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.
"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.
A charged silence settled in the stuffy, crowded chapel tent at the Marine base in the Marjah district.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
Nearly three months to the day after making that prediction, Carter was sparring with McChrystal over whether they'd sent too few troops to seize Marjah.
"I think that we've done well, but I think that the pace of security has been slower," McChrystal said in one meeting. "I'm thinking that, had we put more force in there, we could have locked that place down better."
"I don't agree with you about putting more forces in there," Carter argued, reflecting the inherent tension between defeating the Taliban and winning over civilians. "This is about convincing people."
"You're going to feel that way," McChrystal cut in with a deadpan joke. "It's your plan."
"I am, sir," Carter replied. "You would have to put about five brigades in to achieve the effect you're talking about and, even then, I bet the Taliban would get through, because it's in the minds of people."
Like other commanders throughout the day, Carter pleaded for patience.
"I think what's going to make the difference, whether we marketed it right or not at the beginning, is time," he said. "And it's about persuading people."
McChrystal appeared unpersuaded.
"I think we have let too much move along without overwhelming-enough security," McChrystal said, "and I think we are paying the price for it."
On the flight back to Kabul, McChrystal said he'd intentionally asked provocative questions about troop levels to light a fire under the team and to convey a renewed sense of urgency.
13 month countdown
McChrystal now has 13 months to produce some elusive, irreversible momentum before Obama plans to start bringing US forces home — and the president expects to stay on schedule.
"I am confident that we're going to be able to reduce our troop strength in Afghanistan starting in July 2011, and I am in constant discussions with General McChrystal, as well as Ambassador (Karl) Eikenberry, about the execution of that time frame," Obama said earlier this month during a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The tension between political and military timetables was apparent again Sunday, when the foreign minister in Britain's new, Conservative-led government criticized withdrawal deadlines as counterproductive.
"I don't think setting a deadline helps anybody," Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC during a visit to Afghanistan. "I think so much of what we're doing in Afghanistan, setting targets for people then to jump through hoops towards, doesn't help them in their work."
If there's concern in global capitals, said NATO's Sedwill, a former British ambassador in Kabul, it's as much a product of inflated expectations as of unmet promises.
"If there are politicians anywhere in the alliance who are making a judgment that we shouldn't have gone for the surge unless we could have been confident by the end of 2010 it would all look completely different, then we shouldn't have gone for the surge, because that was never practical," he told McClatchy.
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