Marines Bring Rebirth to Taliban Stronghold

Now Zad, Afghanistan — A rebirth of Now Zad is taking place just two weeks after U.S. Marines dislodged extremist Taliban from this northwestern portion of Helmand Province, but it’s also occurring under the very real threat of enemy retaliation.

In Now Zad town, once the second-largest population center in Helmand, hundreds of displaced residents are returning daily from outlying villages to clear away rubble and debris.

Hundreds of children each day are attending a school started by Afghan-American interpreters.

And all of this is being done in defiance of Taliban threats.

And women, confined by practicality as well as custom to outlying villages, are receiving long-deferred health care from mobile U.S. medical teams with female nurses and corpsman.

Meanwhile, troops from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, are establishing new outposts in the desert countryside beyond the town itself to keep the Taliban at bay. The outposts are near some of the 14 villages in the district to allow daily patrols and interaction with the people to establish personal relationships and gain intelligence to thwart or counter any Taliban activity in the areas.

“The more this place improves the madder they (the Taliban) are 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.”

Added Lt. Col. Martin Wetterauer, commander of 3-4 in Now Zad: “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."

“We know the Taliban will try to do something once they get re-organized and re-supplied supplied,” Wetterauer said. “We have to stay ahead of them.”

Now Zad, until the first week of December, had been since 2006 a major command-and-control center and supply hub for extremists operating in the northern and central river valleys of the province. Marines said there were between 100-200 hardcore resident Taliban here at any given time. British units at first, and later Americans, established an outpost on the western edge of town but the enemy controlled just about everywhere else.

The town itself was deserted by Taliban decree. Residents who fled initial battles between the Taliban and British weren’t allowed back in. Neighborhood streets were planted with IEDs and homes were booby trapped.

To break the stalemate about 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan soldiers swooped in this month in an air and ground assault that put units behind enemy positions.

“We expected the enemy to fight a bit more than they did,” 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.

“There was a handful we got a hold of before they could get out of here,” he said. “But a large majority of them broke from their positions, dropped their weapons and blended back into the local population or left via foot or motorcycle to other areas.”

As many as a dozen Taliban were killed. No Marines died.

Capt. Jason Brezler, a civil affairs officer attached to 3-4, began reaching out to displaced villagers almost immediately. When nearby village elders turned down offers of schools and medical clinics saying they wanted them back in their home town, wages were offered for those who would come back to clean it up.

On the first day, more than 100 men showed up in Now Zad for work. The next day it was more than 200. Now the daily average is more than five hundred, who with shovels, wheelbarrows and their hands remove debris from bazaar and residential areas.

Each is paid about $6 a day, a princely sum for subsistence farmers whose only option for additional income in the past was working with the Taliban. Brezler rationalizes that a man who has a paying day job in this impoverished area is less likely to go out at night and risk his life to plant an IED. And rebuilding Now Zad is a project that will take months if not years, he said.

One of those daily workers is Haji Mohib Ullah. “We went to live in (the village of) Sarakalah about four years ago,” he said. “It was too dangerous to stay.

“We don’t have any hopes but for peace and security. We want to come back and rebuild our homes.”

Apparently, so do most of the 30,000 people displaced from Now Zad in 2006. But re-population will be a slow process. Marines, who will soon conduct their hearts-and-minds projects through a returning Afghan government, have neither time nor wherewithal to completely de-mine Now Zad. Brezler said a contract with a de-mining NGO (non-governmental) organization is in the works.

U.S. forces in Now Zad town have not been attacked since its liberation. In outlying areas, near the mountains surrounding the town, newly planted IEDs however are a constant reminder that the Taliban in the Now Zad district remain a threat.