ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And we begin this hour in Afghanistan where the U.S.-led offensive in southern Helmand province entered its tenth day. And for a moment today, war took a back seat to politics as Marines flew in the new Afghan governor of Marjah, Haji Zahir, to meet with constituents. He is the first Afghan official to visit the area in two years and he called on the people he met to reject the Taliban and join with the Afghan government.
But NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson accompanied the governor on his way in, and she reports that it's going to take more than words to win over Marjah's residents.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The Osprey lands on the edge of Marjah in a cloud of dust, but this Marine aircraft isn't here for any military action. Its role today is more like that of Air Force One. On board is a well-to-do Afghan from Helmand province named Haji Zahir.
Governor HAJI ZAHIR (Marjah, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Until recently, Zahir lived in Germany. He has a carefully groomed beard and wears a traditional Afghan tunic and prayer cap. He is a man whom the American and Afghan governments are pinning very high hopes. He is the newly appointed governor of this one-time Taliban stronghold where a joint U.S.-Afghan offensive is continuing. With the help of U.S. government advisers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid money, Zahir is being asked to bring reliable and honest governance here. He's to start even before the Marines and Afghan soldiers finish driving the militants out.
Unidentified Man #1: ...the intersection and then back down on the other side of the canal.
Unidentified Man #2: Okay.
NELSON: Marine Brigadier General Larry Nicholson is the commander of the offensive. He has one word to describe the impact of Zahir's visit today to Marjah.
Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (U.S. Marines): Gigantic. I think showing the people here that they have a governor that's ready to come in, and he's in the lead. He's going to start administering work, projects, day labor projects.
Gov. ZAHIR: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Zahir wasted no time getting to work. Amid the ruins of this farming town that came into being in the 1950s with American aid money and was destroyed in a Special Forces attack a year ago, he holds a shura, or council, with about 50 residents.
Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He listens to their grievances. He acknowledges the two-year deadline they give him to improve their lives. The governor pledges to visit them in their homes. He promises them he will not accept bribes to resolve disputes or conduct business. General Nicholson and Kael Weston, the top State Department representative in Helmand, watched quietly from some distance away.
Both of you are hanging back quite a bit. Why?
Mr. KAEL WESTON (Representative, Department of State): We've been doing this for a while, and we know that they don't want to see Americans too close to their people, and that's understandable.
Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: If this is going to work here in Marjah the way it's worked everywhere else, it's got to be Afghans in the lead and no American speeches today. No American speeches.
NELSON: After two hours, Zahir looks satisfied. He says he's a good sense now of what he'll tackle first when he moves permanently to Marjah in the coming days.
Gov. ZAHIR: (Through translator) They want the road from Marjah to the provincial capital to reopen, they want security, and they want their bazaar to reopen.
NELSON: Some of the residents he's spoken to, on the other hand, are leery. They complain that the last time the government was in charge here two years ago, corrupt police officers terrorized residents.
Mr. FAQIR MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: This is tractor driver named Faqir Mohammad says the Taliban brought peace to Marjah and generally didn't interfere in people's business. He adds, residents were happy with them. By comparison, police officers in Marjah stole people's motorcycles and cash and were involved in kidnapping. That's frustrating to Kael Weston of the State Department.
Mr. WESTON: That's not fun to hear, given that there's a lot of American blood that's been spilled in this city in the last few days. But it's a reality check that our people, the Afghan government need to hear that they seemed to have perceived the government as the biggest problem, not the Taliban, and that is hard to hear.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Helmand province.
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