Marjah, Afghanistan: Guns quiet, the battle for power now begins

One month after a US-led offensive to clear the Taliban from Marjah, Afghanistan, locals are worried less about the insurgents returning to power than about a notorious former official seeking to join the new government.

By , Correspondent

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    In Marjah, Afghanistan, Cpl. Andrew Zykan of Florrisant, Mo., sits with Afghans as marines build a barrier around their base March 15.
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Weeks after a major United States-led offensive overturned Taliban rule in the southern Afghan town of Marjah, another force continues to hold sway over the population.

"We are ruled by fear now," says Gul Muhammad, a shopkeeper from the dust-caked market town, speaking by phone. “We don’t know who will ultimately win here, or who will end up back in power.”

Stuck between the Taliban, an untested new governor, and predatory former leaders trying to reclaim power, many of Marjah’s residents say they are afraid to cast their support in any direction.

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Yet establishing a suitable local government that wins over this hesitant population is one of the biggest and most important challenges the US faces. It could determine the success of the offensive, one of the largest in the nine-year Afghanistan war and a high-profile test of the US’s “clear, hold, and build” strategy.

Taliban’s haunting presence

The Taliban, who imposed de facto rule in Marjah in 2008, appear to have scattered since the offensive, but their influence still looms. The leaders of the insurgency mostly fled, locals say, and their shadow government – complete with Islamic courts and a “police” force – has disbanded.

But the residue of nearly two years of Taliban rule remains. Most midlevel leaders and the rank and file have simply melted back into the population. “They still have spies and supporters everywhere. If they catch us talking to the troops they can behead us,” says Musa Aqa Jan, a laborer, echoing a widely shared view.

Western forces, meanwhile, only have direct control of the three bazaars that make up Marjah’s commercial centers, US and Afghan officials say. Outside these bazaars, government officials still cannot move without heavy armored protection because of the threat of mines and ambushes.

“There are thousands of mines everywhere,” says Daoud Ahmadi, the spokesman for Helmand Province, where Marjah lies. “We didn’t expect this. This is slowing things down for us and the Americans.”

Insurgents have even littered farmers’ fields with mines, dissuading some who fled the fighting from returning to their homes. Some of these farmers are huddled in refugee camps just outside Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah. “We are living in open-air tents, we don’t have any roof over our heads,” says Yaka Khan, a refugee.

Shura makeup worries locals

Many of those who have fled have returned, however, and say they are ready to brave the possibility of Taliban threats. But for them an even greater potential danger lurks: the new government slated to take the Taliban’s place.

The man tapped to be Marjah’s governor is Abdul Zahir, a Helmand native who has spent the past 15 years in Germany and is unknown to most of the local population. He only travels with heavy protection and has yet to visit most parts of Marjah. It may take months before his efforts can be appraised, Helmand authorities say.

In the meantime, he is helping assemble one of Marjah’s key governing institutions: the local shura, or council. This group will draw from local notables and will aid Mr. Zahir in running day-to-day affairs. The Afghan government will ultimately pick the body’s members, but with input from the local population and Western officials.

It’s the makeup of this council that stokes the most concern among locals. At the heart of the fears is whether it will include a notorious veteran mujahideen commander who has played a central role in Helmand’s politics for more than 20 years. Abdur Rahman Jan was the province’s police chief until 2006, and he heads a 34-man council of landlords, elders, and commanders that ruled Marjah until the 2008 Taliban takeover.

While in power the council became so infamous for abuse that some say it turned locals away from the government. “The main reason the Taliban grew in Marjah is because of these people,” says Qasim Noorzai, a government official in Helmand who works with tribal elders from the area. A number of other government officials, Marjah elders, and locals agree with this assessment.

Marjah elders who met President Hamid Karzai earlier in the month insisted that their backing of the new government depends on whether the old officials are excluded, authorities say. “But they [the old officials] have really good connections and backing in Kabul, so they are not out of the picture yet,” says Mr. Noorzai.

As Afghan officials work to develop a new council, the old council is angling for influence in the post-Taliban administration. “We want to convince the Afghan government and the Americans that only we can stabilize Marjah,” says Muhammad Salim, a council member, interviewed in Kabul. He and more than a dozen others have traveled to the capital several times in recent months to lobby lawmakers and associates of President Karzai.

Worse than the Taliban?

The moves are sparking concerns because a number of government officials, human rights organizations, and locals accuse Mr. Jan and his associates of human rights violations.

Dad Muhammad, a Marjah elder, tells a variation of an oft-repeated complaint that men associated with Mr. Jan’s private militia attacked his house, forcibly evicted his family, and took his land.

The old council led by Jan has “grabbed more than 20,000 jeribs of land from poor people,” says Mr. Ahmadi, the provincial spokesman. One jerib, an Afghan unit of measurement, equals roughly half an acre.

Others speak of being hauled into secret prisons or being robbed. “My brother and I owned a cell phone shop, and Tor Jan’s men [a commander of Abdur Rahman Jan] ransacked it,” says Faizullah Zaher, a Marjah shopkeeper. “They took everything and there was nothing we could say.”

The Afghan government removed Mr. Jan from his post in 2006 after accusations from Western officials that he was involved in drug trafficking, but he continued to wield influence in Marjah through the council. Jan was not available for comment. Members of his council defend him, however, and say that those who were arrested or had land taken from them were associated with the Taliban.

Locals are paying attention as he seeks to maneuver back into power.

“We’ll be watching all of these” developments, says Yaka Khan, the refugee. “If the same mistakes happen this time, we will lose our people to the Taliban again.”

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