In Afghan village, local security takes root

District governor Abdul Mutalab, center, walks through a bazaar in Marja, Helmand province, with Haji Shah Mohammed, who decided to start a neighborhood watch after being kidnapped by the Taliban. Mohammed and two others were released after the payment of a ransom.
District governor Abdul Mutalab, center, walks through a bazaar in Marja, Helmand province, with Haji Shah Mohammed, who decided to start a neighborhood watch after being kidnapped by the Taliban. Mohammed and two others were released after the payment of a ransom. (Josh Boak)

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - Surrounded by quiet tribesmen with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, Haji Asaf said he expects that 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 U.S. allies about which smuggling routes to block and where to build schools.

"Every three miles," Asaf said of the schools. If it's too far to walk, he said, the students will not 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 U.S.-led coalition forces.

"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 such as 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 in February 2010 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 A. McChrystal, then commander of the NATO 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 on charges of 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 within both the Marines and - more significantly - Afghanistan's army and police.

Getting people involved

Afghan and U.S. officials pinpoint the September parliamentary elections as a turning point.


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