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'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.

In response, a Special Operations detachment has returned to southern Marja to work with tribal leaders to organize young men into armed neighborhood-watch patrols, and the Marines intend to destroy several footbridges spanning irrigation canals that insurgents are using to infiltrate the area. U.S. military and civilian officials also are working with the Afghan government to provide basic public services, organize the local police force and get civil servants to show up for work.

"I think we can move faster," said Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills, the top Marine commander in Afghanistan. "We need to impart to our Afghan partners a sense of urgency. They have to understand there's a timeline."

Countering 'a deep fear'

When the Marines entered Marja, they planned to combat the Taliban with a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. They went in with overwhelming force, and they had more Afghan soldiers and police officers as partners than in any previous mission.

After five days of sometimes intense battle, the Taliban fighters who remained in the area went into hiding or retreated to areas beyond the military operation. Marja turned quiet, and there were days with not a single attack. Some Marine officers said they had achieved "catastrophic success."

But it is now clear that the Taliban fighters were regrouping. Many also took a break to participate in the harvest of opium-producing poppies, which pays more per day than working for the insurgency. Despite efforts to disrupt the process, U.S. officials estimate that about 80 percent of the crop was harvested, although it was done with such haste that yields were far lower than in previous years.

A progression of Afghan officials arrived to hoist flags and proclaim victory. But from then on, "it was game on" for the Taliban, said a Marine officer.

The insurgents resumed planting improvised explosive devices on the rutted dirt roads, and small units of fighters started shooting at Marine foot patrols. Their most significant response has been to threaten -- and sometimes attack -- residents who have sought to participate in reconstruction programs or work with the Afghan government.

One elder was beheaded after attend a meeting with the district governor. Five more were murdered after another gathering. All told, there have been about a dozen cases of retaliatory killings of civilians and many more incidents of people being assaulted or receiving threatening letters under their doors at night, according to U.S. officials.

"There's a deep fear among the population," said a reconstruction specialist. "You can't get beyond security when you talk to people. They don't want to entertain discussions about projects."

The U.S. Agency for International Development has funding available to hire as many as 10,000 Marja residents for day-labor projects to clean the irrigation canals that crisscross the desert here, but thus far only 1,200 people have enrolled. A plan to distribute 4,000 water pumps to farmers has been scaled back by 75 percent, in part because recipients are worried about being targeted if the Taliban sees the devices on their fields.

Marine officers are convinced that most residents would rather not live under the Taliban's thumb, and they try to jawbone people whenever they can. But there remains a degree of popular sympathy for the past because many farmers profited from the freedom to grow poppies under the Taliban.

"Things have to change so your sons grow up without war," Worth said to a man sitting at a produce stand on a recent morning.

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