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First war, now peacemaking

After routing the Taliban in the south, Marines take on unfamiliar roles as they try to win over wary Afghans.

July 06, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

GARMSER, AFGHANISTAN — Gola Akar, a black-bearded farmer, did not seem certain whether a monthlong Marine assault here had improved or retarded his business prospects.

On the one hand, the Marines killed or drove out Taliban fighters who had commandeered his mud-wall compound. But the fighting came at the height of the poppy harvest, costing Akar thousands of dollars in drug profits.

"Since you came, things are better," Akar told 1st Lt. Shaun Miller, a slender, easygoing Marine who led a patrol past his compound one recent morning. "But who's going to pay me for my lost poppies?"

Miller told him the U.S. government wasn't in the habit of paying for lost narcotics profits. But Miller patiently wrote down the damage that Akar said the Marine assault had caused to his windows, roof and walls, and promised to pay cash compensation.

Throughout May, Marines pounded a Taliban stronghold here in the southern province of Helmand near where fellow Marines first set foot in Afghanistan in 2001 to help topple the Taliban regime. It was the first time in the 6 1/2 years of war since then that U.S. forces had reentered the area, which is crisscrossed by three major insurgent infiltration routes from Pakistan and is one of the world's top opium-producing regions.

British forces have maintained a base just north of here, but commanders say the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have lacked sufficient forces to mount an offensive in the region, in part because of the U.S. focus on Iraq.

With the Taliban resurgent in the south, the Marines were deployed specifically to battle entrenched militants. Within a month, they routed the Taliban fighters and disrupted infiltration routes.

Now, they are trying to win over Afghan civilians who are trickling back to their damaged homes.

Officers such as Miller are leading patrols through poppy and marijuana fields to assess farmers' losses. The Marines also have been forced into other unfamiliar roles -- as quasi-diplomats, humanitarian workers, moneymen and nurses.

"Not exactly what I signed up for," Miller said. Sometimes, he said, he felt like an insurance adjuster.

The Marines are the only source of security here. The weak Afghan government is nowhere in sight. The Afghan police fled a Taliban takeover two years ago. The nearest Afghan army unit is posted several miles north, with the British forces.

The Marines are rushing to solidify their combat gains while enlisting civilian support in behalf of the absent Afghan government. Time is precious.

The Marines, from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were scheduled to return home to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in October, but Thursday the Pentagon extended their stay by 30 days.

"The honeymoon's almost over," said Capt. Sean Dynan, commander of Alpha Company, which controls about 4 1/2 square miles of lush farmland that is home to 3,000 to 5,000 Afghans. "Pretty soon, it's going to be: What have you done for me lately?"

The Marines live in harsh conditions, sleeping on the ground amid goat droppings and flies.

The heat and dust are debilitating. There is precious little shade; they cluster under a small tree, changing positions as the sun moves across the sky.

The men wash in a communal well. They survive on bottled water and packaged meals, or MREs. There is no electricity, no plumbing. They burn their waste.

1st Lt. Steven Bechtel, an artillery officer, has set up a cash-dispensing office in a mud hut, receiving villagers who file claims for war damage.

"It's kind of ironic," Bechtel said. "A few weeks ago, we were blowing these places up. Now, we're totaling up the damage and paying for it."

The payment center is in a compound that also houses company headquarters. The property is owned by the local police chief's nephew, who is paid about $65 a month in rent and was given a one-time damage payment of about $1,500.

One day, the landlord asked for permission to dig beneath a mound of firewood in the compound, Dynan said. The man withdrew several trunks that contained what appeared to be opium and hashish, and went on his way.

"We let him go; we're not here to hurt people's livelihoods," Dynan said. "We're not in the drug interdiction business."

Bechtel worked steadily through the punishing heat -- well above 100 degrees -- to process a stream of bedraggled people seeking reparations. A patrol was sent to each applicant's compound to photograph damage and record the property on military maps.

Bechtel said he had promised about $105,000 to 240 applicants.

But there was a hitch: Alpha Company didn't have any cash to make the payments. Because of new Pentagon regulations, the money was held up.

So Bechtel improvised. He tore yellow notebook paper into small slips and wrote down the names, locations and tribes, along with the amount of damages owed.

The applicants went home with the slips that committed the Marines to pay up once the money arrived.

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