Military's Focus Shifts To Befriending Marjah

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It's been more than two weeks since U.S. Marines and NATO forces went into Marjah, a town in southern Afghanistan that's been dominated by the Taliban. Commanders there say most of the town has been secured. Now comes the hard work of reviving a farming town of around 75,000 people, and convincing the population that the Afghan government is their friend. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Corey Flintoff from Marine Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

It's been more than two weeks since U.S. Marines and NATO forces went into Marjah, a town in southern Afghanistan that's been dominated by the Taliban. Commanders there say that most of the town has been secured. Now comes the hard work of reviving a farming town of around 75,000 people and convincing the population that the Afghan government is their friend.

NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line from Marine Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province. Corey, thanks for being with us.

COREY FLINTOFF: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: We're told that the fighting in Marjah has largely died down. I don't want to use a phrase like mission accomplished, but do NATO forces believe that they've secured the town for sure now?

FLINTOFF: Well, they're not declaring victory, and they would say that any claim like that might be months away because that's how long it's going to take to be clear whether the Afghan government is able to hold what the Marines have cleared. But they are saying what the military calls the kinetic part, meaning the fighting, is winding down.

They say most of the remaining Taliban fighters seem to have either left the area or melted into the local population. So, the big danger now, of course, comes from the homemade bombs and the mines that the Taliban planted throughout the area. A British soldier was killed by a roadside bomb there just yesterday.

SIMON: Of course, this operation is to display the military's counterinsurgency strategy, which has civilian help coming in right after the military goal has been secured. Has the civilian part of the operation started yet?

FLINTOFF: Well, the local government was installed earlier this week at a flag-raising ceremony in Marjah. And really hundreds of people showed up for that event. But they seemed very wary of this government. And several people that I talked to that they're basically waiting to see whether these officials can provide effective services.

I spoke with the provincial governor after the ceremony, and he says the first phase will be offering cash for work programs to local people - cleaning up the roads and the markets, most of which were damaged in the fighting. The idea basically is to inject some cash into the local economy. Officials say that several thousand men have already signed up for those jobs.

Since this is a farming area, one big priority for them is securing the road between Marjah and the provincial capital so that people can move freely to the markets there.

SIMON: And we're told that a lot of the agricultural land has been used for opium, poppy production. What are officials going to do about that?

FLINTOFF: Well, opium poppies do seem to be the primary crop around Marjah. You see fields of young poppy plants everywhere, and that of course was a source of revenue for the Taliban. This used to be a prime wheat-producing region though, and the governor has a program that's supported by USAID to provide farmers with free high-quality wheat seeds and fertilizer, if they promise to stop growing poppies.

He told me that he's reduced poppy cultivation in other parts of the province by 33 percent in the past year. And he plans to expand that program to Marjah as quickly as possible.

SIMON: What's the next test of benchmark in Marjah, Corey?

FLINTOFF: Well, NATO forces are planning to keep expanding the security around the city. And commanders say they could run into more resistance as they do that. General Nick Carter is the British officer who's the top NATO commander here, told me that they need to establish Afghan police and army units to protect what they've gained. And that will have to happen as they push to provide health and education and other government services to the people.

SIMON: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Helmand Province. Thanks very much, Corey.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Scott.

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