Marines in Southern Afghanistan aren't waiting around for Washington to decide on a new strategy. Here at Forward Operating Base, or FOB, Delaram Marines are putting into action counter-insurgency tactics aimed at chasing away Taliban fighters and returning the towns and villages within this vast area of Afghanistan to some sense of stability.
LTC Martin Wetterauer, commander of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, says "on any given day Marines can be in a direct firefight, we can be helping build a clinic, or out training with the local Afghan National Security Forces." His area of operation, or AO, called Tripoli, comprises an enormous swath of southern Afghanistan and presents his 1,000 plus Marines with just about every challenge one can imagine.
In places like Delaram in Nimrooz province, the debate over sending more troops to Afghanistan meets reality. Wetterauer says troops equal time.
"Time is an element in this whole equation. The more people that you have on the ground the more things you can do at once. If I had more Marines, then I could have more guys that could be dedicated to training as well as security," he said.
This is the sixth combat deployment for the "3-4" since 2003. Five of those deployments have been in Iraq and the Marines are currently one month into their first Afghanistan tour. They are drawing on their experience in Iraq's Anbar Province where Sunni insurgents flipped sides. In Anbar Marines were able to take advantage of that change of allegiance and create momentum leading to security, stability and local governance. The 3-4 Marines feel they now have a similar momentum in Afghanistan and want to speed things up.
But Afghanistan is different than Iraq in important ways. In this area of the country there is almost no tradition of conventional governance. There is little respect for the police because officers have been so corrupt in the past. Crushing poverty created by a shattered economy is compounded in Helmand Province by the illiteracy rate which is at 90 to 95 percent.
Kael Weston, the State Department adviser working closely with the top Marine commander here, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, admits the Marines are facing a challenge.
"There are about 20 chessboards that we need to be watching here and currently we are only seeing about three", he says.
But the Marines and Weston are looking at this current deployment through different eyes. The first eight years of the conflict are viewed as categorically different from what the Marines are doing here now.
"We are now four months into a new war" says Weston.
Another term often heard here is the so-called "Afghanistan 2.0" strategy, or an attempt to break away from mistakes made since NATO forces invaded the country in 2001. It is explained something like this: the U.S. has not been fighting the war in Afghanistan for eight years. It's been fighting the same war, every year, for eight years.
Based in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., the 3-4 Marines are responsible for an area nearly the size of Vermont. There are over 600 towns and villages scattered throughout the area and tribal affiliations and connections shift from place to place.
On AO Tripoli's northern border is Gulistan, mountainous and relatively peaceful. It's the most picturesque of the towns in the AO and the locals are welcoming.
Off to the west is Bakwa where Taliban insurgents continue to operate, planting homemade bombs on roads throughout the area.
On the eastern edge of the AO is Now Zad, once Helmand Province's second largest city, it is now a ghost town. People living there fled when insurgents took over the town several years ago and turned it into a sort of "university" for bomb making.
The result: the town is now booby trapped with thousands of homemade bombs. Even if the Taliban left Now Zad, most here think it would take years to find and defuse all the bombs hidden in roads, walls and doorways.
There are smaller outposts here as well. Combat Outpost Barrows sits between Delaram and Bakwa. It probably has the rawest conditions of any place here: about six inches of what one Marine officer called "moondust" (the powder-like dust that blankets everything). As he put it "by the time Marines take a water bottle shower and get back to their tent they are sugar-coated all over with dust again."
Another factor complicating AO Tripoli is that it straddles three different provinces: Farah, Nimrooz and Helmand. This makes the Marine's mission tougher because rather than one provincial government to work with they have three.
But by far the biggest problem Marines face here is the threat of improvised explosive devices or IEDs. As in Iraq they are often buried in roads, but insurgents here also devise smaller IEDs meant to target foot patrols.
Delaram, the largest town in the AO, is the focus for the 3-4 Marines and a priority for the Marine Corps' top commanders. This dusty town sits on the strategically important crossroads of Highway 1, Afghanistan's largest, and the major roads that head west to Iran and south to Pakistan. The total population for Delaram and the surrounding area is estimated to be around 10,000.
Downtown Delaram consists of a ramshackle bazaar where one can find just about anything and which strings along Highway 1 for about a mile. Aside from the Afghan National Police station there is a boys' school which sits empty and a girls' school which may only be used only for functions such as weddings.
There is also an Afghan Highway Patrol station in Delaram, which has a new chief from the capital Kabul. The local businessmen have banded together in a makeshift civic group, but most of their concerns have to do with the state of the bazaar and improving business. There is no town hall here, no city council, no real law and order.
Capt. Ryan Benson, commander of the battalion's India company, calls Delaram "the model" for everything the Marine Corps wants to do in Afghanistan. Benson and his company are tasked with stabilizing and building up Delaram and the surrounding area. He is hopeful that by the time his Marines depart in May the job will be done and the town of Delaram will be able to function more or less on its own.
Last Friday, Delaram's new government got off to a slow but promising start. After several aborted attempts, Marines transported the newly appointed district governor, a former communist named Asa Dula, from his home several miles away to new, makeshift living-quarters and government center attached to an Afghan National Police station in downtown Delaram. Sharing the compound is one platoon of Marines who have taken up full-time residence.
Also in residence, working and sleeping in bare-bones conditions alongside Marines and Afghan police, are representatives from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, a tribal researcher, a contractor with U.S. AID, and a Marine Civil Affairs Group.
They have all been eagerly awaiting the district governor's arrival so that community projects can be prioritized and decisions on funding made. So far USAID has funded the digging of four wells and pipes to carry water through the bazaar that runs along Highway 1.
With the district governor emplaced there are great expectations that the remainder of local governance can be appointed and the Marines can move from establishing security to developing the building blocks of governance.
The new district governor, who brought a five man uniformed security team with him, said he hopes to bring in teachers, a new police chief and mayor, and a judge, but first he wants to establish security. In order to do that though he wants checkpoints throughout the town and lots of them. Checkpoints, of course, means having security forces available to man them 24 hours a day. That is a problem.
These Marines have started training a very young and inexperienced police force. Nineteen-year-old Holem Safi, who is just beginning to show the first signs of a moustache, says he's in charge of Delaram's 50 police officers.
Marines say on a daily basis they are lucky if just 35 police show up for work. The goal for the town is to have 60 working police officers. Given the low pay, about $200.00 a month, and a complete lack of respect for the police and a cultural aversion to becoming a cop, getting the best recruits is a challenge.
Even finding willing recruits is tough. Marines have considered holding a recruiting drive, but decided against the idea lest they risk public embarrassment by having no one showing up or, much worse, the gathering becoming a target for insurgents.
For now, leaving the recruiting of police in the hands of village elders who will forward candidates on to the Marines appears to be the best solution.
A new police training academy has been established at Camp Leatherneck, the sprawling Marine base south of here. The first class of 25 police graduates completed the course last week and another 50 plus police recruits will soon graduate. The plan is to find as many recruits as possible then send them, along with all the police currently on duty at Delaram, through the academy.
The elders in Delaram are happy that the Marines are here, but think the emphasis should be placed on beefing up their own security forces. Abdel Khalik is a tribal elder who commands great respect among his people and the Americans. He says his advice to President Obama would be to concentrate all his efforts on building up Afghan security forces. He trusts the Marines and believes they will need to stick around for about five years, but he breaks down the reality of what Afghanistan needs in simple numbers: "For every Marine America puts on the ground here, we could hire 500 Afghan security forces."