As Marja assault progresses, coalition considers challenges in rebuilding area

A look inside the partnership between U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers in an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 21, 2010

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- On the satellite photographs of Marja that Marines scrutinized before launching a massive assault against the Taliban a week ago, what they assumed was the municipal government center appeared to be a large, rectangular building, cater-cornered from the main police station.

Seizing that intersection became a key objective, one deemed essential to imposing authority and beginning reconstruction in this part of Helmand province once U.S. and Afghan troops have flushed out the insurgents.

But when Marine officers reached the area, they discovered that two-dimensional images can be deceiving. What they had thought was the flat roof of the municipal building turned out to be a concrete foundation, and the police station was a bombed-out schoolhouse.

Although thousands of Marines and Afghan soldiers remain engaged in a grueling fight against Taliban holdouts concentrated in southern Marja, top commanders and civilian stabilization advisers face an even more daunting task: how to establish basic local governance and security in a place where there are no civil servants, no indigenous policemen and apparently no public buildings.

"The real challenge is still ahead of us," said John Kael Weston, the State Department representative to the Marine brigade conducting the Marja operation. "We're just in the opening act."

How that effort plays out here will amount to the first major test of President Obama's new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, providing insight into whether more U.S. military forces and civilian specialists will be able to turn around a foundering, eight-year-old war.

The Marines involved in the operation are among the 30,000 additional troops Obama authorized in December. If they and their civilian advisers succeed in pacifying Marja with a new local government and reconstruction projects -- a goal that could take months to achieve -- top U.S. commanders hope it could help reduce insurgent activity in the country's violence-racked south and provide a model of sorts for other areas.

"Marja was a living, breathing symbol of Taliban resistance," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, who heads the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and is commanding the operation. "The second- and third-order impacts of the government reasserting control of Marja will be very significant."

Surmounting skepticism

Nicholson said the fighting so far has been intense -- eight Marines and hundreds of insurgents have been killed -- but reasonably straightforward: Buildings must be searched, roads de-mined, bunkers destroyed and snipers targeted. He expressed confidence that the coalition forces will control all of the key roads and bazaar areas by the end of the month.

"We're moving steadily forward," he said.

Efforts to clear militants from other parts of Marja will continue, but Nicholson said the troops will start to concentrate on protecting streets and markets, anticipating that building a bubble of security will give residents enough confidence to identify Taliban members to the Marines. They also hope the changes will lead some low-level fighters to lay down their weapons.

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