MARJAH, Afghanistan – One by one, residents of Marjah stood up before Afghan officials Monday to voice complaints – their houses damaged, relatives killed during this month’s massive military offensive in southern Afghanistan.
The frank litany of problems – aired at a meeting called to affirm central government support – highlights the challenge in store for NATO and Afghan authorities as they seek to transform the former Taliban stronghold into a model for counterinsurgency.
Their visit occurred on a day when six NATO service members were killed in separate attacks around the country, showing that hard fighting lies ahead even if pacifying Marjah is successful. At least 10 Afghan civilians also died in a string of bombings in the south, officials said.
An Afghan government delegation from Kabul, headed by Vice-President Karim Khalili, made its initial foray to the town to meet with some 300 tribal elders and residents at the largest shura, or council meeting, since coalition troops seized control of Marjah last month.
NATO military commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and civilian chief Mark Sedwill came along in a sign that international forces intend to support the Afghan government’s efforts in the troubled south.
“The most important thing is to bring peace and stability to the people in Afghanistan,” Khalili told the residents. “This is a promise. … It’s our priority to talk to each other. But others want to prevent this. We will not allow them to keep people hostage again. This is a beginning in Marjah. We will be with you. We will stay and fight. We will bring you good governance.”
But the townspeople appeared skeptical – and some were angry.
An elderly man, wearing a grey turban, stood up to say that his family members had been killed during the military operation, although he didn’t say by whom.
After offering his condolences, Khalili reached out to embrace him and promised some money and assistance to his family.
Another elderly man, dressed in a white turban and blue tunic, complained that his house was destroyed during the offensive.
“You promised not to use big weapons. Why was my house destroyed?” he asked.
He invited the delegation to visit his home nearby.
The allied forces have cleared most of Marjah and are now working to secure the area, though NATO has warned there could be pockets of violence for weeks. Hundreds of Afghan police and civil servants are being brought in with the goal of establishing public services to win the support of the population.
NATO officials say establishing good local governance is key, because corruption and lack of services have led many Afghans to turn to the Taliban.
“We need to move fast enough to try to meet expectations. But carefully enough that we’re not party to being blind to some of the nuances,” McChrystal told reporters. “The key thing is to get the locals represented and shape it the way they want because they’ll know best. In the near term, they have to feel represented. They have to feel it’s fair.”
He estimated there may be 200 to 300 men in the area who had been Taliban fighters before the offensive. Whether they remain loyal to the insurgency will depend on whether the Afghan authorities, backed by NATO, can provide security and governance that people believe in, he said.
“Some could become sleeper cells, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. Some may just put the gun away and see what’s going to happen. I’m hopeful what we can do is offer an opportunity, and the vast majority of those will decide not to. But if the governance and security are not sufficient, then you run a higher risk of some of those guys re-emerging,” he said.
The 2-week-old Marjah offensive, involving thousands of American troops along with Afghan soldiers, is the largest combined assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban’s hard-line Islamist regime.
It is the first test of NATO’s new counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan late last year.
The six NATO service members who died Monday included one who was killed when a suicide car bomber struck a convoy on a bridge between Kandahar city and the local airport, a major alliance base in the south.
Four Afghan civilians died in the bridge attack, the Interior Ministry said.
Two NATO troops died in a mortar or rocket attack in western Afghanistan, a military statement said.
It said another trooper was killed by small arms fire in the south. In a separate announcement, Britain’s military said one of its soldiers was killed by small arms fire when his foot patrol was attacked in southern Afghanistan. It was unclear if this was the same incident.
Another service member was killed by a roadside bomb in the south and another by rocket or mortar fire in the east, the NATO statement said.