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    South Asia
     Mar 17, 2010
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Say hello to Marjah ... or 'Little America'
By Peter Lee

To Western reporters, Helmand is the poppy-growing heartland of the Taliban and the home of Marjah, the demonstration project for the Barack Obama administration's new and improved Afghan strategy, "Operation Moshtarak" (Together).

To the locals, the irrigated heartland of Helmand has another name: "Little America".

To the good fortune of observers interested in the context of current US counter-insurgency operations, the backstory of Helmand is told in one of the best books written about modern Afghanistan, Opium Season, by Joel Hafverstein (The Lyons Press: Guilford, Connecticut, 2007).

Hafverstein's book centers on the year he spent working as a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor in the province of Helmand in the vicinity of the village of Marjah, the focus of the highly publicized "Operation Moshtarak", which sent 15,000 Western and Afghan troops into Marjah and surrounding areas to drive out the Taliban in February and to raise the Afghan flag over the village after several years of Taliban control.

"Moshtarak" is the centerpiece of the bigger, better and smarter "clear, hold, build and transfer" strategy. After Marjah is subdued, the armed forces will stick around and ensure that the Karzai government is able to effectively administer the area.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, inadvertently invoking an unfortunate coffin analogy, declared stoutly, "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in." [1]

There's been a lot of informational warfare related to the campaign, in order to convince a weary international audience that Marjah is stern and successful proof that the West has discovered the will and the way to lick the Taliban. As Gareth Porter pointed out in his article Marjah: The City That Never Was [2], the epic character of the battle of Marjah has been somewhat overstated. A US Army briefing started the meme that Marjah was a "city of 80,000". As the story developed, it also became an "opium capital of Afghanistan" filled with 1,000 Taliban ready to fight to the death.
Marjah, however, is not an Afghan Fallujah, an urbanized, hostile bastion of anti-Western fanatics that must be subdued through savage street-by-street, house-by-house fighting, as happened in the Iraqi city.

It's a little market center, fields, ditches and mud houses with a tradition of close American engagement that dates to the 1950s when, as Hafverstein's book tell us, the Helmand River region was known as "Little America".

From the perspective of agriculture and urbanization, virtually the only worthwhile part of Helmand province is the small patch of green near the banks of the Helmand River. In the 1950s, the Harry S Truman administration embarked on an aid project to support the Afghan government in extending that patch of green into the surrounding countryside with an Afghan version of the Tennessee Valley Authority: the HAVA (Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority).

American engineering giant Morrison-Knudsen dammed the Helmand and Arghandab rivers and built a network of irrigation and drainage canals to bring water to communities - like Marjah - near the Helmand. Morrison-Knudsen also built most of the city of Lashkar Gah - the capital of Helmand province where the two rivers come together - in the US image of tract houses and tree-lined streets, in order to house its engineers and operations.

Lashkar Gah, now a city of 200,000 people, has always been firmly under Afghan government control. Operation Moshtarak should be understood as an effort to extend effective control into Lashkar Gah's irrigated rural hinterlands.

Google Earth has recently uploaded a set of images that show Lashkar Gah and the area around it with eerie clarity. You can see the neat American-style streets and structures at the heart of the provincial capital, and the hulking HAVA headquarters - the largest building - that provided the office space for Hafverstein's USAID activities. There is the Helmand River, a narrow, deeper channel meandering through a broad, desiccated riverbed. You see a palm-shaped patch of green in the surrounding flats, veined by Morrison Knudsen's irrigation canals. Upriver are the two jewel-like reservoirs created by damming the rivers.

And a few kilometers west of Lashkar Gah, across the river at 31 degrees 32' 22 north, longitude: 64 degrees 9' 28 east, you can see Marjah. Not a lot of there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein's famous remark about Oakland, California: a few compounds scattered between fields crisscrossed by roads and the ubiquitous canals.

Far up beyond the irrigated region is Nawzad, mysteriously and imperiously renamed Now Zad for the visit of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on March 10.

Apparently because Marjah was still in the clear-hold part of the process and not completely pacified, Gates visited Nawzad instead to extol a success story, albeit one dating from last December: the US Marines' successful expulsion of a determined Taliban presence from Nawzad, an old-fashioned confrontation that, instead of creating a welcome new sense of security had depopulated the town of 25,000.

Nawzad is in Hafverstein's book, too. Roads go into Nawzad, he notes, but don't go anywhere else. The town hugs a riverbed in a narrow valley, butting up against the mountainous wastes of Helmand's north, the stronghold of a pro-Taliban warlord.

Google Earth shows lines of stippled dots - each representing a manway accessing the indigenous irrigation tunnels - the ancient karez of Central Asia - that serve as the substitute for the modern canals of the Helmand River Valley and the focus of USAID's engagement with the remote valley.

It isn't Helmand's heartland - it's a distant and contested frontier, and a hint that the US writ might not reach beyond the populated agricultural centers to the wild and mountainous north of the province.

Hafverstein arrived in Lashkar Gah in 2004 to participate in a USAID project to provide alternate incomes - and compensation for the economic disruption of the opium eradication campaign - by paying thousands of locals to do pick-and-shovel work clearing out the silted-up drainage canals that keep the irrigated fields from becoming waterlogged and salinated.

In contrast to the military - Lashkar Gah was also home to a euphemistically-named "Provincial Reconstruction Team" composed of a hunkered-down National Guard battalion - the USAID team accumulated considerable local knowledge, contacts and goodwill in places like Marjah, Babaji and Nawzad as it staffed up with local hires, purchased thousands of shovels and negotiated with local leaders for access, labor and security.

The mission ended tragically as several local members of the USAID staff were murdered, perhaps at the order of opium lords angry at USAID's diversion of labor that was urgently needed for the opium harvest.

Hafverstein's thoughtful and knowledgeable book provides a vivid picture of the dynamics of Afghan rural life It includes portraits of Afghan co-workers that are sympathetic and, in light of the horrible end some of them met, extremely poignant.

In one passage, Hafverstein explains Afghan attitudes toward opium - and other intoxicants:
In Afghanistan, where all drugs were officially illegal, there was no question about the relative gravity of drug use. Hashish smoking was a widespread peccadillo, opium smoking (as distinct from heroin) only moderately more serious. Down here in Pashtun country, alcohol was the truly wicked drug, the addictive life-destroyer explicitly condemned by God. People indulged in it, certainly, but almost always in bad conscience. And the alcohol trade was a Western hypocrisy which the farmers of Helmand felt very acutely. "Why can American farmers grow wine and send it here, but we are bad men if we grow poppy and send it back?" I heard on a trip to Nad-i-Ali.

Continued 1 2  

Marjah fears return of warlords
(Mar 11, '10)

Fixing Washington ... in Afghanistan
(Feb 26, '10)

1. Obama in more trouble than Netanyahu over Iran

2. India savors Russian friendship

3. Pakistan sharpens its focus on militants

4. Israel and the US: Tiff or tipping point?

5. A titanic power struggle in Kabul

6. Iran's spies show how it's done

7. Wen pursues the right to dignity

8. Power lines take shape in Iraq

9. Wen hints at yuan move

10. When the Mekong runs dry

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 15, 2010)


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