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.
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A hundred days after US-led forces launched the offensive, Marjah markets are thriving, the local governor has begun to build a skeleton staff, and contractors have begun work on rebuilding schools, canals, and bridges.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Fighting continues in Afghanistan
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Marines are running into more firefights on their patrols, however. Taliban insurgents threaten and kill residents who cooperate with the Americans, and it will be months before a permanent police force is ready to take control of the streets from the temporary force that's brought some stability to Marjah.
The US-backed Marjah governor, Marine officials said, has five top ministers. Eight of 81 certified teachers are on the job, and 350 of an estimated 10,000 students are going to school.
Creeping Taliban offensive
In an attempt to contain the creeping Taliban campaign, Lt. Col. Christmas's 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in northern Marjah recently ceded direct control of an outlying rural area, collapsed its battle space and moved a company back into the population center, which had been neglected.
"There was no security," said Haji Mohammed Hassan, a tribal elder whose fear of the Taliban prompted him to leave Marjah two weeks ago for the relative safety of Helmand's nearby provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
"By day there is government," he said. "By night it's the Taliban."
Even in Nad Ali, where British commanders have had success holding elections, opening schools, and building the beginnings of a functioning local government, there are significant pockets of Taliban resistance. The local police force, the British commander said, is about half the size that's needed to patrol the area.
"What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible," McChrystal said in one meeting. "We said: 'We're taking it back.' We came in to take it back. And we haven't been completely convincing."
Still, no one proposed sending more troops to Marjah.
Give Taliban more territory?
McChrystal's top commanders in southern Afghanistan did weigh a suggestion from the top US Marine general in the country, who said the time had come to gamble on turning over some areas to Afghan control more quickly than planned.
"I think if we want to shorten the timelines, then we are going to have to assume more risk in certain areas," said Marine Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills.
In the final briefing of the tour last week, one American civilian strategist told McChrystal that it would be hard to force Marjah residents to shed their skepticism quickly.
"The vast majority of people are going to be on the fence, and they're going to wait," said the US official, who asked not to be identified because the meeting was meant to offer candid advice to McChrystal.
"The hard question for us is: Can we push them off the fence or do we have to wait for them? It will take time, and even if you throw two more battalions in there, it is still going to take months and months."
"It was a long way gone; therefore I think patience is necessary," said Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan. "But I can quite understand why the sheer amount of attention created a sense of expectation that is hard to fulfill."
Great expectations in Marjah
The military shares the blame for generating great expectations about how fast the Marjah campaign could turn the tide against the Taliban, expectations that defense officials in Washington, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration was eager to embrace.
In February, as the intense battles with Taliban fighters around Marjah were winding down, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters: "Looking downstream, in three months' time or thereabouts, we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we've been successful. But I would be very cautious about any triumphalism just yet."