DARVESHAN, Afghanistan — Incremental security gains that U.S. Marines are making in Afghanistan's Helmand province are proving to be a model for successful counterinsurgency, the top military commander here said Friday.
International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment came after patrolling the bazaar area of Darveshan, the government seat of Helmand's Garmsir district.
McChrystal — who eschewed body armor, donning only his "soft cover" cap — conducted the foot patrol with commanders from 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, as well as Afghan security forces from the army, border patrol and local police. The bazaar was teeming with activity, as merchants sold melons, ice cream and flat bread. Just a year ago, according to Marine and Afghan commanders, heavy fighting between Taliban and ISAF forces in the area had left the bazaar completely empty.
"There are other places happening like this right now but this is the model that ... we want all our forces, the mindset we want them to start with," McChrystal told GlobalPost as he walked through the market. "There is no set model," he clarified. "You can't go at this and say, 'two of this, three of that.'
"If you understand that it's all about people — protecting people and respecting people — then everything else sort of drives from there. All the other decisions against that criteria, they don't become easy but they become much more clearer."
McChrystal said he was last in the area about two years ago. Seeing improvements to this city center gives "the sense of hope," he said. While the commander has in the past called for more troops in Afghanistan, he would not comment on how many more might be needed in this region to push out gains farther south into Helmand.
Gains are a result of lessons learned in Iraq, as well as from taking history into account, he said. "Almost every generation has got to learn it for themselves and this generation happens to have had a lot of experience in the last few years and I think we just keep getting better at it," he said.
The ISAF commander stopped at a stall to speak with a group of men, and to ask what was needed. "We want security," one man said plainly, cautioning that heavy-handed actions by troops would push people to align with the Taliban.
"We are trying very hard," McChrystal responded through a translator. "We are trying to operate more carefully." The man listed other needs of the community including drinking water, a mosque and again, security.
"Everyone says security first. We have to do this together," McChrystal told the group of men. Marines here say one major challenge the Garmsir district faces is isolation. Take, for example, the narrow canal roads. While recent crop conversion resulted in 80 percent of local crops turning to wheat instead of narcotic-producing poppy this past harvest, the lack of transportation infrastucture makes it difficult to move yields to distant markets.
Establishing cell phone service in the region could lead to a tip line for locals to call with information about IED locations without fear of Taliban reprisals, say Marines.
Many residents fear that troops will not stay, Garmsir district governor Haji Abdullah Jan told McChrystal. Some think the dirt-filled Hesco barriers — widely used for force protection — look temporary, which only underscores their fears, he said.
Troops will stay until Afghan forces are able to take over, McChrystal reassured the governor, adding: "I think that's years, not months."