NOW ZAD, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, aiming to show progress in the expanded war against insurgents in south Afghanistan, took a brief, heavily guarded walk Tuesday down a rutted street in this scruffy market town where the Taliban lobbed mortars at U.S. forces only weeks ago.
Now Zad was the scene of the first significant military push after President Barack Obama's announcement in early December that he would add 30,000 troops atop 17,000 reinforcements he had already sent into the flagging war.
With the additional firepower, Marines moved into Now Zad in December and quickly pushed out Taliban fighters who had seized the town four years ago and forced every civilian to flee. Families that had lived in Now Zad for generations fled their houses with laundry still on the lines, said the top U.S. officer in the district, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson.
The current campaign in nearby Marja and the coming fight in much larger Kandahar are patterned on Now Zad, including the effort to recruit support from tribal elders before the fighting starts. As in Marja, the United States is helping to install a rudimentary local government in Now Zad, and U.S. forces are trying to train Afghan security forces to shoulder the load.
Now Zad actually tells a more significant story, Nicholson said.
"I am thrilled about Marja, but I am more thrilled about Now Zad," Nicholson said. "This is the rebirth of a city that has been dead for four years."
On his brief tour of Now Zad with Nicholson, Gates stopped to speak to shopkeepers who are among about 2,500 people who have returned to the city, once Helmand province's second-largest, with some 30,000 residents.
"A few months ago this place was a ghost town, a no-go zone," Gates told Marines at their small, heavily fortified outpost at the edge of town. "Now, as I saw for myself, stores are opening, people are returning."
The street was nearly deserted as Gates walked. Only a handful of men stood or squatted outside the doors of the few shops along the main drag that appeared to be open. As is the custom in socially conservative districts of Afghanistan, no women showed themselves to the visitors.
Nicholson said the place is usually busier, with 52 shops and a school now open, but that a "security bubble" was in place for Gates' visit.