Afghan Control Claimed as Marjah Reaches Turningpoint

Afghan officials unfurled the country’s green, red and black flag over the new government offices in Marjah, where the U.S. and other troops have been fighting the Taliban in Operation Moshtarak – the biggest offensive of the war. The flag-raising gives further evidence that U.S. and Afghan troops have reached a turning point in the offensive to reclaim this town from the Taliban.

Some 700 residents gathered to see Abdul Zahir Aryan formerly appointed as the top government official in Marjah. Mr. Ayan and a team of advisers held their first meeting in the town Monday and have been staying overnight in a building there since Tuesday, said Marlin Harbinger, the senior government representative for Helmand province, which contains Marjah. “Today’s event was the civilian Afghan government re-establishing itself officially in front of the local residents,” Mr. Harbinger said. The Afghan army had previously raised the country’s green-and-red flag nearby, but that was only a claim of military control over that neighbourhood, he said.

The ceremony opened with a reading from the Koran, and then Mr. Aryan and the Helmand governor pledged to those gathered that they were ready to listen to their needs and eager to provide them with basic services that they didn’t have under the Taliban.

Ghulab Mangal, governor of restive Helmand province, and Brig. Gen. Shir Mohammed Zarzai, commander of the Afghan army’s 205th Corps, described Thursday’s flag raising as symbolizing the Kabul government’s return to the southern town of Marjah – and its promise to rule more honestly than it did before the Taliban took control two years ago. Other provincial and local officials, and military officials were at the event as well. With Afghan soldiers, tribal elders and residents of Marjah looking on, Gov. Mangal promised at the ceremonial flag-raising to restore security and stability to the city, and transform it from a bastion of the Taliban into a “symbol of peace.” (New York Times) “What did they do for you people?” Mr. Mangal said at the ceremony. “Are there any schools, clinics being built by the Taliban? Are they helping you?” (NYT)

Afghan officials also expressed their condolences to civilians who were killed and wounded in battle. But Mr. Mangal said it was a “great achievement” that so few civilians had been killed. (NYT)

“The point at which you have enough security to do something symbolic like this is the point at which the hard work of delivering governance starts,” British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of allied troops in southern Afghanistan, said of the flag-raising. (Wall Street Journal) Gen. Carter shed his body armor and helmet to walk from a nearby Marine outpost to the new government offices in a concrete house the government seized for the purpose. The old district center was razed long ago. Marine officers are unsure who owns the building, though it is rumoured to have belonged to an opium dealer or Taliban commander.

Viewing the ceremony with hope, curiosity and skepticism, one local in the crowd said he doesn’t trust the Afghan government or its security forces. Asked if he thought change will come, Abdul Qader accused the Afghan government of corruption. “If the foreigners do it, things will change. If the Afghans are in charge, there is no way.” (CNN) Another citizen, Mohammad Sardar, said the Taliban brought the people security, but not proper services such as schools and roads. He said that while he still fears foreign forces, he hopes they can bring about change. Qader said the foreigners won’t be able to get rid of the Taliban completely, but the militants “will put their heads down and fade away on the condition that help is brought, roads are built and security is achieved.” (CNN)

One shopkeeper, Baz Muhammad, 25, said he returned to Marjah after fleeing for 10 days during the fighting. He said he welcomed the arrival of Afghan forces, but he was leery of foreign troops, and said he would support the return of the Taliban if NATO troops overstepped their bounds. “People are saying they will raid our houses at night and they will kill us or detain us,” Mr. Muhammad said. (NYT) Juma Gul, 20, said his family remained in the city even after his grandfather was shot and killed in front of his home. “The operation was painful and full of miseries for our family,” Mr. Gul said, adding that he wanted to see the militaries leave as soon as possible. “For us, they are not useful. We don’t want them to stay in Marjah. We want them to leave. For us, both the Taliban and Marines are the same. They are fighting and killing us. We don’t want either.” (NYT)

After the ceremony, the generals and high-level officials departed in helicopters, but Mr. Aryan remained.

Even as the government re-staked its claim on the center of Marjah, there were reports of scattered fighting in the fields to the north of the city as American and Afghan troops continued to pursue Taliban militants.

The Marjah offensive, the biggest in the country since 2001, is seen as a test of the effectiveness of U.S. President Barack Obama’s troop escalation, and of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s pledge to crack down on corruption. About 15,000 NATO-led and Afghan forces hope to oust the Taliban and restore Afghan government control to the region in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. They are working to persuade citizens to turn their allegiance away from the militants and toward the Afghan government. Coalition and Afghan officials acknowledge that to win over Marjah residents, they’ll have to match the Taliban’s respect for tribal tradition and efficient justice system, while outdoing their rivals in delivering honest government services with a more human touch than the insurgents’. Kabul’s relations with locals were soured by the corrupt and brutal practices of the provincial police, opening the door to the Taliban.

The coalition has tens of millions of dollars at the ready to repair battle damage, provide education, supply health care and launch economic-development projects.

More than 50 Marjah residents each earned $5 and a wind-up radio for a day’s work cleaning up the area around the Loy Chareh bazaar on Wednesday, with further cash-for-work projects slated for the weekend and beyond.

At least 10 U.S. and Afghan troops have died and more than 20 wounded in the offensive, which began on Feb. 13. Marine officers estimate some 150 Taliban were killed in fighting that raged for more than a week after the initial incursion.

At least 28 civilians have been killed, including 13 children, according to the Afghan human rights commission. The civilian toll has raised fears that NATO may lose the support of the population even as it drives out the Taliban. The deaths come even though NATO has said its priority is protecting the civilian population and has adopted strict rules to prevent casualties. A spokesman for the Afghan Defence Ministry said both the Afghan government and NATO troops realized they had to be realistic and accept that there would be civilian deaths. “Preventing civilian casualties is our biggest challenge,” Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters in Kabul. “You should not expect zero casualties, either from our side or from the international forces. That will only happen when the fighting is over. And we are all trying to make that happen.” (The Globe & Mail) NATO spokesman Brig. Eric Tremblay, speaking alongside Gen. Azimi urged Afghans to recognize that international troops are putting themselves in greater danger in order to protect civilians. “We are going beyond the laws of armed conflict by increasing our risk,” Brig. Gen. Tremblay said. (The Globe & Mail)

In the north Thursday, the Marines’ progress was slowed by difficult terrain with no roads, few tracks and many hidden mines, but there was no gunfire by midmorning. Several armoured vehicles fell into irrigation canals while others were damaged by roadside bombs. About 100 fighters are believed to have regrouped into the 45-square-kilometre area known as Kareze, according to commanders with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment. The Marines and their Afghan partners are working to secure the area, believed to be the last significant pocket of Taliban insurgents in town.

“We haven’t had a gunfight in three days,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of Marine forces in Marjah, said Thursday. “Enemy resistance has subsided more quickly than we expected.” (WSJ) The offensive is expected to continue for at least another two to three weeks. Nicholson said there is still “some fighting to do – potentially in some areas that we haven’t gotten into.” (CNN)

Commanders remained wary, however, particularly of hidden bombs and suicide attacks. Marine vehicles hit three buried explosives on Thursday, causing relatively minor injuries.

Afghan officials asked locals to show their support by reporting Taliban fighters who remained in Marjah. “We promise we won’t abandon you,” Gen. Zarzai assured the residence. (WSJ)

Residents who had fled the fighting were gradually returning on Thursday, repoening their shops and assessing any damage or losses. Some shop owners complained that their goods had been stolen and said they wanted compensation.

ISAF said in a news release Thursday that security is improving and signs of stability have been emerging despite “occasional” clashes between militants and soldiers. Haji Zahir, deputy district governor of Nad Ali, told 200 people in Marjah at a shura, or community council, that security conditions have improved and that more Afghan National Police were to be posted there, ISAF said. He “promised to ensure the opening of shops and clinics, and personally oversaw the distribution of rice, beans, cooking oil and sugar to the gathering.” (CNN)

The NATO-led command said new shops have opened at Marjah bazaars, with telephones, computers and other electronics available. It said there has been a “significant increase in the number of local residents returning to the area” and “a decrease in the number of residents registering as internally displaced persons.” (CNN)

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