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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

The U.S. and its allies gained ground last month in Afghanistan. Their challenge now is holding it. That involves building relationships with the locals, who have lived under Taliban control for the past two years.

MONTAGNE: And this morning well listen as one Marine tries to build those relationships. The job requires him to be everything from a fighter to an educator.

NPRs Corey Flintoff is embedded with the Marines in Helmand Province.

COREY FLINTOFF: Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas led his 3-6 Marine Battalion in the fighting that drove many Taliban fighters out of Marjah. Now he spends his day visiting dusty markets and holding meetings, or shuras, with local leaders.

Lieutenant Colonel BRIAN CHRISTMAS (Commander, 3rd Battalion 6th Marine Regiment): Allow me to speak for a little bit, and allow him to translate, and then Ill ask for your comments. But let me explain the process of what we can provide to you and what the government is going to provide to you.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The sandy-haired 39-year-old commander sits cross-legged on the ground among a group of about 20 turbaned farmers and shopkeepers. Christmas needs to convince them that the NATO occupation is a benign presence that can help bring needed services such as health and education. One priority that the elders have identified consistently is the need for a school, and Christmas, eager for a symbol of American goodwill, would like to make that happen.

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: If you identify a building to hold school, and a schoolteacher, then as soon as that individual is ready to start teaching the children, I will provide school supplies, and I will pay the schoolteacher until the government picks it up.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Eventually a tall, black-bearded young man shambles forward. He is a motorcycle mechanic by trade, but he can read and write well, and his neighbors have named him as their first potential teacher. Christmas arranges to meet with him in a couple of days to settle on the terms for getting the school started. The commander is optimistic that he'll soon see at least a rudimentary school in session.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

FLINTOFF: But two days later, things have gotten more complicated. Lieutenant Colonel Christmas sits on a mat outside the would-be teachers mud-brick shop with several other young men who might also teach in the school. For over an hour, the men raise various problems about where the school should be and how to provide security for it. Nothing is getting resolved and Christmas tries over and over to nail down the details.

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: So should we talk to the elders about renting a building to do it or would you like me to build an outdoor classroom?

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Finally, the young mechanic brings up the real issue.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: If there's good security, he says, he can teach anywhere, but hes under pressure from the bad guys, the Taliban fighters who come from this area and remain here, hiding among the population. Christmas sets another meeting for the following day, still hoping to get some decisions on when and where the school will open. The same young men come to the meeting and they recite the same problems as the day before. But this time the real cause for their hesitation is much more overt.

One man says the Taliban will want to know why he's been talking with the Americans. They send night letters, notes that threaten death for anyone who deals with the foreigners.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Christmas has an answer for that.

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: If you know who they are, then you point them out. So write them on a piece of paper and Ill go get them right now. You see what Im saying? I know its not that easy, but Im saying at some point you have to stand up.

FLINTOFF: One man, speaking halting English, says if you really want to help us, give us time. Give us one month. Christmas answers that one month is too long, but if that's what the people want, they should come to him when they are ready. He walks away with his men, head down, pondering.

Later that day, another man from the village walks up to the lieutenant colonel. He talks about how he's afraid of the Taliban, afraid of the night letters, a threat thats much more immediate for him than the presence of Marines or Afghan soldiers. But after a few minutes, he reaches into his shirt and pulls out a folded piece of paper.

Lt. Col. CHRISTMAS: I know what that is. Ill take that. Ill come see you later.

FLINTOFF: Lieutenant Colonel Christmas isnt saying whether the note contained Taliban names.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

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