GARMSIR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Four times a week Captain Micah Caskey goes on foot patrol with seven other U.S. Marines through Garmsir’s district center in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province.
They move slowly down the main road, stopping to have lunch at the hospital one day, visiting a school the next, speaking to shop keepers to try to discern what the people of Garmsir need to feel secure.
“If we had better roads, more schools and more security, we would feel better,” shopkeeper Mahayuddin said.
More than a year ago a Marine Expeditionary Unit rolled into Garmsir to secure the district for British troops, who in June turned over their command to 2nd battalion, 8th Marines regiment.
Some 25 km (16 miles) south of where Caskey meets his Afghan neighbors, a company of Marines are dodging insurgent-laid bombs and engaging in gunfights every day, as they push down into parts where the Taliban are yet to relinquish their control.
Fighting the militants while simultaneously trying to win Afghan hearts and minds is the basis of the counterinsurgency strategy of the United States in Afghanistan.
“To me the fighting is what I call a ‘shaping op’. It’s not decisive, it’s not winning. Winning is government leaders, the community council sitting down with elders,” said Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss, who leads 1,000 Marines in Garmsir.
“You have to meet expectations every day and it’s not the expectations of the American people, it’s the expectations of the local Afghan people here in Garmsir.”
When Cabaniss and 4,000 other Marines rolled into Helmand, to finally wrest control from the Taliban in July, they were accompanied by just 650 Afghan soldiers.
In his assessment of the war in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, the head of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, warned that his mission would fail without more troops.
He also emphasized the need for a stronger, larger Afghan army and police force.
“More U.S. forces would help, more Afghan forces would definitely help ... Could Helmand do with more ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces? Yes. More ISAF is good, more ISAF partnered with Afghan national security forces is much better,” Cabaniss said.
“From where I am (I need) two companies of ANSF, I don’t need more Marines,” he added.
In Garmsir’s central bazaar, scant police were visible. Two on a motorcycle whizzed through the district center, waving at Caskey’s foot patrol, greeting him in broken English.
Residents and shopkeepers around the bazaar showed no signs of concern about the Taliban or any animosity toward the Marines.
Children in worn-out clothes buzzed around the patrol asking “How are you?” and demanding pens. Caskey passed a handful to a small boy on the condition that he share them with his friends. Obligingly, the child distributed them.
“We are very happy, compared to last year,” said Mullah-Khan Ahmadzai, a doctor at Garmsir’s hospital said.” Everything was destroyed last year. We had no security. Now there are no security problems, 24 hours a day.” (Additional reporting by Samar Zwak)