Afghanistan: Marjah battle not yet won

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Four months ago, foreign forces in Afghanistan launched a major operation to clear insurgents out of the district of Marjah, in Helmand province. It was a test of the US-led counter-insurgency strategy. But as the BBC's Ian Pannell found on his return to Marjah, the outcome has been far from decisive.

Marjah residents - June 2010
Image caption,
Many Marjah residents say jobs and security are still in short supply

They are interviewing for a new baker in Loy Chareh. The last man to do the job was forced to close down, despite reaping handsome profits from the hundreds of soldiers and police recently deployed to Marjah's district capital.

But the Taliban objected to what they saw as his collaboration by serving bread to "the enemy".

When they threatened to kidnap the baker's son, he closed the business and left town.

Force, fear and religion

Hundreds of other families have also been forced to leave because of the appalling security situation. The Afghan Red Crescent says it has processed more than 200 families in the last month.

Their stories vary but the theme is usually the same. Despite the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars, many residents of Marjah say security has deteriorated.

This is the most high-profile operation to date for the Nato-led Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) mission, but for many in Marjah, it is simply too unsafe to live at home any more.

Winning the support of the people who live here is the real battle. It is far from clear who will win.

The Taliban use force, fear and religion to cajole and coerce. That has left most residents either too afraid or just unwilling to side with America and the government it props up.

Operation Moshtaraq

It is more than four months since Marjah, in southern Helmand province, became the epicentre of US President Barack Obama's war in Afghanistan.

It is where many of the thousands of extra troops were deployed and it became the test-case for the new counter-insurgency mantra of the commanding generals.

Operation Moshtaraq saw thousands of American, British and Afghan troops drop into Marjah and Nad-e-Ali to clear the Taliban from their main strongholds.

Speaking at the time, British Maj Gen Nick Carter predicted: "In three months' time or thereabouts, we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we have been successful."

But four months later, America's war is proving much harder and far slower than military commanders and their political masters hoped for.

More caution

The pressure from Washington for quick results led to what some now concede was the over-selling of the operation, creating inflated expectations and unrealistic deadlines.

Today, military leaders are far more cautious. Brigadier George Norton, the regional deputy commander in Helmand, says the military are where he would expect them to be.

But he admits, they are "not perhaps where some might have aspired us to be and some of the rhetoric at the time was perhaps encouraging to make people think this could happen quicker than realistically it could do".

The queues outside the new town hall show that some are ready to turn to the local governor for help.

But many of the men squatting patiently in the midday sun are here to file complaints: about the lack of security and jobs.

Inside, there's an emergency meeting underway. Provincial leaders and their British and American backers have had to fly in to try and deal with the crisis.

Few of the tribal leaders here will tell you that things have improved in Marjah. Most have risked their lives just by being here.

"Of course I'm afraid. I'm scared. If the Taliban see that I've come here to meet the governor, they'll capture me and cut my head off - they'll kill me," one leader says.

Deadliest month

Back at the Marines' camp, there has been a gun battle with the Taliban. Although the fighting is nothing like the intensity of February, there has been a noticeable increase.

June has the dubious distinction of being the deadliest month for coalition forces. Everyone expects the bloodshed on all sides to increase, and that includes the civilians caught in the middle.

Image caption,
Soldiers complain it is impossible to tell Taliban from local people

Inside the control room, the latest gun-battle is monitored using high-tech cameras and unmanned drones in the sky.

But as happens so often, the insurgents attack and then disappear seamlessly into the local population.

The Marines say it is frustrating trying to identify who is friend and who is foe. Some admit that they need better intelligence.

Guns and boots

The Afghan National Army and police are supposed to step into the breach. This is the "transfer" part of President Obama's exit strategy for his troops, where responsibility for security passes to local forces.

Again, there has been progress; the men look lean and are certainly eager to take on the insurgents.

But there are too few of them; even after training they require a lot of coaching.

They have almost no logistical support and rely entirely on the coalition for everything from boots to guns.

Shortly before he was sacked, Stanley McChrystal, the general ordered to turn this war around, worried that Marjah was seen as a "bleeding ulcer".

His replacement, Gen David Petraeus, faces enormous pressure to show tangible progress across Afghanistan by November, when the US votes in mid-term elections.

But there is now a growing gap between what the politicians demand and what the military can deliver.

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