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In Afghan cauldron, realism can trump the rulebook

SHARE In Afghan cauldron, realism can trump the rulebook

SANGIN, Afghanistan — "Clear, hold and build" is the official formula for fighting the Taliban, but in this southern river valley, the most dangerous place in Afghanistan, the experts say you have to be a realist to succeed.

That may mean coordinating with the Taliban to get their approval for development projects, accepting that some money may end up in insurgents' pockets, and understanding that the best way to help certain people is simply to leave them alone.

The U.S. Marines and British civilian advisers in Helmand province's Sangin district are trying to build roads and schools in terrain which, far from being cleared, still teems with insurgents and crackles with the sounds of machine gun fire and explosions from multiple daily Taliban attacks.

"I'm definitely not trying to build the shining city upon a hill here," said Lt. Karl Kadon, head of civil affairs for the Marine battalion in Sangin. "I'm just trying to build something that is stable enough that it's not going to bother us."

Even that is a daunting task. The Marines arrived in Sangin in October following four years of fighting by British forces that suffered heavy casualties and struggled to show progress.

Now roughly a dozen Marine civil affairs operatives and British government advisers working out of Sangin's district center must maneuver through a minefield of competing forces: corrupt contractors, greedy tribal elders, insurgents, Taliban shadow government officials and, most powerful of all, drug lords who would rather keep the insurgency going than let law and order take root.

The group sees the whole point of its effort as building up public trust in the Afghan district government. But the district governor is essentially an army of one because he can't get anyone to work with him in such a dangerous environment.

A recent patrol through Sangin's main bazaar by the civil affairs team illustrated just how tough development work can be. A couple hours before the team arrived, a Marine was shot in the head and killed in an alley just off the bazaar. The team was forced to lob green smoke grenades into the alley and sprint past to avoid being shot at themselves.

As shopkeepers looked on with icy stares, a kid minding a store remarked: "If you're scared, why did you come to Sangin?"

And the bazaar is considered the safest place in the district. Outside the center, the challenge of building is even greater. Sangin is almost entirely controlled by Taliban fighters and has been the deadliest district in Afghanistan for coalition forces this year.

But the team sees working outside the center as essential.

"The district governor could work in the center and never venture out of the security bubble, but then his influence would remain here and we would never get popular support," said Phil Weatherill, a British government adviser here.

To work outside the center, the team must rely on Afghans who coordinate with the Taliban, and must also accept that some money may be directed to insurgents by local contractors or elders in return for letting development work go ahead. They believe the money makes its way to the foot soldiers who are simply fighting for cash — the so-called "small-t Taliban" — not the hardcore fighters.

"There are checks and balances, but there is an inevitability that some money is going into people's pockets," said Weatherill. "Whether it's small-t Taliban or corrupt contractors, I don't know. But this is Afghanistan."

Kadon said it can be difficult to accept that Marines are coordinating with, and possibly even helping, the enemy, but sees no choice.

"This is a tough job because I have friends who have gotten hurt or killed, and I know I'm conversing with Taliban on a daily basis," said Kadon, 25, of Cincinnati. "But it's one of those things where you have to give a little to get a little."

In some cases, the team has to accept that trying to help someone can be dangerous. Kadon recalled visiting an orphanage and being turned away by the woman who runs it.

"The woman said the Taliban told her that if they ever saw her taking any assistance from international forces, they would kill her or one of the children," he said.

Kadon said that shortly after he left her house, a suicide bomber blew himself up nearby but luckily didn't harm the woman or the children.

"That was a bad day," he said.

For all the hardships, the Marines have aggressive plans, including building roads, government offices, a high school and crop storehouses. They have spent $500,000 since arriving and predict they could spend up to $4 million before they leave around April, said Kadon. They have built a gravel road near the district center and started work on a large flood wall.

The British have spent close to $1 million in the last 18 months and Weatherill said he believes they have made some progress. Two of the so-called "shadow governors" in Sangin have been sacked by the Taliban's leadership because locals were unhappy with their opposition to coalition development projects, he said.

Coalition forces said they killed the current shadow governor during an airstrike in neighboring Kajaki district on Nov. 20.

But this is Helmand province's center for processing opium into heroin, and the team acknowledges defeat so far in its tug-of-war with drug lords for the allegiance of influential tribal leaders.

"With money comes power, and most people still look to the drug barons as the people with the most power around here," said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Sangin. "The Taliban is closely linked with the drug trade. They use the same networks, safe havens and transport routes."

One consolation he sees is that things have been bad in Sangin for so long that they can't get worse.

"In Sangin, you can almost only go up," Morris.