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.
Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan
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"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.
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.
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.