The Afghanistan War - Learning from Iraq

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HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Tenacity, Toughness and Time - that's what it took to win Iraq's Anbar province which some said was "unwinnable."

In early September, the victory was celebrated by handing control back to the people of that province. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit now hopes to repeat that victory in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

Garmsir, Afghanistan

The scorching desert south of Kandahar was, until recently, under the complete control of the Taliban.

Life in the Garmsir district has changed little in the last 500 years. Most of its people have never seen a paved road, indoor plumbing or even electricity. They are subsistence farmers, living alongside canals that help transform the desert into a virtual oasis.

One part of Garmsir is perfect for growing the Taliban's favorite cash crop - Opium. And that's why when the Marines came in, the Taliban fought so hard to keep it. But they lost.

The area didn't have a single coalition base until this past April. When the Marines moved in, they found a desolate area suffering under years of Taliban brutality.

"What I'm hearing from the locals is that when the Taliban lost control over the country they came back here and forced the locals to grow poppies," said an Afghan interpreter who works with American forces.

"The Taliban come and buy the poppy for a very cheap price, and the people don't get to plant their wheat and corn for food," he explained, "and so the price of food has gone high."

When the fighting started, most of the locals moved out into the desert. But now that the Marines have stabilized the area, they are starting to move back in. There are still some villages that have yet to be reoccupied.

1st Lieutenant Chad Buckles is on his second deployment in two years. In 2007, he helped win the fight for Ramadi, Iraq.

He said, "The lessons we learned in Iraq definitely do apply - obviously with their own special twists - but the basic lessons absolutely do apply to this area: Clear out an area and hold it, allow it to economically and socially and politically develop, allow security forces to come in and take over that ground, and then you move on to the next piece of ground.

He continued, "Eventually, step by step, I think that we can kick the Taliban out of here and give the people something that they haven't seen in a very long time."

Trial by Fire

Living conditions here are horrible - summer temperatures routinely top 120 degrees.

Marines have endured for more than four months without fans, air conditioners or showers. The only thing there is plenty of is the enemy - and taking the fight to them keeps these warriors going.

Buckles said, "I think morale is built by hardship, because these guys get to go through something unique."

"They've moved in 130 degree temperatures carrying 120 pounds on their backs, and just through that common experience it brings them a lot closer together and they're basically family. Somebody gets injured, and he's chomping at the bit to get back," he said. "Very close ties."

Soon, the Marines of the 24th MEU will hand over this area to forces of the Afghan National Army and begin the process of coming home.

Until then, they continue to root out the enemy and bring hope to the people of Garmsir.

*Original broadcast September 29, 2008.

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Chuck Holton

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