NOW ZAD, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2010 -- Now Zad is a town again. In just two short months the small farming community Afghanistan's northern Helmand Province has turned around faster than anyone expected.
In December 1,000 Marines and Afghan security forces moved into Now Zad in an operation designed to wrest control from the Taliban. The town, once home to 30,000 people, had been a ghost town for four years.
Over the years bitter fighting between British troops, Estonians and U.S. Marines resulted in dozens of injured and killed international troops but made little difference to the situation in Now Zad. Insurgents ringed the area with thousands of homemade bombs and booby traps, creating a stalemate that remained unbroken until late last year.
Capt. Andrew Terrell's Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines led the fight in an operation dubbed "Cobra's Anger." Its effect was almost immediate.
"People here are probably guys who were fighters two months ago," said Terrell. "They've put down their weapons, they want to be part of a functioning society. They have an option now, and that option is the government of Afghanistan."
The changes in Now Zad are astounding. Two months ago the only sounds on the streets of this once bustling market community were chirping birds and squeaking doors.
Today some 1,500 people live in the center of town. More than 60 shops have already opened, and every day more ex-residents arrive to survey their property and weigh the possibility of returning.
Nyaz Mohammed owns the local bakery, among the first shops to reopen. He says "business is ok but I'm looking forward to much better business in the future." He's confident that in "6 months Now Zad will be back."
The town, and his shop, have a long way to go. Four years ago the bakery was pumping out 1,200 loaves of bread a day. Today it's only producing about 200.
Now Zad's buildings, made mostly of mud, are in need of substantial repair. Many homes and shops were damaged by years of fighting, and every single building has deteriorated after exposure to the elements for years without any attention.
Greatest Sign ogf Hope? Kids Returning to School
Capt. Jason Brezler, a Marine reservist and New York City firefighter, heads up the Civilian Affairs Group. His job is to coordinate reconstruction and economic revitalization of the town.
"It's a huge job, putting this town back together," Brezler said. "Though it's awesome to see folks returning, there are some significant challenges going forward. After four years of protracted conflict a lot of folks are coming back to shops and homes that have sustained significant damage."
Maybe the biggest sign of progress and hope is the large number of kids resuming their studies. Now Zad and the surrounding area once prided itself on the education levels of its kids. Four years ago some 2,500 kids attended school throughout the valley.
Today, a private home serves as a school, and another school has opened across the river in Changowlak. In all more than 230 kids -- about 30 of them girls -- are either jammed into undersized rooms or conducting their studies in the open air.
Neimatullah Balooth, a 13-year-old student who spent the last four years working on his family's farm, said he doesn't see "much of a future in farming. I want to become a doctor."
There is even a health clinic here, and though it's rudimentary it has two health care providers: a husband and wife team who moved here from Kabul. Khwaja Sabor is a registered nurse and his wife Farzana, a midwife. She'll soon be busy.
She says there are four women now living in the center of town who will give birth in the next month; the first babies born in Now Zad in years.
The clinic needs substantial repair and assistance if it's going to keep up with the demands of the rapidly growing town. Khwaja says the clinic lacks basic medicines such as antibiotics, and its exam rooms are less than adequate. One room where the sterilized equipment is kept has sheets of plastic for windows, the walls are stained black from fire, and water steadily drips from the ceiling.
The Sabors decided to leave Kabul with their young daughter in hopes of bettering their own lives. The government of Afghanistan pays substantially more for serving in Now Zad. Together they earn about $3,200 a year. They are finding Now Zad is not cheap.
Now Zad's Success Comes at a Price
Marines here are finding that rapid success comes at a price. Insurgents still control Bar Now Zad to the north and Salaam Bazaar to the south of the Marine's area of operation. In simple terms that means the Taliban still effectively control the flow of goods, services and people into Now Zad.
Anything headed here is routinely held up, raising the prices for everything from bread to fuel. One can get through Taliban checkpoints if the right bribe is paid.
In addition to the dangers of dealing with the Taliban, unaffiliated criminals also wait for opportunities along the rough dirt roads.Now Zad District remains a mix of wild-west-like threats.
At about 265 strong, Lima Company secures most but not all of the district. In the next few months they will hand over duties to a much larger force, a battalion that will double or triple the number of Marines currently on the ground. Those forces, combined with a growing Afghan Army and police force, should easily be able to establish complete control over the district.
Still it raises the question of whether the Taliban will simply move their checkpoints elsewhere. It raises another question of why so much money and effort was spent on a town where no one lived.
Now Zad is important to the people of Helmand Province. It was once the second-largest city here, its land is fertile and traditionally pomegrantes, almonds, corn and wheat were raised here in abundance. Today the biggest cash crop is likely poppies for making opium.
The town and surrounding villages are picturesque and could be a tourist destination, were they located anywhere else. Now Zad strikes an emotional chord in people throughout Helmand Province.
Marines say wresting control of Now Zad from the Taliban and returning it to its rightful owners sends a powerful message that can't be measured in purely military terms.
Now Zad Government Too Weak
The Marines' biggest concern may be the lack of a strong civilian or governmental presence. Almost everything falls to the Marines, and no request is too small. When Terrell or Brezler walk through the market here and chat up locals, the requests come in all shapes and sizes.
One man holds up a plastic bag with medicine. He needs more, and only the Marines can supply it. Another man's wall is deteriorating because of damage caused by the Marines. Another wants to talk about a road being plowed. Even the kids approach them looking for candy or pens.
It's not exactly the dynamic that Marines want. They want the Afghan government to take the lead.
Sayed Murad Agha has been Now Zad's district governor since December. He's a patient man who has learned to work with the Marines, but he's frustrated by the pace of progress. His staff still hasn't moved up from the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. In his office he can't get glass for the windows, a new desk or chairs, much less a phone, fax machine or Internet access.
Marines want the Afghans to lead the way, but so far governance here consists mostly of one district governor, 10 teachers, two health care providers and 265 Marines.
Still there is reason for hope. Sardar Mohammed was the first shopkeeper to reopen when he opened his tea shop on the main street of the bazaar just days after operation Cobra's Anger concluded.
Thirty members of his family left Now Zad four years ago. So far 13 have returned, and the rest are considering it.
On many nights Mohammed celebrates their return with a traditional meal of rice, goat, bread and fruit followed by music. Along with his brother and son, the trio will play for hours. Music was banned under the Taliban. It's back. Now Zad even has a nightlife.