MARJAH, Afghanistan — Nothing better illustrates the transformation of this southern Afghan town than the central Koru Chareh market, where an entire street functioned as a drug bazaar when the Taliban were in control. Today tailors have set up business at one end, and legitimate enterprises have started filling the empty shops.
The trade in opium was the major source of income for Taliban insurgents in Helmand province, which produces most of the world's heroin, and Marjah served as their narco-capital. Farmers say the Taliban had forced them to grow poppy, though most admit that it was more lucrative than other crops.
Now U.S. troops from 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, are playing the role of an emergency aid agency, assessing needs and handing out bundles of the local currency to residents, in a drive to revive and remake Marjah's economy.
"Now business is a lot better," said Ghulam Rasool, 38, who has a tiny money-changing outfit in Koru Chareh. "In the time of the Taliban, there was too much fighting. People were scared. We'd close our shops and go home all the time. Now I'm here all day long."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
This isn't peripheral or improvised work for the Marines, who follow a doctrine laid out in a U.S. military handbook called "Money as a Weapon System."
The intent is to provide a substitute for the narcotics income the town had lived on and to kick-start the economy, but it's also to show that life is better outside Taliban rule, with paved roads, schools and other facilities being rapidly constructed.
In theory at least, the Marines are doing the work until the Afghan government is in a position to take over. Under the Taliban, the government was absent from Marjah altogether, and the militants had taxed the shops.
But there's cause for concern that residents are becoming addicted to the American handouts, and there are questions about how suitable Marines are to be aid workers. There's also the lingering question of whether the Afghan authorities will institute good governance.
Until last February, when U.S. Marines led a massive assault, Marjah was a Taliban bastion. Today, the insurgents have been pushed to the town's outskirts. Ensuring a legal and sustainable livelihood for the town's residents is a key test for the U.S. approach to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, which could serve as a national model.
There are around 1,000 Marines stationed in the town, and another 1,000 in the desert north of Marjah district.
"We're building relations with the population," said Maj. Chris Rogers, who heads the civil affairs team for 3/9 Marines. "Just fighting bad guys is not the same as helping them build their country."
Security conditions in Marjah aren't good enough to allow the U.S. Agency for International Development — the official aid agency of the U.S. government — or nongovernmental organizations to work, so Marines are doing the job, said Rogers, 36, who's from Newport Beach, Calif.
The U.S. military's focus on aid and reconstruction work in Helmand is far greater than it was in Iraq, said Capt. Nathan Dmochowski, the commander of 3/9's Lima Company, which is stationed next to Koru Chareh market. He's served in both conflicts. Civilian assistance resources are devolved down to company and platoon level here, delivered through a scheme called the Commander's Emergency Response Program.
Since Lima Company's 230 Marines arrived in Marjah in late December, their aid work has included paying for 16 floodgates on the canal irrigation system, 25 wells and 15 small bridges. Lima is one of five infantry companies operating in central Marjah under 3/9, each dispensing civilian assistance. Next to Koru Chareh market, a primary school opened earlier this month, providing education for some 600 children, including 60 girls, a $190,000 project.
Aid work "is the focus of effort for the company," said Dmochowski, 32, from East Lansing, Mich. "The school is a pretty large statement from us to the people of Marjah."
Demand is so heavy that the kids attend school in two shifts, with some accommodated in tents on the school compound. An extension already as planned. Excited children run around the yard, a gleaming white eight-classroom building in the center. The English teacher gave up a job in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, to teach here.
"All children want to come to school," said Samiullah Jan, a smiling 13-year-old, brandishing an English language textbook and speaking in impressive English. "I want to learn things. I want to be something, a teacher."
There were no functioning schools in Marjah when the Marines arrived. Now they've started three tent schools. Permanent structures have replaced two former tent schools, and a high school is planned.
Koru Chareh bazaar, which has a lively feel, benefits from new solar-powered street lamps paid for by the Marines, providing remarkably bright lighting at night. A doctor who'd been living in the relative safety of northern Afghanistan has set up a clinic in the market. A women's center and public toilets are in the cards. There's even a Marine-funded trash collection plan, which has some 60 teenagers picking up rubbish daily from the bazaar. The previous Marine battalion based in Marjah had financed the refurbishment of many of the market's stores.
Gunnery Sgt. Boyde Allen, 34, who's from Spokane, Wash., and is part of the civil affairs team from Lima Company, said that providing jobs and economic activity for locals was an alternative to them working for the Taliban, "so in the long run, it's saving Marine lives." He said they'd now cut back on giving small grants to fund new businesses.
"We've trying to persuade people to start businesses themselves," Allen said. "They'll pick your bones for anything they can get. We're trying to get them to work for it as much as possible."
There's also help for farmers, who once grew poppy. Some 70,000 fruit tree saplings, to produce plum and pomegranate orchards, are being distributed for free and should start fruiting in three to five years. In the meantime, the farmers will get hay seed and fertilizer to grow between the tree rows. Marjah is fertile, thanks to a canal irrigation network put in with U.S. aid more than a half-century ago.
At Loy Chareh bazaar, farther south, Marine-funded shop refurbishment continues apace, a $180,000 project. Putting up a sign for your store gets you 2,000 afghanis ($44), an awning 7,000 afghanis ($155) and a steel shutter door 15,000 afghanis ($333).
Capt. Patrick Lavoie, 29, of Boston walks along the market, besieged by shopkeepers who want him to sign a form that says their work is complete, so they can collect the money.
A month ago, locals were refusing help from the Marines, Lavoie said, because of fears about being associated with the Americans. That reluctance has evaporated. Marines paid for the start-up of a local gym. One store owner, who'd already gotten a grant to renovate his bakery, wanted more money to buy an ice cream-making machine, a request that Lavoie politely turned down.
Lavoie sanctions more work at a speed that might give your average pencil-sucking aid worker heart palpitations. Approaching a ramshackle group of bamboo-constructed fruit stalls, he instantly approved 38,000 afghanis ($844) to put a solid roof over them.
"This is the center of Marjah. It should look nice. It will serve as an example," Lavoie said.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY