Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Haji Zahir, the new governor of Marjah in Helmand province, listens to residents' grievances Monday. It was the first time an Afghan government official visited the former Taliban stronghold in two years.
Haji Zahir, the new governor of Marjah in Helmand province, listens to residents' grievances Monday. It was the first time an Afghan government official visited the former Taliban stronghold in two years. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
In Afghanistan, war took a back seat to politics Monday, the 10th day of the U.S.-led offensive in a major Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province.
For the first time in two years, an official of the Afghan government was able to get acquainted with the locals. The new Afghan governor of Marjah was flown into the city by the U.S. Marines to meet with his constituents.
He called on the people he met to reject the Taliban and join with the Afghan government. But it's going to take more than words to win over Marjah's residents.
With the help of U.S. government advisers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid money, Gov. Haji Zahir is being asked to bring reliable and honest governance to the town.
Zahir is a well-to-do Afghan from Helmand province who until recently lived in Germany. He has a carefully groomed beard and wears a traditional Afghan tunic and prayer cap.
The American and Afghan governments are pinning high hopes on him. And his job starts even before the Marines and Afghan soldiers finish driving the militants out.
U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marjah offensive, said the impact of Zahir's visit is "gigantic."
The move shows local residents that a governor is "ready to come in and he's in the lead, he's going to start administrating work projects, day labor projects," Nicholson said.
Zahir wasted no time getting to work. Amid the ruins of this farming town — which came into being in the 1950s with American aid money and was destroyed in a Special Forces attack a year ago — he held a shura, or council, with about 50 residents.
He listened to their grievances. He acknowledged the two-year deadline they gave him to improve their lives.
The governor pledged to visit them in their homes and promised them he would not accept bribes to resolve disputes or conduct business.
Nicholson and Kael Weston, the top U.S. State Department representative in Helmand, watched quietly from some distance away.
"We've been doing this for a while, and we know they don't want to see Americans too close to their people, and that's understandable," Weston said.
"If this is going to work in Marjah as it has everywhere else," Nicholson added, "it's got to be Afghans in the lead."
The two men agreed: no American speeches this day.
After two hours, Zahir looked satisfied. He said he now has a good sense of what he'll tackle first when he moves permanently to Marjah in the coming days.
"They want three things: They want the road from Marjah to the provincial capital to reopen; they want security; and they want their bazaar to reopen," Zahir said.
But some of the residents are leery. They complain that the last time the government was in charge in Marjah two years ago, corrupt police officers terrorized residents.
A tractor driver named Faqir Mohammad said the Taliban brought peace to Marjah and generally didn't interfere in people's business. He added that residents were happy with them.
By comparison, he said, police officers in Marjah stole people's motorcycles and cash, and were involved in kidnapping.
That's frustrating to Weston of the State Department.
"That's not fun to hear, given that there's a lot of American blood that's been spilled in this city in the last few days. But it's a reality check that our people, the Afghan government need to hear — that they seem to have perceived the government as the biggest problem, not the Taliban," Weston says. "And that is hard to hear."