GARMSER, Afghanistan For two years British troops staked out a presence in this small district center in southern Afghanistan and fended off attacks from the Taliban. The constant firefights left it a ghost town, its bazaar broken and empty but for one baker, its houses and orchards reduced to rubble and weeds.
But it took the Marines, specifically the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, about 96 hours to clear out the Taliban in a fierce battle in the past month and push them back about six miles.
It was their first major combat operation since landing in March, and it stood in stark contrast to the events of a year earlier, when a Marine unit was removed in disgrace within weeks of arriving because its members shot and killed 19 civilians after a suicide bombing attack.
This time, the performance of the latest unit of Marines, here in Afghanistan for seven months to help bolster NATO forces, will be under particular scrutiny. The NATO-led campaign against the Taliban has not only come under increasing pressure for its slow progress in curbing the insurgency, but it has also been widely criticized for the high numbers of civilian casualties in the fighting.
The Marines' drive against the Taliban in this large farming region is certainly not finished, and the Taliban have often been pushed out of areas in Afghanistan only to return in force later. But for the British forces and Afghan residents here, the result of the recent operation has been palpable.
The district chief returned to his job from his refuge in the provincial capital within days of the battle and 200 people including 100 elders of the community gathered for a meeting with him and the British to plan the regeneration of the town.
"They have disrupted the Taliban's freedom of movement and pushed them south, and that has created the grounds for us to develop the hospital and set the conditions for the government to come back," said Maj. Neil Den-McKay, the officer commanding a company of the Royal Regiment of Scotland based here. People have already started coming back to villages north of the town, he said, adding, "There has been huge optimism from the people."