Nawa: The Taliban Model for Marja

American military efforts in the village of Nawa, in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province, are often cited by leaders as a model of what a properly resourced counterinsurgency campaign can achieve. Last July a battalion of Marines swooped in, and although the village had been solidly under Taliban control, U.S. troops transformed the place. Deployed in a one-man-to-50-villagers ratio, they took off their body armor, patrolled on foot, drank endless cups of green tea with elders, and funded small-scale reconstruction projects. By October IED attacks were down 90 percent, and Nawa had become Gen. Stanley McChrystal's "No. 1 petri dish," an aide told the press. In his recent blistering report about the failures of military intelligence in Afghani-stan, Gen. Michael Flynn praised the Marines in Nawa for developing one of the only truly effective information-gathering networks in the country.

But the Taliban tell a different story, with implications for the current campaign in Marja. A local Taliban commander, who asked not to be named for his security, says that insurgents largely withdrew from Nawa ahead of the offensive, after planting thousands of IEDs the Marines would have to find and disarm. Since then, he says, the Taliban have infiltrated back into the area. They stay in the houses of farmers and villagers, blending in and planting IEDs, sabotaging development projects, and targeting local police and government officials for assassination. The commander says his orders are to stay in place and harass the Marines and Afghan authorities as much as possible. Meanwhile, he says, he's even building a new house in the district.

Senior Taliban leaders say they'll use a similar strategy in Marja—where -Marines have been waging an offensive—fighting by stealth rather than head-on combat. The insurgent commander, who tells NEWSWEEK he's just returned from Marja, says he was sent in with orders for the remaining defenders to pull out, as most of their comrades had already done, and to advise the holdouts on safe exit routes.

"In Nawa we have the best example of insurgency and resistance," says Mullah Nasir, a member of Mullah Mohammed Omar's ruling circle. But the Taliban may be in for a tougher time than Nasir expects: roughly 8,000 ground forces were sent into Marja, versus only 1,500 or so in Nawa. Nasir isn't worried. "Villagers know that our presence will be permanent and that the Americans' and their collaborators' stay will be fleeting," he says. "We are and always will be part of the landscape." At a press briefing, a senior Obama administration official, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive foreign-policy matter, said he's "sure the Taliban are betting" that U.S. forces will tire and relinquish their hold on Marja. That, the official said, is the wrong bet.

Nawa: The Taliban Model for Marja | World
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