By Joshua Partlow
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; A07
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- The initial phase of the military offensive in southern Afghanistan to wrest Marja from insurgent control has largely ended, but the more daunting task of building a credible government in the place of Taliban rule has just begun, according to senior U.S. and Afghan officials.
Helicopters bearing Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan; Karim Khalili, Afghanistan's second vice president; and a host of other senior officials touched down Monday afternoon next to a sandbagged, bullet-pocked school that now serves as Marine headquarters here. The officials entered a town now controlled by U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers, where the fierce gun battles that punctuated the early days of the offensive have ceased.
"We're not at the end of the military phase, but we're clearly approaching that," McChrystal said. "The government of Afghanistan is in the position now of having the opportunity, and the requirement, to prove they can establish legitimate governance."
The farmlands of Marja, once a Taliban stronghold and drug-trafficking hub, remain a treacherous place. During the two-week-long offensive, 5,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers have encountered hundreds of mines and homemade bombs, and the troops still plan another detailed, house-by-house clearing of the ground they've passed through. More than 100 insurgents have been killed in the fighting, along with at least six NATO troops; six more NATO troops were killed Monday in violence across the nation.
But the Afghan flag now flies over Marja, a place where no government presence existed before the offensive, and the shooting has stopped, at least for now.
"Ten days ago there would have been firefights right on this street," Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the Marine commander in Helmand province, told McChrystal outside the government center.
"There has not been a shot fired in Marja for seven days. Not one shot. Marja's quiet," Nicholson said. "We're very happy with the progress."
Whether the Taliban has fled or just chosen to stop fighting remains an open question. McChrystal said some Taliban fighters may have started to function as "sleeper cells," waiting for orders, while "some of them probably just put the gun away and are waiting to see what's going to happen." He said he didn't expect the quiet to last unchallenged, because the Taliban would try to create the perception of insecurity. "I think they may test it with suicide bombers," he said.
The more difficult test will probably be how the people of Marja take to their new government, embodied by Haji Zahir, the newly installed town leader. He stood alongside Khalili on Monday, the most senior Afghan official to visit Marja since the offensive began.
Speaking to a crowd of residents who sat on the ground in a dozen even rows, Khalili said the Afghan government would "exhaust all avenues to bring peace and security."
"We will stay, we will fight with all our forces, we will defend you," Khalili said. "We will be next to you, shoulder to shoulder."
But skepticism toward the government runs deep among many Afghans, and many see the police in particular as a corrupt and predatory organization. Some in Marja are angry about damage to homes and fields during the fighting. One elderly Afghan man with a long white beard approached Khalili after his talk and began shouting that his home had been destroyed in the operation. Khalili stood silent as the man went on, then told him that his home was too close to the road, according to a translation of his remarks.
Earlier in the day, McChrystal toured a combat hospital to speak with the wounded and met with about 75 U.S and British troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand province. He told them about his counterinsurgency philosophy and the need to operate with utmost care to avoid civilian casualties. Last month McChrystal apologized to President Hamid Karzai twice for U.S. attacks on suspected insurgents that killed nearly 40 civilians in Helmand and neighboring Uruzgan province.
While Marja, part of the Nad Ali district, was an important target as an insurgent sanctuary, the piece of ground is "not particularly valuable," McChrystal said. "The operation is about changing everyone's mind-set."
McChrystal said he wanted the operation to convince Afghans far beyond Marja that U.S. troops and the Afghan government had the momentum, that they would stay and hold areas they had moved into, and that Afghan security forces and local government could lead the way. "We're trying to convince everybody, okay, we've now figured this out," he said. To convince them that "now we're winning, and we're going to win."