Page last updated at 23:57 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 00:57 UK

US troops in Afghan 'armed social work'


Ian Pannell visits the 'Afghan success story' of Garmsir

President Obama is reviewing policy on Afghanistan for the second time this year, amid a debate on how ambitious America's approach should be.

This summer thousands of US marines were deployed to Helmand to fight alongside the British, and to work on America's new counter-insurgency strategy. Ian Pannell spent the past two weeks with the marines in Garmsir.

Christian Cabannis met a social worker before deploying to Afghanistan. Not for his own wellbeing, but to better understand the task at hand. It was his mother's idea.

Her son is a lieutenant colonel in the US marines and the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion 8th Marine Regiment.

He is in charge of perhaps the most dangerous part of Afghanistan and also one of the poorest. So his mother wanted him to better understand what it is that motivates the poor and how to win their support.

He describes this mission as "armed social work"; providing hope for the needy and defence against the Taliban.

Meaningful local government

It is pure, modern counter-insurgency strategy (Coin) and what American and British generals believe is the key to winning this war. Lt Col Cabannis says that until recently the mission lacked the right focus.

Lt Col Christian Cabannis
The government of Afghanistan has something positive to offer the people and the Taliban don't
Lt Col Christian Cabannis

Three years ago, Garmsir market was shot up and abandoned; the scene of pitched battles between British forces and the Taliban. But today UK and US troops have driven them away from the town and Garmsir is held up as a success story.

In the past three months, US marines have built on British efforts to establish meaningful local government. They have engaged in development work and brought an air of modest prosperity to the town.

We visited an Eid fair, celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Children squealed with delight and terror as they were flung around on a brightly-coloured wooden Ferris wheel.

Men played volleyball and browsed the stalls and young boys took part in a wrestling competition.

It does not look like what President Obama described as "the most dangerous place on Earth" but Pakistan is not far to the south of here and the insurgency continues to rage in the district.

'Consent-winning activities'

Yet something unusual is happening in Garmsir town itself. If you want to see what America's vision of success in Afghanistan looks like, this is it. It is what Coin advocates call "clear, hold, build" and in Garmsir it appears to be slowly working.

Ferris wheel in Garmsir
There is a much more relaxed atmosphere in Garmsir

Lt Col Cabannis says success depends on winning the consent of the local people, not on killing insurgents.

"The way we root them out is not just through security but delivery of governance; the government of Afghanistan has something positive to offer the people and the Taliban don't."

He believes that many insurgents can be persuaded to put down their weapons and re-join society and there are discussions under way as to how to achieve this.

The marines' success is in part due to sheer size; having the force strength to push into new areas, to stay there and to engage in what they call "consent-winning activities" on a much larger scale than Britain has been able to.

But Gen Stanley McChrystal, commander of the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan, says he needs more troops within a year or the mission could fail.

The Obama administration has already had one Afghan review this year but just months later the policy is being looked at again.

At a time when these troops are trying to convince Afghans that they are here for the long-term, it creates doubts about the focus and the commitment of the whole mission.

It also runs a real risk of giving encouragement to the very people the marines are supposed to be fighting - the Taliban.

Garmsir's Deputy Governor, Ayub Omer, is concerned that, without more forces, progress will be limited. He points out that only a quarter of the district is under government control.


"It's our responsibility and also that of foreign forces to go into all of these areas and bring peace and stability."

The British flag still flies in a corner of the marine forward operating base "Delhi". There is a stone memorial with a simple plaque commemorating the UK troops who died here. Capt Cabannis keeps it as a reminder of the sacrifice made to bring Garmsir town under government control.

Thirteen US marines have also been killed in action here but, unless an increasingly sceptical American public is willing to expend more blood and treasure, there is a risk the sacrifice will have been in vain.

We travelled to a remote combat outpost, more than 20km (12 miles) to the south of the district centre. The fight may have moved out of town but the struggle against the Taliban is as fierce and as deadly as ever.

Repeating the success seen in Garmsir town demands extra time and resources and it is far from clear whether America's commander-in-chief is ready to make that commitment.

Ian Pannell will shortly be reporting from a combat outpost where American forces are engaged in a fierce battle with the Taliban and will be asking whether more foreign troops are needed if success is to be achieved.

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