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Afghanistan war: Gen. McCrystal impatient with Marjah campaign

In this critical phase of the Afghanistan war, Gen. Stanley McCrystal says NATO and Afghan efforts to secure Marjah are moving too slowly. 'By day there is government. By night it's the Taliban,' says one Afghan tribal leader.

By Dion NissenbaumMcClatchy Newspapers / May 25, 2010

Afghanistan war: US Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines patrol in Marjah district, Helmand Province, May 19. Army Gen. Stanley McCrystal says NATO and Afghan efforts to secure Marjah are moving too slowly.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

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Marjah, Afghanistan

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top allied military commander in Afghanistan, sat gazing at maps of Marjah as a Marine battalion commander asked him for more time to oust Taliban fighters from a longtime stronghold in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

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"You've got to be patient," Lt. Col. Brian Christmas told McChrystal. "We've only been here 90 days."

"How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?" McChrystal replied.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

A charged silence settled in the stuffy, crowded chapel tent at the Marine base in the Marjah district.

"I can't tell you, sir," the tall, towheaded, Fort Bragg, N.C., native finally answered.

"I'm telling you," McChrystal said. "We don't have as many days as we'd like."

The operation in Marjah is supposed to be the first blow in a decisive campaign to oust the Taliban from their spiritual homeland in adjacent Kandahar Province, one that McChrystal had hoped would bring security and stability to Marjah and begin to convey an "irreversible sense of momentum" in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

Instead, a tour last week of Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali district, during which McClatchy had rare access to meetings between McChrystal and top Western strategists, drove home the hard fact that President Barack Obama's plan to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011 is colliding with the realities of the war.

Not enough troops in Helmand

There aren't enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security that's needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn't dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive.

"This is a bleeding ulcer right now," McChrystal told a group of Afghan officials, international commanders in southern Afghanistan, and civilian strategists who are leading the effort to oust the Taliban fighters from Helmand.

"You don't feel it here," he said during a 10-hour front-line strategy review, "but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."

Throughout the day, McChrystal expressed impatience with the pace of operations, echoing the mounting pressure he's under from his civilian bosses in Washington and Europe to start showing progress.

Progress in Marjah has been slow, however, in part because no one who planned the operation realized how hard it would be to convince residents that they could trust representatives of an Afghan government that had sent them corrupt police and inept leaders before they turned to the Taliban.