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In Afghanistan operation, Marines return to 'little America'

US forces are pushing deeper into Helmand Province, where Americans promoted development throughout much of the cold-war era.

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Irrigation efforts have spread farming beyond the floodplain of the river, giving rise to the desert towns that the marines are moving through.

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As of Friday evening, US forces said they had pushed as far south as Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig District, where the river begins curving to the west, toward Iran.

The areas they are entering, says David Isby, an Afghanistan expert, "are small towns. The district capitals will have [government offices], a police station, a small bazaar, and that's about it."

The Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority

Even that level of development might not exist but for the big investment in water infrastructure known as the Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority project.

The American government spent $72 million on the project between 1957 and 1979, and earlier helped financed another $39.5 million through Export-Import Bank loans. The Afghan government chipped in an additional $25 million.

The irrigation project irrigated tens of thousands of hectares in Nawa and Garmsir, as well as several other central districts. As an extra enticement to settlers – many of them nomadic peoples – US contractors helped build schools systems and even constructed the current capital of Lashkar Gah in a desert region of ancient ruins.

"It was a huge influx of people who came in there for the land settlement," says Scott, who worked on the project for USAID in the 1970s. "It was really a thing to get free land [and] an educational system right there in the villages."

Scott has returned in recent years to help villagers repair the irrigation systems damaged during decades of war. Repair work ended definitively in 2005, after insurgents killed a truckload of Afghan engineers working on the project.

Goodwill, but tempered by recent casualties

But at least until that time, says Scott, there remained local goodwill for the American endeavors there over the decades.

"Among the descendants of all the settlers, these people know and knew what we had done for them," says Scott.

He says some of that local support may be draining due to anger over civilian casualties.

The new US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has signaled that more care will be taken to avoid civilian casualties and to winning over the local population.

The Marines said that they, along with Afghan counterparts, "have begun engaging with key leaders in the districts in order to better understand the concerns and needs of the Afghans in the area."

Scott says he can guess what those Afghan leaders would say – the same thing they have told him since 1997, when he asks what it would take to end poppy cultivation there: "They said, work on the irrigation system, work on the drainage system, and use hand labor so you put everybody to work for pay."

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