A counterinsurgency conundrum in Salaam Bazaar
A teenage detainee (center) is escorted through the deserted Salaam Bazaar just prior to his release. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.
On Monday, July 13, at the Salaam Bazaar in northern Helmand province, a group of Afghan soldiers quietly lectured a Taliban detainee before his release; the 16-year old was considered too young to be sent on to the overcrowded prison in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The teen squatted awkwardly on the ground with his hands over his knees, his face broadcasting a mixture of sheepish and relieved looks. The exchange resembled scenes of authority figures wagging their fingers at young miscreants the world over, with an Afghan wrinkle: Jalil hadn't committed petty theft or vandalism. Rather, he'd taken part in a nearby Taliban ambush of the soldiers who were now scolding him, and almost certainly pulled the trigger on an AK-47 before his capture.
After the lecture, followed by a shorter one from a US Marine, the Afghans handed the boy a small plastic bag containing his confiscated possessions, stood him up, and walked him through the dusty expanse of the bazaar. A group of local elders, including Jalil's father, waited in front of a vacant storefront nearby. A few of the villagers hugged the teen before sitting down to deal with the ANA and Americans in the deserted market. The formerly bustling bazaar was now barren of goods and Afghan buyers and sellers: its low rows of adobe stalls lay mostly empty, here and there filled with Marines and Afghan soldiers and their equipment.
Birth of a community
Several years ago, the Salaam Bazaar and the eponymous area surrounding it sprang up in the southern portion of the Now Zad district, after water reserves were discovered under the powdery desert soil. The farming community grew quickly, drawing a fluctuating population now estimated at around 2,000 residents. Many recent arrivals had been displaced from the Now Zad district center after fleeing Operation Nasrat, the 2006 Taliban offensive that took over the district capital, followed by the massive British air and artillery counterattack that morphed that city into a ruined battleground. The Marines finally reclaimed the district center with Operation Cobra's Anger, a December 2009 offensive that quickly routed the insurgents.
Once the Americans cleared northern Now Zad, they worked to hold and rebuild the district center, and they have had some success in restoring its pre-Taliban population and market. The newly revitalized Now Zad Bazaar has come to serve the population in northern and central Now Zad, while the Salaam Bazaar continued to be used by the farming community at the southern end of the district. The two areas are separated by 24 kilometers of road, as well as by demographic differences: the Now Zad district center is dominated by members of the Alizai, Alikozai, and Barakzai tribes, the latter a traditional class of urban administrators, plus Norzai and Ishaqzai in the surrounding suburbs. In contrast, the Salaam Bazaar has a much greater variety of tribes blended within a smaller area, a reflection of the large number of disparate refugees who arrived seeking opportunity.
But the coexistence of the two markets proved unsustainable. While the government now effectively owned and taxed the Now Zad District Center Bazaar, the Taliban continued to hold total sway over Salaam Bazaar, and northern Now Zad tribal elders began petitioning government leaders for the latter's destruction. Soon after the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment took responsibility for the district in March 2010, its Marines assaulted into the Salaam Bazaar to kick out the market's Taliban owners.
"Salaam Bazaar contained a known insurgent element, it was an illegal bazaar, and the [chain of command] wanted to get rid of it," explained Lt. Colonel Mike Manning, commander of the 1/2 Marines. In addition, Salaam Bazaar was a staging area for Taliban attacks and was considered a drugs and weapons market.
"When convoys traveled from (Camp) Leatherneck to Now Zad or Musa Qala, they would get attacked from Salaam Bazaar," said Manning. "It was also an insurgent bazaar dealing weapons and drugs. Anyone could pay openly for weapons systems, and farmers could take opium paste in there to deal with distributors."
The 1/2's thrust into Salaam Bazaar in late April began with an eerie calm. The Americans found it mostly deserted of goods and people - the Taliban and civilians knew they were coming - and they quickly took the market. But just as the Marines began to settle in, insurgent resistance began.
"When we got here there were quite a few IEDs coming in that was probably the biggest part, watching out for IEDs," said Lance Corporal Michael Zach. "It was quiet for the first four hours then we just started taking small arms fire, a mortar round came in and we got geared up. It was light contact from about maybe 800 meters away, the mortar round hit one of the buildings here."
After the Americans squashed the counterattack, established a patrol base in the bazaar, and began conducting regular patrols, the Taliban continued regular probing attacks, and warnings from local villagers about ubiquitous hidden bombs came to fruition. American and Afghan convoys and patrols since April have been regularly targeted by IEDs. So far, 14 Marines have been wounded and one has been killed by the hidden booby traps, which have become heavily favored by insurgents as they continue to harass the US and ANSF presence. The insurgents still attack with small arms, but they utilize hit and run tactics almost exclusively, after suffering significant casualties in stand-up engagements with Marines.
"If we go up to certain point west or south, we're going to take contact," said Captain Lawrence Pion, Commander of Weapons Company, which was responsible for the area. "We take occasional indirect fire mortars, and they will only attack our dismounted patrols with small arms fire - they will only shoot at us if they can run away. They can only engage us 600 - 800 meters out and be able to egress away from us, because it's more rural out here."
The Americans and their Afghan Army allies have weathered these attacks during attempts to engage the population on the census and security patrols that comprise the ISAF counterinsurgency strategy.
The limits of COIN
Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine dictates implementing security, reconstruction, financial assistance and other complementary factors that serve to legitimize the government and win the favor of the local population. In theory, as the area becomes safer and economic incentives multiply, civilians turn away from the insurgency and support local security forces, creating a snowball of intelligence that leads to even greater security. The people - whom Marines describe as "the human terrain" - are the prize. But Americans initially tasked with taking a crack at COIN in Salaam Bazaar have found an extraordinarily uncooperative local population.
"When I came down here, I had my first shura [village conference]," said Pion. "The first thing I talked to them about was cash for work, we wanted to improve the roads, clean out the karez [irrigation system]. I just needed a work force, and they flat out didn't want anything to do with it. The only thing they wanted from me - and they were very clear about it - was for us to leave and for their bazaar to stay intact."
Locals have refused American and Afghan government assistance for several reasons: the Taliban maintain an effective intimidation campaign, and will kill anyone seen cooperating with Americans; the American and Afghan forces do not have sufficient numbers to secure the widespread patchwork of farming compounds; and many of the villagers are affiliated with the Taliban, whether by ideological choice, debt, or conscription at the barrel of a gun.
In addition to luring many young men into their ranks with promises of glory and cash, the Taliban sometimes present families with a brutal choice: give up their firstborn son as a fighter, or subject the entire family to violent retribution. While the tactic hasn't won the insurgents natural popularity, it does make farmers hesitant to ally with the Marines against family members who have been pressed into service with the Taliban.
And perhaps a majority of area residents are effectively indentured servants of the Taliban, beholden to insurgent drug lords through the credit system established by the Akhundzada family during their rule of Helmand in the 1980s and 1990s. Farmers receive start-up capital in the form of money, goods, and services that enable them to feed their families while cultivating a poppy crop. After the harvest, the borrowers owe a certain yield to the creditors, regardless of weather, the health of the crop, or other factors. If this debt is not repaid, the farmer falls further into debt or can be subject to beatings and even murder. The locals' resulting servile fear of the Taliban makes cooperation with Americans and the Afghan government security forces an untenable proposition.
"This isn't like Karamanda [a village in northern Musa Qala district], where the locals are willing to help us out," explains Pion. "Karamanda seemed like it was an area where the people didn't want [the Taliban] there because they weren't from that area. This place is different; it's almost like we're fighting the sons of this area. So, us winning the hearts and minds isn't really going to happen here, which is another key element to a COIN fight."
After the young detainee accused of fighting with the Taliban was released to village elders on July 13, his relatives proclaimed his innocence.
"They say he was in a compound that Taliban were shooting from, but he wasn't shooting," said one elder. "Nobody here joins the Taliban well, maybe someone. But I have three sons, and I don't want them to join the Taliban."
Another elder went on to claim that he was recently kidnapped and threatened by the Taliban for selling fruit to the Afghan Army. These stories are common, and some are undoubtedly true, yet they are usually unverifiable. Americans have trouble distinguishing locals who legitimately fear the insurgents from those who actively support them.
"Some support the Taliban, I would not be able to hazard a guess [how many]," explained Captain Henry Flynn, the 81-mm mortars platoon commander who currently serves as Pion's executive officer. "Just about everyone in the area expresses how afraid of the Taliban they are. But if you were working for the Taliban or a member of the Taliban, it would be pretty easy, as they tend to do in an insurgency, to blend in with the local populace just by saying everything that the neighbors are saying."
In addition to the Taliban's influence, two insurmountable issues keep villagers from supporting the Afghan government, and by extension, its American and Afghan security representatives. The government has declared poppy illegal; and it will soon destroy the bazaar that enables the villagers to maintain their livelihood.
A Marine stands watch in front of a vacant stall at the Salaam Bazaar. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.
"The currency of the realm"
Marines estimate that "about 95%" of Salaam Bazaar's economy is comprised of agriculture, and the vast majority of agricultural revenue stems from poppy. Every farmer grows the illegal crop in the spring season, because it is currently the only option that offers efficient profit margins.
A typical farm in the area uses a 100-meter well that extracts water from the ground with an electric submersible pump powered by a diesel generator. This system - limited by the cost of the fuel to run the generator - is suited for modest subsistence farming and ranching, but not the more extensive flood irrigation required for most business agriculture. An exception to this rule is poppy, which requires less water per acre while providing a greater profit margin than alternatives like wheat and corn. The illegal crop has additional advantages: bricks of opium paste can be stored for up to five years; the Taliban and other drug lords will pick up poppy from farmers, removing the hurdle of prohibitively expensive distribution; and the bricks can be used as cash to buy goods and services.
"Any bazaar will accept poppy as cash at a daily spot market rate in payment for anything from kids' shoes, to land rent, to medical care. It's the currency of the realm," explained one American expert who declined to be named. "And water is so expensive, once it's lifted to the surface, poppy is the only crop that is profitable enough to justify the expense, and there is enough profit left to grow a subsistence amount of wheat to feed the family and maybe sell a little bit on the side."
This combination of factors causes nearly every farmer in Helmand to prioritize the growth of poppy. The government of Afghanistan allowed the 2010 crop to go forward, but authorized ISAF and ANSF forces to confiscate all opium paste, with the option to arrest anyone holding more than five kilograms of the substance. This mandate has caused friction between local villagers and US Marines and Afghan soldiers, a tension that conflicts with the counterinsurgency goal of obtaining support from the population.
After the young detainee was released to village elders on Monday, they very quickly shifted the conversation toward their livelihood.
"Sometimes the ANA and Marines come to my house and take our opium," said one village elder to the Marines. "Why do you take our opium? This is something we get money for, this five kilos, three kilos. This is our money, we can get things for our opium, we can support our families. Please don't take our small amounts of opium, the five kilos or less. Ten kilos, 50 kilos, 100 kilos you can take."
"I'm here in an official capacity for the Afghan government, I have to confiscate it," responded Pion. "And if I find more than five kilos, you're getting arrested."
The elder persisted, even asking the American to return previously confiscated opium, or give him money for it, so he could "support [his] family." Pion was incredulous.
"You can't ask me to give you money for drugs, that would be counterproductive to everything we are trying to do," he responded, and continued in an aside to this reporter:
"I've offered him food, he told me he didn't want food. I've offered him a job, he told me he didn't want a job."
When asked why they refuse American offers of assistance, two elders responded to this reporter in concert: If they were seen working with the Marines, the Taliban would kill them.
Complicating the issue, the government has declared the growth of poppy illegal during the next year's season, and those caught growing it will be subject to property seizure and the destruction of the crop. The scope of poppy cultivation in the valley is so massive that any enforcement will necessarily be selective, and thus ripe for corruption, and the farmers claim that the risk will not deter them.
"I've talked to a lot of these farmers, and asked them, 'Are you going to grow poppy next year, or grow an alternate crop?' And they're going to go back to poppy," said Pion. "Even after I've explained to them that 'the government is going to come back in here, kick you off your property, take your farm, tell you to go away and burn your crop.' They're going to roll those dice."
"Until the government, the American people, or someone provides water for us, we will never grow wheat," said one elder.
The death of a bazaar
In addition to local dissatisfaction with the government's policy on poppy, the ongoing destruction of the bazaar has created a significant and perhaps existential threat to the farming community.
Afghan law states that each district may have only one legal bazaar, with all others subject to destruction and penalty. A bazaar is very specifically defined as a cluster of three or more shops. While this law is inconsistently enforced in various districts, both the Now Zad district governor and the Helmand provincial governor have authorized the destruction of the Salaam Bazaar since the revitalization of the Now Zad Bazaar in the district center.
The Marines and American intelligence officials stress another reason for destroying the bazaar. Before it was shut down by the arrival of US forces, much of the activity in the market was dedicated to selling drugs and weapons, and the taxation of all of its commerce funded insurgent operations. In fact, the bazaar's name is not a reflection of the traditional Arabic word for "peace" (Salaam), rather it is named for Hajji Salaam, a local drug lord and a prominent Taliban financier. American intelligence states that Hajji Salaam utilized profits from the market to support Operation Folladi Jal, the Taliban counteroffensive against the arrival of the US Marine Corps in Helmand province.
"Salaam bazaar itself was an illegal, Taliban-run bazaar," said Flynn. "So while you did have some legitimate business in the area, in the form of some merchants or mechanics, the overall focus of the bazaar was the larger network that smugglers use to buy the opium from the farmers and move it about the country. As well, it was seen as a meeting place for Taliban and sort of an open market for selling and trading arms. And on top of it, since this was a Taliban-controlled area they did collect taxes from each of the shops here so it just passively supported their operations."
"The Taliban were here, and they made a lot of money here," added Pion.
Some American experts who declined to be named contest the characterization of Salaam Bazaar as a uniquely drug-orientated market, noting that opium paste is used as currency in all of the legal markets in the province.
"Locals [claim] eight to twelve bazaaris [merchants] were in the trade for weapons, IED components, and ammunition," said one individual. "And if you consider the opium tar is currency, that damns every merchant in the bazaar [as a drug dealer] because it's the local cash for the subsistence farmer growing poppy."
These experts also offer additional theories as to the Afghan government's motivation for destroying the bazaar: Since tax collectors cannot collect revenue from the market in an insecure environment, the continued existence of Salaam Bazaar is seen as competition for revenue derived from the bazaar in the Now Zad district center.
The government has offered merchants financial incentives to relocate to the northern bazaar and has reimbursed others for the loss of goods, but only a small number of locals have accepted any assistance. Despite the overtures, Taliban control of the population is strong, area skepticism of government remains high, and the decision to destroy the Salaam Bazaar is hugely unpopular. Local farmers rely on the shops to support their farming operations, including the sale of supplies, food, and services offered by welders and mechanics.
"We need the bazaar, like when we need to buy cooking materials, sugar, tea, flour," said one elder. "If you want to buy some stuff you cannot go to [Now Zad district center] or Gareshk - if we want to go there, we have to pay the taxi 200 Pakistani rupees for one way. This bazaar can solve people's problems. We had a pharmacy, a doctor, everything. We don't want the government of Afghanistan to destroy our bazaar."
Another elder took issue with the charge that the bazaar was uniquely an insurgent market: "Everyplace belongs to the Taliban," he said. "The [legal] Musa Qala bazaar belonged to the Taliban before the British and Afghan Army [retook the area]."
Locals cite the expense of fuel as the main factor that limits their ability to travel to other bazaars, and note that individual merchants can't afford individual shops, as they rely on group rates for fuel and importation of goods.
A difficult calculus
No one is certain exactly what will happen once the demolition of the market's mud-walled stalls is complete. With insufficient forces to conduct counterinsurgency by holding the Salaam Bazaar community, and in light of population centers with greater strategic relevance, the Marines and Afghan security forces plan to withdraw and focus on a different area.
"This area, just like any other [in Afghanistan], there is no simple solution because the most important dynamic is the human dynamic," said Flynn. "What will happen with that when we leave the area will be pretty difficult to say."
Some Americans believe that the locals will move or adapt, pooling their resources to travel to markets in Now Zad or Musa Qala. Others believe that the old bazaar will merely reform in the rubble or somewhere nearby, and ultimately be once again taxed by the Taliban.
"[The bazaar's destruction] will create an economic vacuum, and the bazaar will re-form there or somewhere else," said an American expert who declined to be named for this story. "And in the meantime, you'll have [angered] a whole lot of people who were trying to make a living. Within a month of ISAF pulling out, the bazaaris are going to go back and add water to the rubble, make more mud, rebuild the walls, and be back in business."
Other American officials counter, however, that none of the alternatives to destroying the bazaar present a tenable solution for the Americans or Afghan government. If left alone, the market will likely remain a staging area for attacks, as well as a source of authority and revenue for the insurgents. And some American intelligence officials assert that disrupting the Taliban influence centered in the bazaar, despite the harm to the local farmers, is the only way to begin to remove locals from their indentured servitude to area drug lords.
In addition, the option of leaving the market in place under government control would present new challenges. Some American officials believe the Afghan government should allow the locals to maintain and tax "a cluster of shops," but also note that doing so would require enough security forces to hold the area.
"[It] would [require] putting a police station down there to monitor progress and make sure the Taliban just doesn't come back in," noted one American. "And that brings in more problems, because you can't just put 12 ANP (police officers) down there, because they'll all get killed."
For their part, local villagers seem to have difficulty accepting and planning for the bazaar's demise.
"We can't go anywhere else, we want this bazaar," said one elder. "When the government of Afghanistan destroys this bazaar, we can't do anything. We have tried to find a solution we want to stay here because we don't have any place else to live."
Within the context of wider Marine counterinsurgency efforts, measuring success in Salaam Bazaar hinges on determining whether satisfying the Afghan government and the population in the Now Zad district center, killing some Taliban fighters, and disrupting a source of insurgent financing by destroying the bazaar will outweigh the government's alienation of the farming community. With an uncertain future, in the insecure environment of the drug economy, the exact calculus remains unclear.