U.S., Afghan forces work to secure key areas in Marja

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A07

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. and Afghan troops moved into two key parts of Marja on Tuesday in an effort to restart government services and confront Taliban holdouts who continue to shoot at coalition forces.

Facing little resistance, troops secured the central police station and the area where they hope to build a municipal building, moving west by foot on a mine-infested road to achieve a key objective of U.S. commanders.

To the north, in the chockablock Koru Chreh bazaar area, where troops had been subjected to repeated small-arms fire and grenade attacks since they arrived Saturday, several hundred U.S. Marines conducted a day-long operation to target insurgent gunmen and sweep for makeshift bombs. A second Marine company was moved to the Koru Chreh area Monday because of the intensity of the fighting there.

The beefed-up presence led to a drop in attacks. Although there were several exchanges of gunfire, none of the engagements was significant. Commanders reported that Marine snipers killed five insurgents.

As Marines were inspecting the bazaar, a platoon leader saw a long piece of what appeared to be new wire wrapped around a pole. When ordnance-disposal technicians were called in to investigate, they found eight mortars daisy-chained in an attempt to attack convoys.

Much of the Marine activity in the Koru Chreh area focused on a mission to sweep a residential area north of the bazaar that troops have taken to calling the Pork Chop. Marines and Afghan soldiers stealthily scurried along a series of labyrinthine alleys, knocking down doors and searching abandoned housing compounds for insurgents.

By the end of the day, the Marines had cleared about a third of the residential area without any major incidents. Although Marine officers spotted more than a dozen suspected insurgents gathering in the morning, they opted not to mount the sort of gun battles they had on the first few days of the operation.

The lack of firefights disappointed some Marines, but the commander of the operation said he was pleased.

"For us, just pushing them out of town is enough," said Capt. Ryan Sparks, who leads Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "Our goal is to take care of the people, not kill the Taliban."

The most intense fighting of the day occurred south of the municipal center and the Loy Chreh bazaar, where the battalion's Alpha Company was engaged in an almost day-long exchange of gunfire with insurgents.

Although the streets of Marja were largely empty, Lt. Col. Cal Worth, the battalion commander, said he expected more people to emerge from the homes in the coming days. "I really feel the population is waiting," he said. "Once they see we've held the ground for a few days, they'll come back in droves."

The entry of Marines and Afghan soldiers into the area surrounding the municipal center is expected to begin the complicated but essential process of establishing government authority in the area and delivering basic services to the population.

With the center now out of Taliban hands, Marine commanders plan to bring about 80 Afghan paramilitary police officers to the area Wednesday. About 400 such officers will patrol parts of Marja that have been cleared of insurgents until a local police force can be recruited and trained.

The establishment of government services and the development of effective local security forces will be a key test of President Obama's new strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan. He and his top diplomats and military commanders have increasingly emphasized the development of effective local government and security forces as a way to reduce the need for U.S. troops to combat the insurgency.

But Afghanistan's government remains corrupt and dysfunctional. And in some places, such as Marja, the government's presence is nonexistent. There isn't even a municipal building -- just a foundation on which residents set up a weekly market.

To address that, a team of U.S. and British diplomats and reconstruction personnel plan to set up a stabilization office in Marja in the coming days. One of their top priorities will be to transport to the area the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after spending 15 years in Germany, and help him begin the complex task of building a government from scratch.

The Marines have identified dozens of potential quick-impact projects to help locals.

Marine officers believe that jobs programs as well as the clear message that order will be imposed in Marja eventually will result in some insurgent fighters putting down their weapons.

A key first step will be to convene a large meeting of tribal leaders and other influential residents. Marine commanders and reconstruction advisers hope to do that this week.

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