KOSHTAY, Helmand Province, Afghanistan June 18, 2010 -- With Washington on the hunt for signs of progress here officials might look to Garmsir District where improvements are easily measured, but still tempered by an adaptable Taliban insurgency.
A year ago there were no Marines here. Today there are more than a thousand spread out in 42 encampments, some of them as small as four Marines, throughout the sprawling area of operation.
Twenty-five miles long, with a population estimated at upwards of 100,000, the district stretches north to south along the Helmand River from an area Marines call the Snake's Head, a wide area of foliage in the otherwise narrow valley.
The 3rd battalion, 1st Marines based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., began replacing the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines in April and took over full command in May.
In July 2009 Marines fired the opening salvos in their effort to turn Helmand Province around. In the first offensive after President Obama ordered an initial increase in troops Operation Khanjar saw 4,000 thousand Marines simultaneously striking Taliban strongholds in both Garmsir and Nawa.
Ltc. Ben Watson, Battalion Commander for the 3/1, is realistic about the challenges laying ahead but says, "I believe in what we are doing and I believe we are making steady progress."
A year ago the Taliban openly controlled the entire area. Today they've been pushed almost entirely out. Hospitals, markets and schools have opened, roads have been repaired and the town of Garmsir even has solar street lights thanks to U.S. taxpayers.
In Garmsir's thriving market shopkeepers and business owners, convinced that long-term security has returned, have begun sinking their own money into refurbishing old shops and building new ones.
Perhaps the most promising sign of improvement in and around the town of Garmsir was that poppies for opium production weren't planted this past season. Farmers instead planted wheat for the first time in years.
Col. Randall Newman, commander for Regimental Combat Team 7 which oversees a wide swath of Helmand Province including Garmsir, believes the change is due in part to markets reopening and a more normal economic rhythm kicking in and because the villagers here tacitly accept what the central government in Kabul wants, an end to poppy growing.
Lack of Poppies Being Planted Is Sign of Marines' Success
Afghanistan's government has made it illegal to grow poppy, but the drug business has become such a way of life here the law is rarely enforced and readily ignored.
Newman says just north of Garmsir in Nawa district poppy production has fallen by 75 percent. Newman is also in command of Marja, where Marines conducted a major operation last February to oust the Taliban, and says "The real test there is whether they plant poppy next season. Then we'll see what sort of effect we had." Poppy planting occurs in October and November.
For the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines the progress has come at a heavy price. Since the 3/1 took full command in May, seven Marines have died. Three others have suffered traumatic injuries from homemade bombs.
At Combat Outpost Koshtay, in the center of Garmsir District, Marines held a memorial service for Sgt. John Rankel Thursday. He was killed on June 7. The 23-year-old from Speedway, Ind., was leading his squad as they attempted to clear an area where another base is to be built. He was shot in the chest just above his body armor and died while being transported by helicopter to a medical facility.
The other casualties include three Marines killed by homemade bombs in separate incidents and three more Marines who drowned when their 30 ton armored truck known as an MRAP accidently tumbled into a canal.
Despite the progress, in recent weeks the Taliban has been moving back into the area in an effort to dissuade residents from supporting the Americans and the nascent localgovernment. Two village elders and a shopkeeper, all siding with the Marines, have been assasinated. Letters warning residents about the consequences of siding with the Americans and Afghan security forces have been posted on mosques and left at homes and some residents tell Marines they've received threatening phone calls.
The result is that Marines have seen a decrease in the number of elders attending community meetings, or shuras, fewer people making use of health services. And maybe most damaging effect has been a decrease in the number of tips about Taliban activities coming in from residents.
Police Chief Arrests Taliban After Tribal Leader Assassinations
"It's a chess game," said Ltc. Watson, whose biggest challenge it is to win over a population that still isn't convinced the Americans will stay until the hardcore Taliban are gone. "These people have been fought over for 30 years" said Watson. "It's a culture of abandonment. We'll turn it around, but it will take time."
Local governance here has also suffered what appears to be a setback. The long time district governor, Haji Abdul Jan, was recently stripped of his job and replaced with Mohammed Fahim, a 22 year-old who, while energetic, lacks political skills, management experience and isn't even from Garmsir making an already tough job even more monumental.
Every dark cloud here seems to come with a silver lining. After the village elders were assassinated Watson said the Afghan police chief loaded up several pickup trucks with police, drove to a Marine base and told the captain there that he was going to "arrest some Taliban."
A short time later he returned with six men he claimed were Taliban. The police chief Omar Jan dropped off the men saying he wasn't finished and went off and collected two more and disabled several boats he suspected of ferrying insurgents across the Helmand River.
To the surprise of the Marines at least four of the men were on their wanted list.