NAWA, Afghanistan—The Marine commander leaned forward, gazing intently at the bearded district governor.
"Let's talk about the local Taliban," Lt. Col. Bill McCollough said. "What I'm concerned about is us having a way to see the difference between someone who has quit being a Taliban and someone who is still supporting the Taliban. We have to have a way to differentiate, otherwise they'll all get treated the same."
The district governor, Abdul Manaf, nodded in agreement. "Let's make a plan," he said.
Outside, a sandstorm gathered. The sky was white, and a few raindrops moistened the fine dust piled thickly on the ground. In the district governor's office, Manaf, McCollough, and a room full of Marines and civilian advisers turned their attention to one of the most pressing and delicate problems facing this lush farming district near the Helmand River. The Taliban had fled or hidden their weapons when the Marines arrived in force in early July. Now it was late September, and those same Marines and their Afghan government partners were looking for ways to bring low-level insurgents home.
As Washington debates its Afghanistan strategy in endless high-level meetings, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines are waging a classical counterinsurgency in Nawa with remarkable results. Peace is still fragile here, and a determined enemy attack could disrupt the delicate relationships that the Marines and their civilian partners are beginning to build. But for now, the Taliban aren't fighting in Nawa. Instead, low-level insurgents and their emissaries are coming forward, saying they want to make peace.
"Anytime a big-T Taliban shows himself or tries to fight us, we rally our forces and try to kill him," said McCollough, the battalion commander. "But the long-term win is taking away all of his low-level support. Once he loses that, he loses the area."
Reconciling with the Taliban has long been a touchy subject in Afghanistan, especially when foreigners are involved. An Afghan reconciliation commission has helped several thousand former Taliban return after renouncing violence and pledging allegiance to the government. But in 2007, President Hamid Karzai kicked two Western diplomats out of the country for negotiating with insurgents in Musa Qala, an area in Helmand that had been under Taliban control before the British recaptured it. The two men—Michael Semple, who worked for the European Union, and Mervyn Patterson, a political officer for the United Nations—were accused of threatening national security. Yet the British victory in Musa Qala was undoubtedly aided by their having persuaded a local Taliban commander, Mullah Salaam, to switch sides.
Such efforts trigger deep, understandable anxieties here. But they are also seen as increasingly necessary and of growing importance to U.S. policy. "While Mullah Omar and the Taliban's hard core that have aligned themselves with Al Qaeda are not reconcilable and we cannot make a deal that includes them, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without convincing non-ideologically committed insurgents to lay down their arms, reject al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan constitution," an Obama administration strategy paper issued this spring notes. In September, Gen. David Petraeus appointed retired British Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb to oversee local reconciliation and reintegration efforts here. Lamb previously worked in Iraq, helping win Sunni fighters away from the insurgency.
"We've got to separate economic insurgents and opportunists from the hard core," said Col. Chris Kolenda, who used aid, development, coordinated operations with Afghan forces and shuras, or meetings, with elders to marginalize insurgent factions in Kunar in 2007 and 2008 and who now works with Gen. Lamb. Reconciliation and reintegration efforts should be Afghan-led, he said. "Ultimately, this is their program, not ours. But we need to be involved in supporting it."
The architect of the Marines' progress in Nawa is Lt. Col. McCollough, a slight, fair-haired 40-year-old with chiseled features and stern, ice-blue eyes. McCollough served two tours in Iraq's Anbar Province, the locus of the Awakening movement that saw Sunnis turning against al-Qaida. His battalion, about 20 percent of whom served in Iraq, trained for 10 months ahead of their current deployment, including three months focusing on counterinsurgency. They practiced asking well-defined questions about their new area: Where are the schools and mosques? Who teaches and preaches in them? Where do those leaders live, and where do their allegiances lie? They took part in field exercises that tested the Marines' understanding of Islam, Afghan culture, and Pashtunwali, the informal code of the south. Eighty Marines in the battalion received Pashto language training, and 40 of them went further, receiving intensive instruction.
"They know exactly what they're doing out there," McCollough said. "No patrol goes out and comes back that has not talked with locals in the area, and it's more than just talking to them. There are things we're learning as we're talking to them. We studied our [counterinsurgency] doctrine. Having come in here not knowing really that much at all about the area, there was a lot we had to learn."
On July 2, which some Marines here call "D-Day," hundreds of troops materialized overnight in Nawa, walking the dirt roads with Afghan soldiers, stopping to talk to locals as the sun rose. They got into a lot of fights, killed many insurgents, and drove over buried bombs.
"After that happened, the Taliban basically said, 'There's too many Marines in Nawa," said Lt. Mike Kuiper, a civil affairs officer. "They said, 'Nawa's lost. Let's pull out.' "
Since then, Nawa has become one of Afghanistan's rare success stories. For once in this profoundly under-resourced war, there are enough troops to provide reliable security. Marines have moved into abandoned compounds, some taken over from the Taliban, and walk round-the-clock foot patrols, resting in cornfields under the stars. With their civilian counterparts, they're executing a dizzying array of reconstruction projects, hiring local contractors and pumping money into the economy. Families who fled months of fighting between the Taliban and Afghan police in Nawa are returning. The bazaar, empty and mostly shuttered when the Marines arrived, now draws thousands on Fridays, the week's busiest shopping day.
By September, firefights still erupted on the outskirts of the district. But instead of looking for Taliban, most patrols now focused on development projects. A representative and contractors for USAID walked the dirt roads, examining bridges and culverts in need of repair. The Americans paid a local contractor to fix a bridge destroyed by a makeshift bomb. When a territorial dispute over water threatened to halt the project, the Marines intervened, gathering elders to discuss the problem.
I went to talk to one of the elders who had argued over the bridge project. His name was Hajji Hamidullah Helmand, and he had a long white beard and a white turban. He was the local tribal leader and the most powerful elder in Nawa. I asked him what the Americans should do.
"They cannot make peace by force," he said. The local government was corrupt and ineffective, and the people were unhappy with it. "They didn't do anything good, they didn't do anything for the people. That's why the people are angry," Hajji Hamidullah said. "The people have been in fighting for a long time, so they want help—not just financial, but spiritual help."
Reconciliation was the key, he said. The enemy fighters in Nawa were natives, with only a few foreign militants in their midst. "The Americans should make closer relations with the enemies, bring them to the table. Otherwise, it's not easy to get peace."
I asked whether all the Taliban in Nawa could be reconciled. Were there some who had done things to other Afghans that were so brutal that they required action by a court or a tribal justice system?
Hajji Hamidullah shifted uncomfortably and darted his eyes to indicate the men who had gathered around to listen.
"I cannot answer this question," he said. "If you want, I'll take you to see the Taliban and you can talk to them."
It was encounters like these, with Hajji Hamidullah and others, that brought McCollough to the district governor's office that overcast September afternoon to talk about reintegrating low-level Taliban. Shortly after the Marines arrived in July, Gulab Mangal the governor of Helmand, came to Nawa to speak.
"If you're a local Taliban and you live here, now is the time to stop fighting," he told them, according to McCollough. "Let's join together and rebuild our country."
In early September, a handful of insurgents showed up at a shura at a local school. They blended in with the crowd, listening to what the Americans and Afghans had to say. A few days later, the father of a local fighter approached McCollough. Some people in his village wanted to quit the insurgency and support the government, he said. What would they be required to do?
"This is such an important portion of the fight—this is the end game," McCollough said. "How does every war end when it's an internal war like this? It has to end with reconciliation. If there's no reconciliation, the conflict doesn't stop."
It won't be easy. The unresolved presidential election means that the current Afghan government has little authority to come up with a plan to bring militants back into the fold, and U.S. troops can't do it on their own. If the situation isn't clarified soon, the Marines could lose the opportunity to capitalize on their momentum in Nawa.
At the meeting in the district governor's office last month, Abdul Manaf, a paunchy man with a gray beard and a careless, jovial manner, said he had spoken to people close to the Taliban. The fighters said they would come over to the government side in return for jobs and the right to keep their weapons.
"I told them the weapons are against the law to have here," Manaf said.
McCollough knew that as the Afghan government representative, Manaf should take the lead in setting up a reintegration program. Yet Manaf seemed unwilling to take on the burden of deciding who should be allowed to return and who shouldn't. Instead, he suggested that the Marines screen low-level Taliban before sending them his way.
"What about if we made that first step kind of together?" McCollough suggested. The governor could hold weekly shuras where insurgents could renounce their allegiance to the Taliban and sign a document supporting the government. The Marines would collect their biometric data, and they would become eligible for U.S.-funded contracts and other short-term employment.
"Very good," Manaf said, sounding relieved.
He would propose the idea at an upcoming shura. McCollough read from a list of elders from around the district, their names culled from previous meetings based on the strength of their constituencies and their ability to act as emissaries to the Taliban. Were these the right men to talk to?
"These people, they were close to Mullah Omar." Manaf said. "They're the elders of the Taliban."
"So if we can get those particular people up front supporting the governor and the government, that would be a good thing?" McCollough asked.
Manaf looked unsure. "The only thing is, yeah, they could come and work with us. But what if we get weak? Let's say if you leave, I stay here by myself …"
"We're not going anywhere," McCollough told him.
The Marines can't control how long they will be in Nawa, or how many more troops will be sent to Afghanistan. But they are certain that leaving isn't the answer.
"Our biggest worry is two things," Lt. Kuiper, the civil affairs officer, said during one of the patrols. "One: The American people won't be patient enough for this to flourish, for our successes to be built on. Or two, maybe the military might not be patient enough and say, 'OK, we've done successful operations here, let's move on.' "
You mean pull the Marines out of Nawa? I asked.
"Yeah," Kuiper said. "If that happened, that would be the worst thing."
The meeting in the district governor's office ended with jokes and handshakes. On the short walk back to the base, McCollough considered the pace of progress.
"Well, we're half a step closer," he said. "Half a step."