Afghan police and U.S. Marines patrol the city of Marjah in the Helmand province of Afghanistan in April 2010.
Afghan police and U.S. Marines patrol the city of Marjah in the Helmand province of Afghanistan in April 2010. Abdul Khaleq/AP
A small farming district in southern Afghanistan has become a gauge of progress in the Afghan war, but some U.S. officials say the area — and the violence there — need to be understood in a wider context.
NATO troops — primarily U.S. Marines — and Afghan security forces reclaimed Marjah from Taliban control in a short and violent offensive in February. The operation raised hopes that the area could quickly be restored to Afghan government control, and serve as a model for operations in Kandahar and other parts of the country.
Instead, Marjah has seen a resurgence of violence, and the effort to provide meaningful government services is taking longer than expected.
No one really disputes that Marjah is a violent place right now — U.S. Marines acknowledge that they're facing almost daily ambushes from Taliban fighters, and that roadside bombs are a constant threat.
The disagreement is over the meaning of the current level of violence — whether it's an expected stage in restoring the area to government control or a sign that even a big U.S. and Afghan troop presence isn't enough to provide security and stability or win the trust of the population.
At least some local people say the military operation there is failing. NPR's Afghan reporters in Kabul interviewed people in Marjah by cell phone because local people may face intimidation from the Taliban if they're seen talking directly with outsiders.
Haqyar, a 33-year-old merchant, says the security situation has deteriorated over the past few weeks. He says the Americans are staying closer to their bases because whenever they go out, they face attack by the Taliban.
He says the Taliban have threatened to retaliate against anyone who cooperates with the government.
Hameed, a 21-year-old farmer, says things have been slightly quieter in his area over the past week or so, but only because the Americans have limited their patrols and are staying in defensive positions.
When the Americans do come out, he says, they often get attacked, and innocent people are caught in the crossfire.
Lt. Col. Brian Christmas says his Marine battalion has, in fact, been out in a lot of places where the Taliban didn't expect them. "We're doing an awful lot right now," he says. "We've put forces, we've dedicated them there, forces that they're not used to seeing."
Christmas spoke on what he called "a bittersweet day," in which he had attended a memorial for one fallen Marine, then learned that another Marine and an Afghan army soldier had just been killed.
Still, he said, the day had a positive side, an instance in which Taliban fighters ordered local people to shut a popular open-air market and met with resistance.
"People started to close down their shops because they feared for their life," Christmas said. "Then, one of my elders got on the microphone, and he said, 'No, we're not doing it. We're not closing the shops. We're a community. Leave the shops open.' And most of them did."
Christmas says that, increasingly, local people have shown a willingness to stand up and publicly ally themselves with the Afghan government.
U.S. officials in the area say the intense media coverage of Marjah points up the violence without putting the struggle in context with other areas in central Helmand province that are now stable after having gone through less-publicized bouts of violence of their own.
Scott Dempsey is a USAID official who advised the Afghan district government in Nawa, a small farming town not far from Marjah. Allied troops drove the Taliban out of Nawa nearly eight months before Marjah, but Dempsey says it went through its own spasm of insurgent violence after that.
"When Nawa was cleared last July, many of the insurgents who were fighting in Nawa were able to flee to Marjah," he says, "and the malevolent influence of Marjah was around until February, when Marjah was cleared."
Dempsey says the capture of Marjah helped relieve pressure on Nawa, which is now stable and relatively prosperous, an indication of what he believes Marjah could be, given another six months or so.
Whether Marjah will be relevant in another six months is another question.
The NATO command is focusing on a much bigger task: uprooting Taliban militants from their spiritual home in Kandahar.
Commanders say that task has already begun, but it will be more focused on governance and rebuilding — and, hopefully, less violent than the offensive in Marjah.