In Marjah, Rooting Out The Taliban Is Only The Start

Gulab Mangal, Helmand province's governor, hoists the Afghan flag in Marjah. i i

Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, hoists the Afghan flag during an official flag-raising ceremony in Marjah on Feb. 25. The Afghan flag was raised over the town as the centerpiece of a U.S.-led offensive to capture a key Taliban stronghold. The U.S. Marines commander declared it a "historic day." Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
Gulab Mangal, Helmand province's governor, hoists the Afghan flag in Marjah.

Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, hoists the Afghan flag during an official flag-raising ceremony in Marjah on Feb. 25. The Afghan flag was raised over the town as the centerpiece of a U.S.-led offensive to capture a key Taliban stronghold. The U.S. Marines commander declared it a "historic day."

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of U.S. and Afghan forces are continuing an offensive to clear insurgents from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

It's been a long slog, with dozens of casualties and the continued threat of roadside bombs. But the most difficult part of the operation — paving the way for effective local governance — has only just begun.

Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson has been at war with insurgents in Afghanistan for more than a year. After operations last summer in Helmand province and the fight now against the Taliban in Marjah, Nicholson reminds his troops of this basic reality.

"I tell the Marines consistently that — and they always give me big eyeballs when I say [it] — we cannot win this war, we can't possibly win it, but we can help the Afghans win it," Nicholson told reporters.

Helping the Afghans win means offering a better life. But Nicholson, speaking recently from Afghanistan, says not everyone in Marjah believes that will happen.

"We've got a very skeptical population here, though. The population here is concerned about what we're going to be able to do for them," he said.

That's because if they have seen any government at all, says Nicholson, it's been corrupt politicians and police chiefs. The Marines say they have a "narrow window" to win over the residents of Marjah.

The U.S. has "failed to maintain security and to establish decent enough governance," said Alex Thier, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan group created by Congress.

Thier says in past military operations in Afghanistan, the Americans were never able to provide security and better governance.

A U.S. Marine office guards an Afghan family in Trikh Nawar. i i

A U.S. Marine officer with the 1/3 Charlie Company guards an Afghan family in Trikh Nawar on the northeastern outskirts of Marjah in February. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
A U.S. Marine office guards an Afghan family in Trikh Nawar.

A U.S. Marine officer with the 1/3 Charlie Company guards an Afghan family in Trikh Nawar on the northeastern outskirts of Marjah in February.

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

"People in Marjah and places like Marjah have actually preferred the Taliban to the government because of the lack of security, the lack of justice, the lack rule of law that past missions have represented," he said.

But, as Thier acknowledges, these issues are "enormously" out of U.S. hands. He says there has been one clear lesson from America's involvement in places like Vietnam, Bosnia and Iraq.

"Unless it is ultimately under local leadership, then we will not succeed," he said.

U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are aware that history is not on their side, but they say their mission is to try anyway. So U.S. forces have been transporting local leadership and bureaucrats into Marjah by convoy. Those leaders will have to demonstrate to residents that they are the legitimate government.

One U.S. official who requested anonymity says the second test will be if and when those leaders will deliver schools, health clinics and jobs to residents.

It is these basic-level services that Afghans are looking for most, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the top NATO officer in Afghanistan's south, told reporters at a briefing at Kandahar Air Base.

But he says local leaders just aren't getting the help they need from the national government, long seen as corrupt and incompetent.

"Trying to get Afghan capacity from Kabul in support of the district governors is challenging. But nonetheless there are some good Afghans stepping up to the plate in Kabul that are able to deliver what Afghans require on the ground. We're talking about basic stuff, basic human needs," Carter said.

The Marines are delivering some of those basic human needs.

The third part of the plan is long-term projects, also run by the Americans and the international community. One is an agricultural development program that will bring tens of millions of dollars to Marjah and elsewhere in Helmand province. The aid money will help rebuild the rural economy with wheat and vegetable crops, along with fruit trees such as pomegranates.

Richard Owens of International Relief & Development, which obtained a USAID contract to manage the program, says it will begin with a quick infusion of cash for work — which will include everything from rebuilding markets destroyed under the Taliban era to cleaning out and repairing irrigation canals and re-establishing plant nurseries.

Owens hopes to begin soon, once Marjah is more stable.

"We have a team ready to move out and begin cash for work. At this point we're just waiting for a green light," he said.

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