South Asia

Winning Afghanistan... one cow at a time

US marine (left) with Afghan schoolchildren, Marjah
Image caption Marines have been making a huge effort to push back the Taliban in Marjah

Ten months ago, foreign forces in south-west Afghanistan launched a major operation to clear Taliban insurgents from the district of Marjah, in Helmand province. As the BBC's Michael Buchanan found on a visit to Marjah, recent months have seen signs of progress for local people.

It was an unusual school opening. Wandering among the smiling student faces were about two dozen heavily armed US marines as well as armed guards provided by the local community.

They had all gathered to formally open the Balakino School in Marjah - a district on the edge of Afghanistan's insurgency. The marines funded the entire construction and resourcing of the school - the desks, chairs, and books, paid the teachers.

But on the makeshift platform where the speakers gathered for the opening, there were no Americans. The strategy was clear - get the Afghans to receive the credit for providing for their own community.

Once the formalities were over, the children returned to their classrooms. In one room, seven-year-old Maqsood was writing the alphabet on the blackboard. When asked if it was safe for him to come to school, he said: "There are Taliban and there is no security. They will cut me and they will kill me. I'm scared."

Maqsood is the brightest pupil in the class, says his teacher, who himself runs the risk of being attacked for working in the school. "I would like to serve my country and serve my students here," he says, "so they can know what education is, and can choose the pen rather than the gun."

All the pupils at the school are boys. In fact, the 1,200 students who regularly attend Marjah's school, all are male. Sgt Casey Littesy, who works on outreach projects in the area, has gently suggested that girls should be educated. "When they have younger daughters, under the age of 13 or 14, I generally bring it up," she says.

'Striking transformation'

"Even in these houses we've just passed there are probably 30 girls that live there and don't come to school. It's just the cultural thing, they need them there to take care of the family, take care of the house."

Image caption Some workers fear they could be killed if the Taliban find out where they work

Marjah is a collection of dusty settlements, where farmers grow wheat, cotton and poppies. The district was created by the Americans back in the 1950s and 1960s, when they built irrigation channels in the area to attract farmers. The main population centres are laid out in a grid system, similar to the geography of most American towns and cities.

Thousands of people left Marjah ahead of the US offensive in February, and many have still to return. However, Michael O'Neill, head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand, now sees signs of progress.

"The change in this place since I was here in July is extremely impressive," he says.

"In July, I wasn't able to leave the base. We've just walked through the bazaar; we visited a new restaurant that opened up a few weeks ago. There are more things that need to be done in Marjah; nonetheless the transformation since July is very very striking."

Lt Col Kyle Ellison, who is in charge of protecting central and southern Marjah, stops to tell a local farmer that he will pay him the money he owes him tomorrow. It turns out that the farmer's cow, his only source of income, was killed recently in a firefight. The marines paid him what they thought was the going rate, but it turns out they were wrong.

"I've been walking the streets for the past 72 hours asking people with cows how much their cows are worth. We found out we short-changed him, so I've told him we'll make up for that," says Col Ellison.

Image caption Abdul Ajan's restaurant has been hailed as a sign of better things for Marjah

Winning Marjah one cow at a time. Through a combination of might and money, the marines have brought security to the centre of the district. But it has been tough. In Col Ellison's briefing room hang the photographs of the 16 marines he has lost.

Edward Messmer, a US state department official who has been in Marjah since March, says the strength of the insurgency was unexpected.

"I think everyone was surprised by the persistence and length of the violence. We thought we could start governance and development operations a lot sooner," he says.

Throughout the summer, the marines found themselves in fierce firefights, but things have calmed down in recent weeks.

There are signs of progress - such as Abdul Ajan, who is widely credited as being Marjah's first restaurant owner. He opened his establishment two months ago, and he is doing a roaring trade. "The security situation is better. There are lots of people about, people are buying things."

Locals' dilemma

The marines are providing more than just security in Marjah. They are providing everything.

Image caption Even schoolchildren do not feel safe from Taliban threats

In the Koru Charah area, a settlement of about 14,000 people, a marine platoon has been spending an average of $400,000 (£260,000) every month on reconstruction since arriving at the end of June.

They have put up street lights, cleaned irrigation channels, handed out radios, paved the bazaar, built bridges and are currently building a new school.

One worker at the school's construction site, Abdul, has a story that sums up the dilemma facing many Marjah residents. "The Taliban have asked the locals in my village to start growing poppies and to stop working for the Westerners, or for the government," he says.

"I'm working in this area because it's more secure, there are no Taliban here. I know that if the Taliban find out that I'm working on a government project, as a day labourer, I won't survive."