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In Marjah, now comes the hardest part

Now that the hardest physical fighting is over, U.S. forces in the southern Afghanistan town must focus on keeping the population safe and helping set up an effective government.
A U.S. soldier returns fire as others run for cover during a Feb. 14 firefight with insurgents in the Badula Qulp area, west of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. The unit is operating in support of a U.S. Marine offensive against the Taliban in Marjah area.
A U.S. soldier returns fire as others run for cover during a Feb. 14 firefight with insurgents in the Badula Qulp area, west of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. The unit is operating in support of a U.S. Marine offensive against the Taliban in Marjah area.Pier Paolo Cito / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The hardest fighting is over, but the battle for Marjah is just beginning.

The outcome of last month's military campaign was never in doubt. With 15,000 combined NATO and Afghan troops pouring in to oust an estimated 400-1,000 insurgents, it was simply a question of how long it would take to clear the southern Afghan city that belonged to the Taliban for years.

Now, the fight for Marjah focuses on keeping the population safe and — perhaps harder — setting up the first clean and effective civilian administration there in decades.

The war in Afghanistan is not just about seizing territory. Western forces, in enough numbers and backed by enough firepower, can do that almost anywhere against scattered insurgent squads with inferior weaponry, however determined the Taliban are, however inventive and deadly their boobytraps and ambushes.

In the long term, the war is more about perceptions of authority and commitment than casualty tolls and objectives cleared, more about the Afghan civilians and what they believe and fear.

NATO saw Marjah — a Taliban logistics center and drug-smuggling hub and the largest southern city under Taliban rule — as a key prize in Helmand, the southern Afghan province they've struggled to reclaim from the insurgents.

But even more than its strategic worth is Marjah's value as a symbol. The operation is intended to showcase how NATO plans to win the war — by putting civilians first. Successfully grafting in a workable government could provide a model for allied advances into more parts of the south, where the Taliban still control large swaths of the countryside.

'Holding phase'
In Marjah, the challenge was never the "clearing phase," as military commanders call the military offensive. It's the "holding phase" that follows: getting functional Afghan forces to control the area for good.

In fact, Marjah already has been "cleared" at least three times: first shortly after the 2001 invasion that ousted the Taliban's hard-line regime, again in 2007 and, most recently, in March of last year.

In 2002, this AP reporter witnessed similar scenes to today: government agents with rifles and stacks of American dollars trying to establish control.

"We're trying to walk in step with the international community," a deputy police chief said at the time.

But the Western-backed government did not sustain its efforts. The difference this time, according to the plan, is that at least 2,000 Marines and half as many Afghan forces are slated to stay and keep the insurgents from returning.

FILE - In this Thursday Feb. 11, 2010 file photo, U.S. Marines patrol outside Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The outcome of last month's military campaign was never really in doubt. It was a question of how long NATO troops would take to subdue insurgents in the southern Afghan city, which belonged to the Taliban for years. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)David Guttenfelder / AP

Building trust
Much will depend on whether the Afghan government, plagued by corruption, can put a convincing Afghan face on what happens in Marjah; on whether cash will come to fix roads, bridges and houses, to build schools and clinics; on whether farmers will hew to a planned seed program for legitimate crops instead of poppy; and whether NATO troops will stay long enough to see through change and stabilization.

"We need time. We need to build the trust of the people because the people are scared," Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Thursday in Kabul.

Neither the Taliban nor the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, can prevail without the backing, willing or forced, of Afghanistan's civilian population.

Both sides know this, and so they fight a parallel conflict, without bombs and bullets. Like campaigners in a heated electoral contest, they make promises and proclamations, and trash-talk their adversary's claims.

Retreating insurgents, endured or tolerated rather than loved by many Afghans in areas under their control, told Marjah's villagers that Americans would rape and plunder. That didn't happen.

Civilians, in fact, led American forces to 70 percent of concealed insurgent bombs that have been discovered in an area near Marjah where the U.S. Army 5th Stryker Brigade operated, said Capt. Nolan Rinehart, a U.S. Army intelligence officer. That shows some degree of cooperation, even though many villagers are wary.

"They're very hesitant because we're new; we're foreign," Rinehart said. "It's hard to maintain a good perception (of international forces) if we keep jumping around from place to place because the Taliban will move right back in when we leave."

Taliban propaganda
U.S. Marines are settling in for a while in Marjah, but the civilians will be watching closely and judging harshly. The Western-backed Afghan government has a public platform there for the first time in a long time; the insurgents' pitch comes from the underground, or proxies.

A meeting last week between village leaders near Marjah and a district official was a case in point. The official, Asadullah, spoke softly about how the government can only provide services with public support; how Western troops pay compensation for damage to property, unlike Russian invaders during the Cold War in the 1980s; and how the Taliban creed of holy war was defunct.

Then a man leaped to his feet and denounced U.S. troops for disrupting lives.

American soldiers said the speech was Taliban "IO," a reference to Information Operations, a military term for propaganda and other efforts to influence people. They later pulled the man aside and used a hand-held biometrics device to store his retina image and other data.

There will be distractions in Marjah. Big military operations will get under way elsewhere. Attacks in Marjah won't stop, even though most of the Taliban who once ruled there are either dead or injured, lying low or relocating to more friendly turf in the south.

"This is a 12 to 18-month campaign we are embarking on. It's not going to be easy," Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Tuesday. He asserted that after more than eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, the U.S. is finally getting enough troops, diplomats and organizational structure to be able to keep extremist groups from taking over again there. President Barack Obama sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan earlier this year.

Of course, Afghan forces must provide security long after Western troops are gone, and whether they are up to the task is a question. Some Afghan soldiers fought aggressively in the Marjah campaign, and some were unreliable.

American restraint on the battlefield almost certainly reduced casualties among the civilian population, but soldiers sometimes struggled to connect with villagers. In one awkward exchange, a soldier from a military intelligence battalion told a villager that he wanted to build a hospital closer to his home. A soldier next to him interrupted before the Pashto-speaking interpreter could translate.

"Don't make any promises," he said quietly. The translator remained silent, and the conversation ended there.