KABUL, Afghanistan (May 19, 2010) – Three months after the launch of Operation Moshtarak, clear signs of progress are evident throughout central Helmand.
"There are many positive indicators, especially in the areas of development and economic growth," said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, Regional Command-South commander. "We have roads being built, district centers being reconstructed, and a lot of minor infrastructure projects under way."
Governance and education
Freedom of movement is key to delivering governance – in the form of traditional shuras as well as in health services, education and the judiciary. Since the first day of the operation, shuras called by provincial and district leaders have brought local elders together with government and combined force representatives to provide participants opportunities to raise concerns and discuss local matters.
Election shuras were held in Chah Anjir, the Nad-e Ali district center and the Bolan "T" junction between April 26 and 28. Attendance at the shuras was approximately 1,200, 400 and more than 1,200, respectively, indicating local nationals felt secure enough to begin to engage with their government in large numbers. Nearly 500 squatters from the Bolan "T" turned out to ensure they are represented.
An election shura was held in Nad-e Ali, May 11, to choose new members for the district community council. More than 600 elders elected 45 members to represent the district and said they were happy with the district’s new representation.
Governance is taking root throughout the region. A growing number of key government positions are being filled in the districts of Marjah and Nad-e Ali. Additional administrative offices are being built and enhanced services are being offered to residents, including new health care clinics and schools.
Improvements in education have been seen in central Helmand with the opening of new schools and the hiring of new teachers. The first schools, held under tents or in the open air, were established within a week of the commencement of Operation Moshtarak. There are now 13 schools in Nad-e Ali and nine in Marjah with 150 government-licensed teachers providing instruction to an estimated 3,100 students. Approximately 425 of these students are girls.
One of the most visible signs of economic growth is the re-opening of local markets. Many of them had been closed for years, especially during the time of Taliban rule. More than 20 markets are now open for business, attracting more vendors and shoppers than due to increased security, better freedom of movement and higher quality of goods. Nearly $400,000 has been spent refurbishing bazaars in Nad-e Ali and Marjah. There is a $1 million project getting underway to rehabilitate the Loy Chareh Bazaar, which will employ more than 100 laborers and benefit thousands of local and regional Afghans by improving the variety and amount of goods traded within the southeast Marjah area.
"The basic point is that you’re seeing stability and prosperity begin to flourish in central Helmand and what you see is a consumer culture beginning to happen," said Carter.
Programs such as the Governor’s Food Zone Program, Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Production in Agriculture (AVIPA) and the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition Program (MAAT-P) help Helmand farmers move from growing poppy to cultivating legal crops. Without these alternatives, farmers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make this important change. At the end of the first week of May, the economic stimulus phase of MAAT-P came to a close, and 7,000 hectares of farm land were registered and verified, representing nearly half of the farmland the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated could be used for poppy.
The provincial government’s seed distribution program has proven extremely successful. Seeds have been provided to 20,000 farmers in the area, most of whom were previously dependent on poppy cultivation for their livelihood. These programs have created the required combination of farm preparation and inputs for the next season that gives the farmer a chance to break the cycle of poppy.
"Cash-for-work" programs are employing approximately 4,000 local residents per day, and nearly 80,000 "man-labor" days have been paid out for initiatives. Road construction and irrigation improvements, in particular, will enable farmers to get their products to market and help the Helmand valley reclaim its title as the "breadbasket of Afghanistan."
Security and freedom of movement
Despite notable successes in development and economic growth, there are still challenges to be faced in the region. Insurgents continue to be active in the area, particularly in Marjah, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) remains a lethal threat to local residents, government officials and combined forces.
Fortunately, the number of IED strikes in central Helmand is declining, while the number of IED finds is rising. This positive trend is attributed to effective partnering of combined forces and the growing number of local residents volunteering information to combined forces about the location of IEDs.
While the decrease in IED strikes is a positive development, it has been accompanied by a troubling spike in small-arms engagements in Marjah. Using hit-and-run tactics that endanger both civilians and combined forces, insurgents have mounted an aggressive intimidation campaign.
"We have been in large parts of Nad-e Ali for at least 15 months at the point at which we launched the Operation Moshtarak," said Carter, "so the project is at least a year further on than Marjah. The point is that by being a year further on and by adopting the approach and the amount of resources that have been applied to it, one will see what will happen in Marjah in due course."
Freedom of movement in central Helmand continues to improve. A recent analysis revealed a dramatic increase in vehicle movements along the main traffic artery, Route 608, which runs from Nad-e Ali down through Marjah. Weekly vehicle flow numbers for local residents travelling this road increased by 440 percent between March 20 and May 8. The latest reports show nearly 40,000 vehicle trips along Route 608 in a one-week period. This is a very encouraging sign that people are more confident in the security situation.
"There is still work to be done in both Marjah and Nad-e Ali," said Carter. "But the trends are positive, and my bet is we’re in a good place in terms of the resources available on the ground and in the way in which the campaign is progressing."
Operation Moshtarak is an Afghan-led initiative to assert government authority in the center of Helmand province. Afghan and ISAF partners are engaging in this counter-insurgency operation at the request of the Afghan national government and the Helmand provincial government.