind his back, as “the Jedi,” a reference to his ability to stay calm even amid chaos and danger, such as the early fighting.

Capt. Frank “Gus” Biggio, a Washington lawyer and reservist who has headed the civil affairs unit for the One-Five, said McCollough can take complex subjects, such as counterinsurgency, and describe them in easily understood concepts.

McCollough rarely raises his voice, which has a reedy tone. His icy stare, however, can bring a subordinate to attention.

One thing in particular annoys him: the suggestion that Afghanistan is too poor and too rooted in the past to be helped.

“We’re not dragging them kicking and screaming anywhere,” he said. “We’re working with them to make this place secure and stable so that Taliban or people like them stop terrorizing the people.”

Taking action

By noon the day after the killings, McCollough had contacted the district governor and urged him to have the national police send investigators to Nawa as soon as possible.

He also assigned a staff sergeant to meet daily with the investigators in order to share intelligence.

In the end, no arrests were made, but McCollough was pleased that the Afghan investigators uncovered information indicating the names of the suspected killers, information that confirmed intelligence gathered by the Marines.

The killers, McCollough was convinced, were hiding in Marja, a Taliban area that Marines and Afghan soldiers plan to assault soon. If he had a disappointment about his tour in Nawa it was that he was returning home before the planned assault.

“That’s where the bastards that killed Swanson are,” he said, a reference to Lance Cpl. Justin Swanson, the last of four Marines from the One-Five killed during the deployment.

The district governor spoke on the radio -- radios are being distributed by the Marines -- in support of the wheat seed and fertilizer program. Distribution continued, without apparent disruption by the rumors.

“If all of us band together,” McCollough told the Afghans, “this will be the best place in Afghanistan.”

tony.perry@latimes.com


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