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The U.S. has largely shifted its attention and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. But when General David Petraeus arrives there later this week, he's going to find key military projects unfinished and a crucial political process that's just beginning.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Kabul.
COREY FLINTOFF: In the weeks before the scandal that cost him his job, General Stanley McChrystal wasn't exactly enjoying the prerogatives of being the top military commander in Afghanistan. Instead, he was scrambling to keep his counterinsurgency strategy on track.
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FLINTOFF: After a trip to Kandahar with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, McChrystal stood on the ramp of a cargo plane to talk to reporters. His first task was to express condolences.
General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Former Commander, ISAF): To the families and the comrades of all the Afghans who were murdered in the last week, just in Kandahar.
FLINTOFF: The commander was drawing attention to the brutality of insurgent attacks on Afghan civilians, but he was also acknowledging that a key element of his counterinsurgency strategy - protecting the population - still isn't as good as it needs to be.
Before McChrystal got into trouble for remarks made to a�Rolling Stone�magazine reporter, he raised eyebrows with a remark that a key NATO operation in southern Afghanistan, the effort to restore Afghan government control at Marjah, had turned into a bleeding ulcer. By that, he meant that�ongoing clashes with Taliban fighters and mounting coalition casualties were making the initial success of the Marjah offensive look like a longer-term failure.
Major General RICHARD MILLS (U.S. Marines): Well, I think the biggest lesson is that you have to manage expectations.
FLINTOFF: That's Marine Major General Richard Mills, whose command includes Marjah. He says he and fellow commanders want to be sure their bosses have a realistic idea of how long their job will take.
Managing expectations has become a mantra for commanders in the Kandahar area, where they routinely tell reporters not to expect a bang-up offensive, but a slow concentration of coalition troops, coupled with a surge in civilian efforts to strengthen the Afghan government. In Marjah, the Marines closest to the fight say it's tough.
One day last week, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, attended a memorial for one of his fallen men.
Lieutenant Colonel BRIAN CHRISTMAS (U.S. Marines): And we've had a couple of fights today, of which we've lost one Marine and one ANA, and a wounded linguist. So it's always tough when that happens.
FLINTOFF: An ANA is an Afghan National Army soldier.
Despite the losses, Christmas says he's seeing progress, especially since local leaders are now willing to be seen cooperating with the Americans. Just 15 miles from Marjah, in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, life can seem almost normal.
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FLINTOFF: Off-duty Afghan soldiers hang out with their friends and compare motorcycles on the edge of a football stadium. This soldier declined to give his name because he's not authorized to talk with reporters. But from his perspective, at the bottom of the chain of command, he says he thinks the government is slowly gaining the trust of local people.
Unidentified Man: (speaking foreign language)
FLINTOFF: He says it's hard to predict, but unless the Taliban lay down their arms and agree to join the government, it's going to take a long time to end this war.
President Hamid Karzai has called repeatedly on the Taliban to reconcile with his government, but his spokesmen deny rumors that they're negotiating with the insurgent leadership. Still, no matter how well his forces do in Marjah or Kandahar, or in the northern and eastern provinces where violence is escalating, General Petraeus' mission may well depend on the political will and negotiating skill of a shaky Afghan government.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Kabul.