A Wrenching Task To Win Marjah's Hearts And Minds

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NATO forces, who took the southern Afghan region of Marjah last month, are now trying to establish their hold on it by winning the confidence of local people. That includes paying for damage to businesses and farms from battle and paying condolences to families of civilians who were killed. A U.S. Marine commander faces one of his hardest tasks: apologizing and paying compensation to the family of a father whom Marines killed by mistake.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen is on assignment. Im Audie Cornish.

We begin this part of the program with news from Afghanistan. There's been a series of explosions in the southern city of Kandahar, including car bombs, suicide attacks and homemade bombs. Dozens of people have been killed.

Kandahar province is considered the spiritual home of the Taliban insurgency, and it is expected to be the next focus of NATO and Afghan forces, after a major offensive in neighboring Helmand province - thats where we're going in our next report.

U.S. Marines are trying to hold the ground they gained during last month's offensive. They're trying to convince people in the farming region called Marjah, that they can be trusted to supplant the Taliban fighters who controlled the area for years. But those efforts can be easily undone, especially when civilians are inadvertently hurt.

NPR's Corey Flintoff followed a Marine commander as he performed one of his most difficult tasks, apologizing to a family whose father was killed by a Marine patrol.

COREY FLINTOFF: During the day, the Marines try to engage with the people of Marjah. But at night, they're playing a cat and mouse game with Taliban insurgents who are still planting roadside bombs. Marines and Afghan soldiers patrol the roads at night, trying to find and stop would-be bombers.

(Soundbite of wind)

FLINTOFF: That brings them into contact with local farmers, sometimes with deadly results.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FLINTOFF: Marine Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas and his men walk across a windblown stretch of desert, headed toward a walled compound where a farmer was killed by Marines just the night before. They're looking for the son of the man who was killed.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FLINTOFF: The Afghan men look resentful and wary. The Marines' interpreter says, they dont trust us. The men squat in the shelter of a wall as the Marine explains why he has come.

Lieutenant Colonel BRIAN CHRISTMAS (Third Battalion, Sixth Marines): Im here today to specifically address the shooting last night.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: To pay my respects, to give my apologies...

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The man's son interrupts. How long is this going to go on, he demands? You can't just come to our doors and kill us.

Another of the local men steps in, telling the son that the shooting wasnt deliberate. The Marines say the man was spotted on a roof in his compound, and that he didnt obey orders to stand still. The family says the man was simply attending to his farm equipment and that he didnt understand the order.

Several local men gesture to show what the man did. They show a stooping turning motion, as if the man were reaching for something beside him. It's a motion that the Marines interpreted as reaching for a weapon, so they shot him.

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: Today's visit was meant to come and pay respects for something that was a misfortune. It should not have happened.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The men nod as the interpreter speaks. They're middle-aged farmers with leathery faces and thick beards, but some of them tear up as they listen. One man asks the Marines not to patrol at night.

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: I have to patrol at night. If the Taliban put IEDs out in your roads and you dont see where they put them, then your children, tomorrow morning, will go out and play and they will blow up.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The men aren't happy with the night patrols but they seem resigned.

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: If I may, I'd like a moment alone with Jinan.

FLINTOFF: The commander and the son of the dead man step around the corner to pay the compensation. Before the Marines leave the family asks them to come see the spot where the man died.

Just inside the entrance to the compound, they lift a metal basin to uncover a patch of bloodstained dirt where the wounded man was brought, as a Navy medic tried to save his life.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: They treated him here. Our doc, my medic treated him here.

FLINTOFF: The men recover the bloodstain with the metal basin and the Marines walk back toward their outpost, an unhappy job completed. Marine commanders stress that no matter how well they're handled they can't have incidents like this continue if they're going to win hearts and minds in Marjah.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Kabul, Afghanistan.

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