By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
March 4, 2010 - U.S. and Afghan forces are focused on winning public support in Marja, Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province known for its open opposition to the Afghan government, the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade said today. A force of about 4,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers entered Marja 20 days ago ready for a battle, which they initially received from Taliban fighters there, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson said. But encounters against enemy forces since have decreased, he added, with U.S. and Afghan troops not being engaged by direct fire in eight days.
Mines and roadside bombs, however, still are a very real and dangerous threat, the general said.
Meanwhile, the Marines and their Afghan partners continue to search for roadside bombs throughout the area, Nicholson said. Efforts also are focused, he said, on convincing the populace that the Afghan government is credible and legitimate.
"Our goal here was to come in big, strong and fast, [and] put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma," the general said. "But we understood from the very beginning that the people here were the prize; they were the objective of the operation."
Gaining popular support for the Afghan government won't come easily, as the people of Marja still have unpleasant memories of corrupt officials and police, Nicholson explained.
"We've got a very skeptical population here," he said. "Unlike some of the other areas that we've been in that were generally glad to see us but were always wondering if we would stay, the population here is concerned about what we're going to be able to do for them. I think they are a little tainted by their former experiences under the Afghan government."
However, Nicholson remains optimistic. Helmand's provincial leaders are vying for support through tribal leaders in the area. Gov. Gulab Mangal is working to help them understand that the incoming city government intends to serve the people, and that the current government is a much better alternative than the Taliban, he said.
"I think all of us understand that in a counterinsurgency operation, the people are the prize, and the people are going to vote," Nicholson said. "We are in competition every day for the confidence and support of the population. We're in competition with the Taliban."
Nicholson said the window of opportunity in Marja is narrow, and that first impressions are critical. Getting the resources to begin construction projects and establishing the city government remains challenging. But provincial reconstruction teams are doing well to engage tribal and religious leaders to keep them up to date with the progress being made.
"I think one of the more innovative things that our [provincial reconstruction team] has been pursuing lately is the religious leadership," Nicholson said. "Too long we've deferred that leg of the stool to the Taliban. It's just not been something we've been comfortable with, [and] we now are working very hard to gain the trust and to work engagements with the local [religious leaders]."
Once resources begin to flow in, Nicholson said, he hopes to get more than 1,000 people employed, working on projects in and around the city to help keep young men out of the Taliban's reach. U.S. forces also are in the process of recruiting Afghan men to become future policemen in Marja, he said.
"There's a lot of opportunity that presents itself for us to get to work," Nicholson said. "We are very focused on the population, and the [conduct of combat operations] is something we're good at. You know, that's our stock in trade. But I am equally proud of our ability to get in there and start making good things happen for the people.
"We've got our work cut out for us," he continued. "And as hard as the clear[ing operation] was, ... I think that this piece now -- the hold, the stabilize, and the build -- I think that's where the heavy lifting begins."