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Issue 421 -- Feb. 20- 26, 2010
Taliban Resistance Stalls New Rule in Marjah
MARJAH, Afghanistan, February 20, 2010 ó The Taliban grenade that whizzed overhead was John Kael Weston's first indication that this town might not be ready for an influx of diplomats, agriculturalists and economic-development specialists.
The U.S. State Department official visited Marjah on Friday to see whether the week-old allied military offensive had made enough progress to allow the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government to launch their main mission: Reintroducing Afghan civilian rule to a town that has been under Taliban control for years.
Instead, Mr. Weston found the battle still under way and the town so devastated by years of war and neglect that it was hard to imagine scores of civilians setting up shop there very soon.
"I don't think we're there yet," he told Sgt. Rian Madden, an infantryman grimy from a week of firefights.
"I think that's a pretty fair assessment," the sergeant responded blandly.
Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces continued to push through the Taliban stronghold of Marjah Friday, and were encountering "determined pockets of resistance" in northern and eastern parts of the city, the NATO coalition said.
Six coalition soldiers were killed Thursday and one on Friday in relation to the operation, bringing the total to 12 casualties since the beginning of the Marjah operation. NATO said four of the casualties resulted from small-arms fire and three from improvised explosive devices, or IEDS.
In Marjah, the coalition plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to repair battle damage, provide quick jobs and reverse years of government and Taliban neglect. The Afghan government has an official, Haji Zahir, waiting in the wings to take up the post as town administrator. But he hasn't visited yet.
Coalition officials such as Mr. Weston, the State Department liaison to the Marine task force leading the offensive, had envisioned Mr. Zahir going to work in what were once the government offices in Marjah. But they turned out to be little more than a clump of ruins where the locals held a weekly outdoor market before the fighting began.
Nearby is a former school, now in ruins and occupied by Marines who have built sandbag barricades to absorb regular Taliban attacks.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine task force, came away from Friday's visit persuaded that it would be at least another week before the civilian surge could match the military surge in Marjah.
"Is there a good part of town?" he asked with dismay as he came upon the old government center.
Mr. Weston, wearing a flak jacket over his gray trousers and buttoned shirt, was surprised that almost no Marjah residents were wandering the streets. "Where are the Afghans?" he asked. "The Afghans have to be here first."
The residents of central Marjah have mostly been trying to stay out of the crossfire. Twenty or so men and boys emerged Friday morning for an informal meeting with the Marines and Afghan soldiers and police at the badly damaged Loy Chareh bazaar.
The troops encouraged them to return to work, promising that the area of Marjah now under Marine control would expand over the coming days.
Some locals complained that they were frightened both of the harsh justice of the Taliban and of being mistaken for Taliban by the troops. At the same time, they were running low on food and wanted to see the shops open again.
"We're stuck in the middle here," a resident told Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "We're scared of the Taliban, and we're scared of you, too."
The local men offered mixed reports of life under Taliban rule. A Kabul-educated doctor said the Taliban showed great respect for tribal leaders, and virtually eliminated crime.
But the Taliban implemented no public works, allowing the town's network of irrigation canalsóbuilt with U.S. aid in the 1950sóto fill with trash and weeds. The insurgents took food from the local farmers. " 'I'll do jihad with my head,' " the doctor quoted the fighters as saying. " 'You do jihad with your food.' "
The Taliban executed three tribal elders who had cooperated with the government, according to the doctor. "Two guys on motorcycles would show up in the night," said a local welder.
There were no formal courts or prisons. Death was the punishment that fit any crime, said the welder.
"We're willing to die to clear these villages," Col. Worth said, eliciting nods of approval.
The colonel urged the men to prohibit their sons from fighting alongside the Taliban. He instructed them to use the main roads to travel, approaching Afghan police checkpoints openly and slowly during the day. Eager to avoid fatal misunderstandings, Col. Worth repeatedly told the Afghans to pay close attention to warnings from the troops.
While the Americans and Afghans talked, a U.S. ground-attack plane strafed targets not far away, the sound of its Gatling guns ripping through the air.
While resistance within the city and around it remained serious, the coalition said it is pushing ahead with plans to deploy government and civil services that it had prepared in advance of the operation, in what it has dubbed its "government-in-a-box" program.
NATO said it had already opened two "schools-in-a-box" in the district, Nad-e Ali, each providing support for a teacher and 25 students. The coalition said it has also begun trying to establish a deputy district governor's office.
Coalition funding that will accompany the new government will be spent on projects aimed at jump-starting the local economy and trying to connect the people of Marjah to the new Afghan administration. Already, there are 2,500 Afghan civilians working in a national agricultural program in safer parts of Nad Ali district.
Source: Wall Street Journal