Marines in Afghanistan hear a plea: Don't leave too soon

It was at the end of a recent after-lunch meeting, with the two sides sitting cross-legged on a tattered rug, exchanging pleasantries and enjoying sweet tea and stone-baked bread.

Haji Mohammed Khan, district administrator for Nawa, a government bureaucrat with three decades' experience in war and shaky peace, had something he wanted to ask the Marines, some of whom will soon return to bases in the United States.

"Please," Khan said in a low voice, his sad eyes looking directly at his guests, "don't let us be here alone. You used your young people, your vehicles, your helicopters to help us. Please don't turn around and leave unfinished your business here."

Khan's quiet plea echoes but one view of the hot-button issue of proper troop levels in Afghanistan, and Khan's countrymen in Helmand province appear as divided as officials in Washington.

"There are two kinds of people in Nawa," said Taimour Shah, a farmer. "There are those who like the Americans, but others listen to the religious leaders who don't want the Americans here."

There is also a third group: Those who are afraid to get too close to the Americans lest they be left vulnerable to the Taliban if the Americans leave as abruptly as they arrived.

Since a combat battalion of U.S. Marines arrived unexpectedly one hot night in July to replace a platoon of British soldiers and break Taliban dominance in the region, the U.S. mission has been a counterinsurgency operation, which is slow, incremental, labor intensive and frequently frustrating for all involved.

And with the American public agonizing over the U.S. death toll and impatient for the troops to come home, time may be the greatest enemy.

"You [Westerners] have the watches, but we Afghans have the time," Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, has been quoted as saying at a recent gathering.

Even as the Americans are proud of the progress made here, there is a sense that all could be lost quickly if the U.S. military leaves prematurely.

"I think we're succeeding in Nawa, but like the elders say, if we leave, it will all be wasted," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Reggie Fox, a member of an 82nd Airborne platoon assigned to mentor Afghan security forces. "The insurgents aren't dumb. They want to outlast the American population."

The 82nd Airborne troops and Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, share a patch of ground -- called Combat Outpost Cherokee -- adjacent to the government center in Nawa where Khan and the district's garrulous governor, Haji Abdul Manaf, work.

Each day, as part of their counterinsurgency efforts, Marines fan out and do patrols, assuring farmers and their families that they will protect them from the Taliban. After dark, Marines use night-vision equipment to catch Taliban fighters planting roadside bombs. Community leaders have access to a hotline to report any threats.

"This fight is not about killing Taliban," said Lt. Col. William McCollough, commander of the 1-5. "Killing Taliban is like fixing trucks, eating, running convoys. It's something you have to do to achieve the goal, but it is not the goal."

The goal is to instill confidence in the populace about their government, a daunting job in an area where government has historically been weak to nonexistent and often corrupt. The U.S. task is akin to driving a car on a bumpy road while leaning out the window to work on a sputtering engine.

Civil-affairs Marines and civilian employees from the U.S. and Britain have undertaken numerous confidence-building projects, including clearing canals and building roads.

No project is undertaken without Afghan support -- not that that ensures things will go smoothly.

Before hiring an Afghan contractor to build a road to help farmers get their crops to market, Marines checked with local government leaders to make sure the property was owned by the government. After the road was completed, two dozen property owners, some clutching documents decades old, demanded to be paid for damage to their land.

"We are not the Russians," who took land without permission, an exasperated Capt. Frank "Gus" Biggio told the property owners. The dispute remains unresolved.

The 1-5 will return to Camp Pendleton by Christmas and be replaced by the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment, from Hawaii. After the seven-month deployment by the 1-3, the U.S. commitment to Nawa and Helmand province is unclear.

Among the Marines from the 1-5, there is a sense of having made good on what promises to be a long struggle, assuming U.S. policymakers continue to see the strategic value in the villages of the Helmand River region.

"If we moved it one increment forward, I'm happy," said Capt. Brian Huysman, commander of Charlie Company. "If what we did means it will only take four more deployments, rather than seven, I'm happy."

Asked what the most important factor is in a counterinsurgency campaign, Huysman did not hesitate: "Patience."

First Lt. Mike Kuiper, trained as an infantry officer, is teaching Afghan boys some rudimentary English. A small group appears at the gate of Cherokee each afternoon, shouting, "Mike, Mike!" Boxes of school supplies have been sent by two groups in the U.S.: the Spirit of America and Friends of Afghan School Children in Rockville, Md. "Even if we pull out, and things go to hell," Kuiper said, "they'll remember this interaction the rest of their lives, that the Americans loved us and taught us and tried to make this country better."

At his meeting with the Marines, Khan was assured that not only the Marines but the American people want to see Afghanistan defeat the Taliban and improve its standard of living.

Khan hopes this is the case. He knows that success will not be quick or cheap. During the guerrilla campaign against the Russians, he risked his life to serve as a logistics master, making sure CIA-supplied weapons got to fighters hidden in the hills and cornfields, waiting to kill Russian soldiers.

"For 30 years, all we have known in Afghanistan is war and killing," Khan said. "My generation is scrambled. We're trying for the next generation to know something better.

"We want to get rid of the tragedy of 30 years. We believe in the United States. We want the United States as a friend."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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