KAKAR VILLAGE, Afghanistan --
In the spider web of ditches and minor canals that irrigate the poppy fields in and near Helmand province's Green Zone, even a simple foot bridge can make a big difference in a long walk – or a wet one -- for Afghan residents. U.S. Marines conducting counterinsurgency operations earned the trust and confidence of local villagers first by building a bridge ... then by destroying it.
At the request of local villagers, Marines with Battalion Landing Team 3/8, Regimental Combat Team 8, built a bridge and culvert strong enough for civilian vehicles to drive across at a deep irrigation ditch March 24. But to keep local residents happy, they destroyed this same bridge March 28.
"They didn't understand the culvert system," said 1st Lt. Phillip Banham, platoon commander of 3rd Platoon, Company I, BLT 3/8, "and we didn't build the kind of bridge they were used to seeing." Banham and the Marines of 3rd Platoon have lived in Kakar providing security and reaching out to area residents for several weeks. It was Banham, or "Commander Phil" as he's known to the Afghans, they approached to ask for the bridge. They also came to him to ask it be removed.
The Afghan farmers erroneously believed the new bridge and culvert restricted water flow to irrigate their poppy fields. Despite assurances from Marine engineers that the water was unrestricted, the Marines removed the bridge at the residents’ insistence in order to maintain the goodwill, trust and confidence the Marines have earned since their arrival, according to Banham.
"Ultimately our hope is to put their minds at ease about restricting water flow for irrigating their fields," said 1st Lt. Daniel Hough, platoon commander of Engineer Platoon, Weapons Company, BLT 3/8. Hough and his engineers came from nearby Combat Outpost Ouellette to build the bridge and water flow system March 24.
Hough said he made several attempts to explain the culvert system to village elders and even showed them water levels were exactly the same on both sides when it was completed. But with the poppy harvest as the sole source of income for nearly all area residents, Hough said they were understandably apprehensive about a water system they didn't fully understand. By earning trust and confidence of the resident population, the Marines are eroding local support critical for the insurgency to survive.
"There was no blockage," said Hough. "It's every bit as deep as it was before. But this is about maintaining that good relationship. We don't want anybody to turn toward the insurgents because of our actions. As inconvenient as it is to rip this up, it's even worse if our actions did something to push them in the direction of the insurgency. It would erase the gains we made. We're trying to make sure the [counterinsurgency] progress Lieutenant Banham has made stays in place."
BLT 3/8's mission is to establish and maintain security in portions of Helmand province not previously permanently occupied by the International Security Assistance Force. The security the Marines provide is intended to neutralize insurgent networks and support development projects, allowing the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to foster socio-economic development in the area.