- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009

NOW ZAD, Afghanistan I Signs of rebirth are growing in this former Taliban stronghold in Helmand province just days after U.S. Marines stormed it in a ground-and-airborne assault that caught its Taliban occupiers by surprise.

In the once deserted bazaar area in the western portion of town, hundreds of men from nearby villages defy Taliban threats and clear debris from fighting in exchange for pay from U.S. troops.

In the district center next to the main U.S. military base, more than 100 children attend ad hoc classes in reading and writing. The classes, initially started by Afghan-American interpreters working with the Marines, are now conducted by four local Afghans who have completed high school.

Next door, U.S. Navy corpsmen tend to a steady stream of villagers who have been without medical care for years.

“It’s good to see,” said Lt. Col. Martin Wetterauer, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in Now Zad, about the new activity. “It gives hope to the local populace that they can return to their homes one day, and it gives hope to the Marines. These young [Marines] need to see the good being done by them being here.”

Now Zad is in northwestern Helmand, about 50 miles from the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. It was a main Taliban command-and-control and supply center for the northern and central part of the province as well as for nearby portions of Farah province. In early December, however, 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan soldiers staged Operation “Cobra’s Anger,” which broke the stalemate that had existed here since 2006.

“We came at them in a different way,” Col. Wetterauer explained.

An assault force of Marines, using helicopters and V-22 Osprey aircraft, dropped in behind Taliban lines north of the town and pushed south while a second force pushed from east to west. As many as a dozen Taliban were killed as they fled in disarray with no loss of American lives.

“We expected the enemy to fight a bit more than they did,” Col. Wetterauer said, “but I believe that the way we came at them caught them off guard, and these guys just aren’t that good going toe-to-toe with us.”

Beyond the dead and a handful captured, other fighters dropped their weapons and ran off to blend in with the local population in outlying villages or escaped into the mountains that surround the town.

Marines are trying to establish relationships with local people to help identify remaining Taliban. They also are establishing a number of security outposts outside Now Zad to interdict Taliban infiltrators.

“There’s no doubt there are a few Taliban walking the streets right now, trying to get an assessment of what’s going on and how they can counter it,” the commander said. “That’s one of the reasons we have to develop that close relationship [with the people] so they can help us identify them.”

The Taliban hold on Now Zad, the province’s second-largest town, had been long-standing. Small numbers of British troops at first, and then Americans, had occupied Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) on the edge of town since 2006, but their numbers were inadequate to clear and hold much else. As a result, the Taliban ruled the roost beyond the FOBs.

They had ammunition and supply bunkers throughout the town and had houses for transiting and resupplying comrades. Marines said about 3,000 pounds of homemade explosives were found in enemy caches in the town this month as well as hundreds of stashes for components for improvised explosive devices (IED).

The Taliban had fixed positions with IEDs planted along their outer perimeters and booby traps planted within.

Enemy strength was estimated at 100 to 200 hard-core resident gunmen at any given time, the Marines said.

As a result, for the past few years, Now Zad has been a ghost town. The town’s 20,000 to 30,000 residents had fled to outlying villages because of fighting and a Taliban dictate to locals not to return.

The clearing out was sudden. In shops along the main street of the bazaar, some goods are still on the shelves. In houses close by, clothes are still in closets and toys are scattered on floors. The old U.N.-sponsored medical clinic at the government center near FOB Now Zad was found unlooted and still stocked with supplies from 2006.

“We went to live in [the village of] Sarakalah about four years ago,” said Haji Mohib Ullah, who with his son was helping clean debris from Now Zad’s streets. “It was too dangerous to stay.”

He said nearly 50 members of his extended family went with him.

“We don’t have any hopes but for peace and security,” he said through a U.S. interpreter. “We want to come back and rebuild our homes.”

Marines said Taliban still hiding in the area are trying to stop that migration. Villagers helping with the town cleanup - they earn about $6 per day for their labor … tell of Taliban “night letters” that appear in villages warning people not to cooperate with the Americans, said Capt. Jason Brezler, who is in charge of the rebuilding.

However, the number of volunteer workers and children in school shows that villagers are defying those warnings for now. The money paid for cleanup work is the only income for many. What’s more, the emotional ties to the town for former residents are strong. When the Marines offered to build schools and clinics in the nearby villages, the former Now Zad residents turned them down.

The first day of the U.S.-sponsored cleanup of Now Zad, about 110 men appeared. On the second day, there were more than 200. Four days later, more than 600 appeared.

“They want this town,” said Col. Wetterauer. “There is pride going on here; you can see it on the faces of the grown men in a drainage ditch digging out the garbage. They were kicked out of their homes, their community, and they’re determined to take the place back.”

Still, the question being asked by Marines here is not “if” the Taliban will regroup and retaliate, but when.

“The more this place improves, the madder they’re going to get,” said 1st Lt. John Pickup of Lima Company. “They’ve lost face with the people. I wouldn’t be surprised if some bodies [of cooperative villagers] started turning up soon.”

Hundreds of IEDs are believed to have been sown inside the town. Capt. Brezler said people are not being allowed to return to most areas yet because of safety concerns, but workers in the bazaar are nonetheless branching deeper into surrounding neighborhoods.

According to Capt. Brezler, U.S. officials are negotiating a huge mine-clearance project with a nongovernmental organization. U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Kabul, the national capital, are also pressing for a return of the district governor.

“There are some things, some issues, I can’t handle here,” Capt. Brezler said. “It has to be an Afghan. If the district governor doesn’t return soon, we’re going to have a super-Shura [council of village elders] and have them elect a temporary one.

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