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McChrystal: Marines' gains in southern Afghanistan a model

Exclusive: US top military commander attributes success to lessons learned in Iraq

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."