By Josh Boak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 1:49 PM
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - Surrounded by quiet tribesmen with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, Haji Asaf said he expects the Taliban will kill him if given the chance.
The village elder works with the Marines, who pay his force of more than 60 men $150 a month each to guard this southern Afghan district's flat-roofed farmsteads. He advises his American allies about which smuggling routes to block and where to build new schools.
"Every three miles," Asaf said about the schools, "because if it's too far to walk, they won't come."
Fears of Taliban retribution had until recently made those living in Marja skittish to be seen with Americans. But an increasing number of residents are now cooperating with the Marines, joining neighborhood watches paid for by the U.S. military.
By having villagers patrol their own neighborhoods in groups under the command of a district police chief, the Marines say they are bringing a sense of formal government to a previously lawless rural area - a slow but necessary step for an eventual exit by forces in the U.S.-led coalition.
"We won't be rushed to get it over with because, if we do that, we could lose it all," said Marine Col. David Furness, commander of the regimental combat team overseeing the area.
The willingness of people like Asaf and his men to work with the Marines is a positive turnabout for an initiative that began a year ago with much grander designs but initially stumbled.
U.S. and Afghan forces stormed into Marja last February as part of the 15,000-man Operation Moshtarak, which was intended to end two years of Taliban dominance in an area rife with poppy fields and drug trafficking.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of the U.S.-led coalition, had hoped to unpack a new "government in a box" that would serve as a model for rapidly transforming the rest of the country.
The effort proved disappointing. The initial district governor installed by the Americans, it turned out, had been imprisoned in Germany for attempted murder. Gunfights, bombings and other security incidents continued into the summer at a pace of 30 to 40 a day. McChrystal told colleagues that Marja, a rural community with more than 75,000 people, had a reputation as a "bleeding ulcer."
But the attacks are now down to about 10 a day, and U.S. military and local civilian officials say confidence is building both in the Marines and - more significantly - in their own national army and police.Getting people involved
Afghan and U.S. officials pinpoint last September's parliamentary elections as a turning point.
The Afghan army and police put together a plan to defend the polling stations in Marja, which suffered no civilian casualties that day. About 935 of 1,300 registered voters cast ballots - a marked change from the 2009 president election, when no one voted in an area that was then under Taliban control.
After the election, enrollment in the neighborhood watches, formally known as Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, started to take off.
As of late January, armed patrols were active in 28 of Marja's 40 neighborhoods, which are neatly divided into rectangular blocks by irrigation canals that the U.S. Agency for International Development built several decades ago. Marja district chief of police Ghulam Wali oversees the program and supplies patrol members with weapons confiscated from Taliban caches.
Though Wali also writes the checks for salaries, Marja's village elders know where the money is coming from.
"To be honest with you, a lot of things are being done by the Marines," said Haji Shah Mohamed, who hopes the Marines will construct a new mosque if he recruits 30 men for his watch.
In addition to the money, the elders offered several reasons for joining the watch program. Some interpret backing the Americans as way to side against Pakistan, which they said sponsors the Taliban in order to weaken and divide Afghanistan.
The decisive moment for Mohamed happened in November, when the Taliban kidnapped him and two others, and forced payment of a $3,400 ransom.
Asaf hopes his work with the patrols persuades America to open more schools, saying education might help Afghanistan experience an economic revolution similar to what Japan went through after World War II. Bringing electricity to his village would also be a plus.
Some in Marja suspect any bond between the people and the government will vanish once the Marine presence fades. Similar forms of community policing that date back to 2006 have struggled in a country where warlords and other powerful patrons have been a more commanding presence than national or local government.
"As soon as the Marines leave Helmand province, the people will fight the government," said Commander Sarwar, an ethnic Tajik in the Afghan National Police.
The Taliban is also trying to undermine the new relationships, abducting the uncle and brother of Haji Baz Gul, the first elder in Marja to start a neighborhood watch. In return for freeing both men, they are demanding the release of an imprisoned Taliban commander.
Gul has so far refused.
But as a result of the neighborhood watches, more villagers are conferring with the district government at the community meetings known as shuras, said Abdul Mutalab, Marja's current district governor.
It is a small sign that the institutions of formal government are starting to take hold. What concerns Mutalab is whether Marja can take the next step and establish a similarly solid relationship with a national government that has so far seemed oblivious to local needs.
"The people at the top in Kabul don't know about the poor people of Marja," he lamented. "When I ask them for something, they do not think it's a priority."