CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan -- Coalition forces in Helmand province have made tentative progress in winning over a small but significant itinerant population that insurgents have exploited in recent years, say Regimental Combat Team 1 officials.
After being driven out of Marjah and Nawa during the last year, insurgents have taken refuge in the desolate in-between region of Trek Nawa, which is populated mainly by three Pashtun clans.
Settlements of Barakzai, Alizai and Hasanzai clansmen are spread thinly throughout Trek Nawa. They live farther apart than the residents of Marjah and Nawa, making them more vulnerable to Taliban renegades looking for a place to hide themselves and stash weapons.
Because few residents of Trek Nawa own land, they have little interaction with the Afghan government. The region isn’t monitored by local security officials as closely as Marjah or Nawa, which makes it an ideal place to cultivate poppy and marijuana.
Although it’s nothing like the Taliban stronghold that Marjah was once considered, Trek Nawa remains a nuisance for local Marines and Afghan officials.
However, coalition forces may have inched closer to signing on another teammate in counterinsurgency efforts there.
For the first time, elders of one Trek Nawan clan voiced virtually unanimous support for several coalition initiatives during a shura in Trek Nawa, Jan. 19, said the cultural advisor with Regimental Combat Team 1. The elders expressed willingness to eradicate poppy and take up arms against the Taliban. However, they are gauging the commitment of coalition forces and the government before making a firm resolution, said the cultural advisor, whose name is omitted for security purposes.
“In a lot of areas, if you win over one tribe and you can provide them with security, other tribes tend to jump on the bandwagon very quickly,” said Col. David Furness, the commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 1.
The shura was one of the few meetings local government officials have had with Trek Nawan clansmen. Governors Haji Abdul Manaf and Abdul Mutalib Majbor, the governors of Marjah and Nawa respectively, and an Afghan National Army commander spoke. The governors addressed local domestic concerns, such as poppy cultivation, land rights issues, and local defense forces. The ANA commander reinforced some of the governors’ points and encouraged the locals to hold his troops to high ethical standards. He also encouraged the locals to consider joining the ANA.
According to the cultural advisor, the shura’s success was heavily influenced by bold pledges of support by Furness, who had never spoken to residents of Trek Nawa before.
Furness, the last speaker, first introduced himself as the commanding officer of the Marines in the area, a matter of special significance in Pashtun culture, the cultural advisor said. Because the Pashtun people vest decision-making power in family elders rather than individuals, they expect their elders to be met by senior leadership in diplomatic engagement, he explained.
Furness then summarized the history between America and Afghanistan, referring to canal projects in the 1950's and 80's and tying that history into RCT-1’s present mission. He explained that Marines are here for the specific purpose of helping Afghans, and he urged the locals to inform him if they see the Marines do anything wrong.
Furness concluded his remarks by familiarizing the elders with the 1st Marine Division motto, “No better friend; no worse enemy.”
The entire audience applauded.
“That’s a big thing,” said the cultural advisor, adding that Pashtun elders are a tough crowd.
The cultural advisor attributed their favorable response to the simplicity of Furness’ message and its consistency with Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of conduct. The code exhorts Pashtuns to hospitality but allows for a proportionate response to enemy aggression: ideas that are encapsulated in the Division motto.
Despite encouraging signs from the attending clan, their support seems tentative, according to the cultural advisor’s account of the shura dialogue. An elder explained that they make up approximately 30 of 200 families in Trek Nawa, and expressed the need for more support from the ANA and Marines. Other elders explained that they want to cooperate but will ultimately follow the majority of the families in the area.
“While they are receptive, they’re not going to do much if we’re not there,” Furness said.
Nevertheless, the clan’s elders, who haven’t shown any previous interest in participating in Afghanistan’s government, seem to be getting the message, the cultural advisor said.
According to Furness, extending governance into Trek Nawa and like regions will require sustained commitment from every level of coalition forces and Afghanistan’s government.
Using the hot-button issue of poppy cultivation as an example, Furness opined on how the Afghan government may be able to curb Taliban funding through a wheat subsidy.
“We need to look at a complete subsidy program in areas that [are] notoriously prone to planting poppy,” Furness said.
In the short term, Furness hopes that negotiations in Trek Nawa, along with tactical victories like the recent clearing of Durzay, will put a squeeze on Taliban resources this spring.