FIDDLER'S GREEN BASE, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Decades ago development experts from Washington built the town of Marjah in southern Afghanistan in order to populate a desert they had helped irrigate with a network of U.S.-built canals.
Marjah has since become a breeding ground for both opium poppy cultivation and insurgents. Now U.S. civilians are back ahead of a major military offensive, planning to reverse the gains made by the Taliban, and win the hearts and minds of civilians.
NATO troops led by U.S. Marines are preparing to seize Marjah soon in one of the largest operations of the 8-year-old war, the first big display of force using some of the 30,000 extra troops pledged by President Barack Obama last December.
U.S. military officials say shooting their way to victory will not lead to peace in Afghanistan, and winning the cooperation of Afghan civilians is their most effective weapon.
Kristin Post, a social scientist working for a Department of Defense "Human Terrain Team," is about 12 km (8 miles) south of Marjah, and she is looking forward to going into the town, alongside a battalion of Marines, and talking to its residents.
"We know the population needs to be on our side, so (we ask) what are those gaps that exist that could make the population go the wrong way?" Post said.
"You can have really good intentions but you could miss something important ... you could create a wedge that allows the insurgents to take an advantage."
Using civilian academics such as anthropologists and conflict resolution students like Post is a key part of the counter-insurgency, or COIN, doctrine behind Washington's military engagement in Afghanistan.
Post and her team leader John Foldberg work with the Marines before, during and after operations to understand Afghans stuck between insurgents and advancing foreign troops.
"The population is the prize, it's the center of gravity," said Foldberg, a retired Marine.
"Our job is to get out and interview the local population, the elders, the mullahs, the men and women on the street."
REINTEGRATING TALIBAN The Afghan government has recently refocused its efforts on reintegrating Taliban fighters back into Afghan society, targeting low-level militants who can be lured with jobs, cash and development projects for their communities.
Post has interviewed numerous families and individuals in Helmand about reintegration and says her work is the only research of its kind specifically focused on the subject.
Past reintegration efforts have not worked well, because programs were designed from the top down, rather than by consulting villagers on what they need, she said.
"The tendency with Western society is to have a plan, to have money set up and these incentives so we can go in and have a package. What I would really love to see is the open-ended question posed to a village. Really localize the solution."
Like the Marines they work with, Foldberg and Post are not sure what to expect when get to Marjah, apart from plenty of bombs, referred to as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Post said she had been quite impressed by the hospitality of the Afghans she had interviewed so far in Helmand.
"The Afghans in general, with chai (tea), and being able to sit and talk are generally very hospitable." But villagers in Marjah have said the Taliban are digging its heels into the town, in anticipation of the NATO assault, and many ordinary Afghans -- the type Post and Foldberg want to talk to -- have already started to flee.