By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A01
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."
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.
Generating that confidence, however, could take time. On Friday, the Marines sought to convene a meeting of residents at the mosque next to the Loy Chreh bazaar, a crowded, ramshackle place that once teemed with opium merchants who bought poppy paste from local farmers and resold the contraband to drug processors. Now it is abandoned.
The meeting was scheduled for 8 a.m. At 7:45, Lt. Col. Cal Worth pulled on his body armor in preparation for the 50-yard walk to the mosque.
"Inshallah" -- God willing -- "there will actually be people out there," he said, peering down the street toward the mosque from his battalion's headquarters. But nobody was there.
Fifteen minutes later, he looked again. Again, nobody.
He repeated the routine a few more times before deciding at 9:15 to set off. On his way, he encountered two middle-aged men heading for the Marine base. They wanted to know when they could return to their stalls in the market to salvage a few goods.
He told them the market would be reopened soon and encouraged them to come back to work. The men were noncommittal.
"The Taliban are still here," one of the men said.
"We're expanding security as fast as we can," said Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
The battalion's base is at the site of the original Loy Chreh bazaar, which was reduced to rubble in an airstrike after a Special Forces raid last spring. Soldiers swooped in, killed several Taliban commanders, arrested numerous others and then left. British soldiers did the same thing in 2008. Both times, the insurgents regrouped.
"We don't want you to come here and fight and then leave," the man said.
"We understand that is what happened in the past," Worth said. "We're going to be here for many months."
The men nodded, but they remained skeptical.
"We're afraid of the Taliban, and we're afraid of the Marines," the second man said.
Nobody showed for the meeting at the mosque. But Worth's conversation in the street eventually drew 20 men and boys. As Marines handed out bottles of water and small boxes of breakfast cereal to the children, the men fired questions at Worth and the commander of a 170-member paramilitary police unit assigned to help guard the market and surrounding areas.
"We need you to be patient," the police commander, Gulam Sakhi, told them. "We are trying our best."A key challenge
Nicholson wants his Marines to open two main bazaars this week. He also thinks it will be safe enough around the site of the hoped-for municipal center by the end of this week for a team of four U.S. and British civilian stabilization advisers to begin working on governance and development projects.
The civilian specialists already have identified 33 potential quick-impact projects to help the local population -- including fixing schools and drilling wells -- and have received authorization to spend almost $1 million in military funds on such activities.
U.S. diplomats in Kabul have told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that his administration also must help rebuild Marja by deploying a contingent of civil servants to deliver basic services.
But security remains a concern. When Nicholson and Weston, his political adviser, walked toward the foundation of the municipal center, a rocket-propelled grenade whizzed over their heads. A burst of machine-gun fire followed, providing a reminder that while the Marines have established positions in the area, the Taliban still are lurking.
The civilian team's most important immediate task will be to assist the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after 15 years in Germany. Zahir plans to make his first trip to Marja in the coming days.
A key challenge for the stabilization team and Marine commanders will be transforming Zahir, who does not hail from Marja and knows few people there, into an influential local figure. Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal selected him for the post largely because he is a friend, but in meetings of tribal elders before the operation, he was primarily a backbencher.
The man with the most sway in Marja is Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief in Helmand. His officers in Marja were so corrupt and ruthless -- their trademark was summary executions -- that many residents welcomed the Taliban as a more humane alternative.
Although Jan, who has extensive ties to narcotics traffickers, was removed from his post in 2005 after pressure from the British government, which was then about to send forces to Helmand, he remains close to Karzai.
Jan injected himself into discussions with tribal leaders in the run-up to the current operation. U.S. and British diplomats say they think he will seek to influence the shape of the future Marja government and police force, in an effort to protect his interests in the area.
"Karzai wants A.R.J. to be the guy calling the shots in Marja, not Haji Zahir," said a Western diplomat familiar with the issue. "That makes building an effective, stable government there a very challenging proposition."
U.S. officials have made it clear in private meetings with Afghan officials that Jan will not be allowed to reconstitute his police militia. The Marines intend to set up a new police department, drawn in part from men selected by tribal leaders. Recruits will be screened for past violations and will undergo weeks of training at the main Marine base in Helmand.
U.S. officials think most Marja residents would rather not have Jan call the shots in the area. They are hoping Zahir will win over the population and mute Jan's influence, but they are not certain that will occur.
"Marja will be a test for everyone," Weston said. "It's a test of the U.S. government's ability to help build local government in Afghanistan. It's a test of the Karzai government's willingness to be responsive to what its population needs. And it's a test of whether the Afghan people will take responsibility for their future."