Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article in today’s Washington Post, “At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?” paints a picture of Marines grudgingly guarding a town in no man’s land on the edge of the desert:
“DELARAM, AFGHANISTAN — Home to a dozen truck stops and a few hundred family farms bounded by miles of foreboding desert, this hamlet in southwestern Afghanistan is far from a strategic priority for senior officers at the international military headquarters in Kabul. One calls Delaram, a day’s drive from the nearest city, “the end of the Earth.” Another deems the area “unrelated to our core mission” of defeating the Taliban by protecting Afghans in their cities and towns.”
U.S. Marine commanders have a different view of the dusty, desolate landscape that surrounds Delaram. They see controlling this corner of remote Nimruz province as essential to promoting economic development and defending the more populated parts of southern Afghanistan.
The Marines are constructing a vast base on the outskirts of town that will have two airstrips, an advanced combat hospital, a post office, a large convenience store and rows of housing trailers stretching as far as the eye can see. By this summer, more than 3,000 Marines — one-tenth of the additional troops authorized by President Obama in December — will be based here.
“And he wants to use the new base in Delaram to mount more operations in Nimruz, a part of far southwestern Afghanistan deemed so unimportant that it is one of the only provinces where there is no U.S. or NATO reconstruction team.
“This is a place where the enemy are moving in numbers,” he said, referring to increased Taliban activity along a newly built highway that bisects the province. “We need to clean it up.”
Nicholson contends that if his forces were kept only in key population centers in Helmand, insurgents would come right up to the gates of towns.”
Contrary to the way it is understood by the Marines on the ground or to some ISAF planners in Kabul, Delaram is probably one of the most significant towns in Afghanistan in the current war, after the major cities of course. In other words, the Marine commanders are correct. Why? The town sits at one end of a new road connecting Afghanistan’s main highway to Zaranj near the Iranian border. The Zaranj – Delaram road, which is being built by India’s Border Roads Organization, is part of a larger Indo-Iranian project that will connect Kandahar and Herat to Iran’s Chabahar Port on the Persian Gulf. The project will provide Afghanistan a supply route to lucrative markets while reducing the country’s utter dependence on Pakistan (and the new route is 434 miles shorter than the route through Pakistan). The road/rail project is also a vital supply line for Indian troops operating in Afghanistan.
Given the importance of this road for maintaining Afghan autonomy vis-a-vis Pakistan, it is not surprising that the road has witnessed a series of attacks on Indian construction workers. Controlling the road is critical to stabilizing the country — this is why the Marines have been stationed in this remote town. And that is also why the Marines are building airstrips and a combat hospital in a town at “the edge of nowhere.” The final reason is that the United States, despite Indian reassurances, is probably a bit uneasy at the prospect of a new access point for Iran.
Here is a basic Google Earth tour that I made for those unfamiliar with the geography being discussed: