Residents of this onetime Taliban sanctuary see signs that the insurgents have regained momentum in recent weeks, despite early claims of success by U.S. Marines. The longer-than-expected effort to secure Marja is prompting alarm among top American commanders that they will not be able to change the course of the war in the time President Obama has given them.
Firefights between insurgents and security forces occur daily, resulting in more Marine fatalities and casualties over the past month than in the first month of the operation, which began in mid-February.
Marines and Afghan troops have made headway in this farming community, but every step forward, it seems, has been matched by at least a half-step backward.
Two-thirds of the stalls in Marja's main bazaar have reopened, but the only baker fled the area a week ago after insurgents kidnapped his son in retaliation for selling to foreign troops and the police.
Men have begun to allow their burqa-clad wives to venture out of their homes, but an effort by female Marines to gather local women for a meeting last week drew not a single participant.
The Afghan government has assigned representatives to help deliver basic services to the population, but most of them spend their days in the better-appointed provincial capital 20 miles to the northeast.
"We've come a long way," said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, the commander of one of the two Marine infantry battalions in Marja. "But there's still a long way to go."
The slow and uneven progress has worried senior military officials in Kabul and Washington who intended to use Marja as a model to prove that more troops and a new war strategy can yield profound gains against the Taliban. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told officers here in late May that there is a growing perception that Marja has become "a bleeding ulcer."
The central question among military leaders is whether Marja will improve quickly enough to be proclaimed an incipient success by the fall, when the Pentagon will begin to prepare for a year-end White House review of the war that will help to determine how many troops Obama withdraws in July 2011.
The challenge of stabilizing Marja also has prompted concern among commanders planning a large upcoming operation to combat the Taliban in and around the city of Kandahar. They are seeking to draw lessons from key problems encountered here and develop new approaches, particularly in increasing the presence of Afghan civil servants.
Marine officers contend that the mission in Marja has yielded faster change than similar operations in recent years. A few schools reopened briefly before summer holidays. Reconstruction projects have commenced. The Afghan government has assigned more officials here than to any other similar-size district in the southern half of the country.
But the Taliban continues to make its presence felt. Although Marine officers estimate that hundreds of insurgents have been killed since the operation began, dozens of holdouts remain, and others commute from redoubts to the east and west. They seed the roads with homemade bombs and snipe at Marine patrols. They threaten, beat up and kill residents who accept U.S. reconstruction assistance. And they still own the night in many parts of the area.
In response, a Special Operations detachment has returned to southern Marja to work with tribal leaders to organize young men into armed neighborhood-watch patrols, and the Marines intend to destroy several footbridges spanning irrigation canals that insurgents are using to infiltrate the area. U.S. military and civilian officials also are working with the Afghan government to provide basic public services, organize the local police force and get civil servants to show up for work.
"I think we can move faster," said Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills, the top Marine commander in Afghanistan. "We need to impart to our Afghan partners a sense of urgency. They have to understand there's a timeline."
When the Marines entered Marja, they planned to combat the Taliban with a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. They went in with overwhelming force, and they had more Afghan soldiers and police officers as partners than in any previous mission.
After five days of sometimes intense battle, the Taliban fighters who remained in the area went into hiding or retreated to areas beyond the military operation. Marja turned quiet, and there were days with not a single attack. Some Marine officers said they had achieved "catastrophic success."
But it is now clear that the Taliban fighters were regrouping. Many also took a break to participate in the harvest of opium-producing poppies, which pays more per day than working for the insurgency. Despite efforts to disrupt the process, U.S. officials estimate that about 80 percent of the crop was harvested, although it was done with such haste that yields were far lower than in previous years.
A progression of Afghan officials arrived to hoist flags and proclaim victory. But from then on, "it was game on" for the Taliban, said a Marine officer.
The insurgents resumed planting improvised explosive devices on the rutted dirt roads, and small units of fighters started shooting at Marine foot patrols. Their most significant response has been to threaten — and sometimes attack — residents who have sought to participate in reconstruction programs or work with the Afghan government.
One elder was beheaded after attend a meeting with the district governor. Five more were murdered after another gathering. All told, there have been about a dozen cases of retaliatory killings of civilians and many more incidents of people being assaulted or receiving threatening letters under their doors at night, according to U.S. officials.
"There's a deep fear among the population," said a reconstruction specialist. "You can't get beyond security when you talk to people. They don't want to entertain discussions about projects."
The U.S. Agency for International Development has funding available to hire as many as 10,000 Marja residents for day-labor projects to clean the irrigation canals that crisscross the desert here, but thus far only 1,200 people have enrolled. A plan to distribute 4,000 water pumps to farmers has been scaled back by 75 percent, in part because recipients are worried about being targeted if the Taliban sees the devices on their fields.
Marine officers are convinced that most residents would rather not live under the Taliban's thumb, and they try to jawbone people whenever they can. But there remains a degree of popular sympathy for the past because many farmers profited from the freedom to grow poppies under the Taliban.
"Things have to change so your sons grow up without war," Worth said to a man sitting at a produce stand on a recent morning.
"Poppy was easy money," the man replied. "It's hard to work."
Worth urged the man to consider the day-labor programs, and he urged him to have his sons sign up for the neighborhood-watch initiative.
"There are more jobs now," Worth said. "Good and legal jobs that will help to protect Marja."
"Working with the government is dangerous," the man said. "But we will consider it."
To U.S. military and civilian officials in Marja, the solution to Taliban intimidation and attacks involves expanding the presence of the Afghan government and its security forces. But the first wave of Afghan paramilitary police, who were supposed to help the Marines secure the bazaars and other strategic locations, turned out to be far less effective than U.S. officers had expected. Residents accused some of them of looting. Others were too slothful to man their checkpoints.
Before the operation, McChrystal pledged to deliver a "government in a box" that would provide basic services to the population with the hope of winning its allegiance. The box has turned out to be largely empty. Marja's chief official, Haji Zahir, who spent four years in a German prison for attempting to murder his stepson, is regarded by some of the civilian reconstruction advisers here as an ineffective manager with a proclivity for lengthy siestas and an unwillingness to engage in the nitty-gritty of governance.
In an interview, Zahir said he is doing the best he can under trying circumstances. "This is a very difficult job," he said.
Although the central government has assigned representatives of several key ministries to Marja, they are spending little time here. The rural development men hung around for a few weeks and then beat a retreat. The Education Ministry officer was conspicuously absent for a key meeting last week to plan for the coming school year. The Health Ministry's emissary lives in Marja, but he has been reluctant until recently to coordinate with U.S. and British development specialists on Marja's stabilization team.
"What's missing here is the governance piece," said Philip Hatton, the stabilization adviser in Marja. "Do we have a team that is able to proceed at the speed that we want? No. There's no strength and depth."
Senior U.S. and British officials are lobbying the Afghan government to compel the representatives to spend more time in Marja. The Marines have set aside air-conditioned tents and promised to explore ways to provide the representatives with basic personal security.
At a session in Zahir's Marine-issued tent, which has been decorated with plush brown sofas and red carpets, Hatton urged him to work with tribal elders to nominate men to serve in the police.
Zahir's response was less than noncommittal. "They're never helpful to me," he said of the police. "They've never done anything good for me."
The problems with governance in Marja echo concerns raised by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, during a White House review of the war last fall. He argued that the Afghan government was insufficiently committed to doing its part to make the counterinsurgency campaign a success.
"With more U.S. forces you can do more, but where is your Afghan partner?" said a State Department official in Afghanistan.
Top commanders remain confident that Afghan officials will be able provide the services and leadership necessary to marginalize the Taliban — if they are given enough time and mentoring.
"We're on an Afghan timetable, and the Afghan timetable is not the American timetable," said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan. "And that is the crux of the problem."