'Still a long way to go' for U.S. operation in Marja, Afghanistan

U.S. Marines and Afghan troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban as they struggle to maintain security in the canal-laced farming region of Afghanistan's Helmand province.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- Residents of this onetime Taliban sanctuary see signs that the insurgents have regained momentum in recent weeks, despite early claims of success by U.S. Marines. The longer-than-expected effort to secure Marja is prompting alarm among top American commanders that they will not be able to change the course of the war in the time President Obama has given them.

Firefights between insurgents and security forces occur daily, resulting in more Marine fatalities and casualties over the past month than in the first month of the operation, which began in mid-February.

Marines and Afghan troops have made headway in this farming community, but every step forward, it seems, has been matched by at least a half-step backward.

Two-thirds of the stalls in Marja's main bazaar have reopened, but the only baker fled the area a week ago after insurgents kidnapped his son in retaliation for selling to foreign troops and the police.

Men have begun to allow their burqa-clad wives to venture out of their homes, but an effort by female Marines to gather local women for a meeting last week drew not a single participant.

The Afghan government has assigned representatives to help deliver basic services to the population, but most of them spend their days in the better-appointed provincial capital 20 miles to the northeast.

"We've come a long way," said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, the commander of one of the two Marine infantry battalions in Marja. "But there's still a long way to go."

The slow and uneven progress has worried senior military officials in Kabul and Washington who intended to use Marja as a model to prove that more troops and a new war strategy can yield profound gains against the Taliban. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told officers here in late May that there is a growing perception that Marja has become "a bleeding ulcer."

The central question among military leaders is whether Marja will improve quickly enough to be proclaimed an incipient success by the fall, when the Pentagon will begin to prepare for a year-end White House review of the war that will help to determine how many troops Obama withdraws in July 2011.

The challenge of stabilizing Marja also has prompted concern among commanders planning a large upcoming operation to combat the Taliban in and around the city of Kandahar. They are seeking to draw lessons from key problems encountered here and develop new approaches, particularly in increasing the presence of Afghan civil servants.

Marine officers contend that the mission in Marja has yielded faster change than similar operations in recent years. A few schools reopened briefly before summer holidays. Reconstruction projects have commenced. The Afghan government has assigned more officials here than to any other similar-size district in the southern half of the country.

But the Taliban continues to make its presence felt. Although Marine officers estimate that hundreds of insurgents have been killed since the operation began, dozens of holdouts remain, and others commute from redoubts to the east and west. They seed the roads with homemade bombs and snipe at Marine patrols. They threaten, beat up and kill residents who accept U.S. reconstruction assistance. And they still own the night in many parts of the area.

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