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

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A06

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?"

But several residents said they were less interested in government services than being left alone. The principal cash crop in Marja is opium-producing poppy, and many farmers are wary that the establishment of local governance and a police force will put an end to what has been a lucrative way of life for them.

Halfway through the meeting, one participant stood and proclaimed himself a Talib. "I have nothing against the Americans, but I don't like our government," farmer Ali Mohammed said to Zahir. "It steals all the money that the foreigners give us."

Zahir pledged that he would be honest. "You cannot deceive me with money," he said.

He arrived in Marja aboard a Marine MV-22B Osprey helicopter with a contingent of Marine officers and a small retinue of tribal elders who have been living in other parts of Helmand province. He was on the ground for about two hours, not venturing more than 100 yards from where his aircraft landed. He did not travel to the site of the new municipal center the Marines plan to construct, less than a half-mile away.

Zahir sought to allay concerns about the time he spent abroad by noting that he was born and raised in Helmand. He even pulled out a small black-and-white photograph from his wallet that showed him as a young soldier in the Afghan army. But he also sought to use his time abroad to his advantage.

"I've traveled to other countries, and they don't have the conditions that we do," he said. "We have to change things here."

He urged the men to remember that U.S. engineers helped to design and build the canals that crisscross Marja, transforming barren desert into fertile farmland. "Who helped you 60 years ago?" he said. "They were Americans, and they are here to help you now."

Zahir's aides even distributed a little Afghan-style political pork to his new constituents: Each of the men was given a mobile phone calling card worth 250 afghanis, about $5.

U.S. officers remained in the background during the meeting, letting Zahir and Ghori run the show. After about an hour, the men broke into small groups, sitting in the dirt in two small circles around each of the men.

"We will give you two years," Ali Mohammed, the self-described Talib, told Ghori. "If you keep your promises, we will support you."

"We will do our job in two years," Ghori pledged.

That prompted John Kael Weston, a State Department official listening to the conversation, to pipe up: "Two years is about all the time we've got."

"If the government doesn't deliver in two years, these gentlemen right here are going to be cheerleaders for the Taliban, and that's not fun to hear, given that there's a lot of American blood that's been spilled in this city in the last few days," Weston said after the exchange.

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