Afghan official who will govern Marja pays first visit, makes plea to residents

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- The Afghan official responsible for governing Marja paid his first visit to this strife-torn community Monday, imploring residents to forsake the Taliban and promising employment programs as an inducement for local men to put down their weapons.

Haji Zahir, the newly appointed mayor of Marja, told a group of about 50 elderly men who had gathered at a gas station near the main bazaar that the large U.S. and Afghan military operation to flush out the Taliban is intended to bring "positive changes."

"They're not here to occupy our country," he said of the U.S. Marines who now control key commercial and residential sections of Marja. "They're just here to bring you peace."

But Zahir, a native of southern Afghanistan who has spent the past 15 years in Germany, elicited only a tepid endorsement from the men who gathered to meet him. Their questions made clear that the Taliban still enjoys deep support here, and that the Afghan government is almost universally loathed, illuminating the deep challenge facing Marines and civilian stabilization specialists as they try to establish basic civic administration.

"The Taliban provided us with a very peaceful environment," said Fakir Mohammed, 32, a tractor driver. "They did not bother us. We were very happy with them here."

Mohammed said police corruption and malfeasance led residents to support the insurgents. "They were not corrupt like the police," he said.

One man accused U.S. and Afghan forces of responding to fire from AK-47 assault rifles, a weapon commonly used by the insurgents, with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells.

"Your government drops bombs on us," another said.

Brig. Gen. Mohayden Ghori, who commands the Afghan forces involved in the operation and joined Zahir at the meeting, told the men: "I understand some of your houses have burned. But let's solve our problems with negotiations, not with weapons."

Ghori said he was open to reconciling with insurgents who stop fighting. "Those Afghan Taliban who have shot at my soldiers, I can tolerate them," he said. "They are my sons. They are my brothers. They are Afghans."

He delivered a far more impassioned plea for support than Zahir, raising his voice almost to the point of screaming as he asked the men to persuade their fellow residents to stop fighting.

"Let's start supporting each other. We will have schools, a hospital, good roads," he said. "Tell me the truth: When the Taliban was here, did they do anything for you? Did they even give you a water pump?"

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