Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Military Swoop Disappoints Marja People
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, holds a shura with Afghan leaders in Marja, Afghanistan. Source: ISAF Media
The people of Marja, the focus of a major military operation in recent weeks to oust the Taleban, say they are still waiting for the promised security and reconstruction and many are afraid to leave their homes.
Operation Moshtarak combined 15,000 western and Afghan troops in a sweep across the southern Afghan province of Helmand that began in mid-February.
But, it seems, ordinary life has yet to resume. While government and western forces are present at all the major road intersections, locals are still afraid of the Taleban.
The operation was intended to provide reassurance to local people after the insurgents’ rule of fear, yet many still feel anxious. They avoid travelling and the crowds that used to be seen in the town of Marja have gone. When they do go out, they walk carefully because of mines on roads and bridges.
Residents of Marja, until recently considered a major centre of heroin refining, say 40 civilians were killed in Operation Moshtarak. Helmand governor Gulab Mangal has put the figure at 15. In the worst incident confirmed by NATO, 12 civilians died when two rockets struck a house.
A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, questioned the report of 40 civilians killed, “There were nine civilians killed during the operation, which we announced immediately following the incident and concurrently [ISAF commander] General [Stanley] McChrystal publicly apologised to President Karzai for the unfortunate incident.”
People do not visit from other places like before and many of the shopkeepers of Marja say they have been forced to close for lack of business.
One local trader, Sharifollah, selling fruit and vegetables at an important road intersection, said, "People do not come to buy their groceries during the day as they are afraid of the foreigners.
“The intersection is full of dust during the day and our roads have been destroyed by tanks. During the night, people do not come out because they are afraid of the Taleban … Only government officials buy anything from us."
One elder in Marja, Hajji Moalem, told IWPR by phone that during the day foreign and Afghan troops are in control but at night the Taleban emerge. "So how are the people supposed to live?” he said.
The governor of Marja, Mohammad Zaher Khan, however, insisted that the Taleban were no longer a force in the region.
“I cannot accept that the Taleban control Marja at night because we observe them all the time. We have even killed three groups of their mine planters so far. There are some movements, but it does not mean the Taleban govern Marja," he said.
But Mangal has conceded that insurgents are still around. “I am aware that armed Taleban are active in some parts of Marja at night, but the situation will not continue like this. We will take measures to solve the problem," he told a local gathering after recently visiting the area.
The governor said new security checkpoints would be set up and sought to reassure locals, “You can travel safely now."
The speaker of the provincial council in Helmand, Mohammad Anwar Khan, who accompanied Mangal to Marja, said the security situation was improving. "The new checkpoints will cut communication between the Taleban,” he said.
Police in Marja recently seized Iranian weapons in a cache thought to be for the Taleban. Police commander Gholam Sakhi said by phone, "We captured hundreds of AK47s and magazines which were recently brought from the Iran border for the Taleban. We seized the weapons during a search operation at a house."
However, Sakhi said his officers were faced with a lack of cooperation from people who he said had been brainwashed by the Taleban to oppose the government. He said locals will never cooperate with the government easily.
The United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, visited Marja at the end of March and inspected US bases. Addressing a major gathering of local people, who appealed for help on things like roads, a hospital and crops, he reportedly said, "I fully understand your concerns. They clearly focus on what are very common needs. And I don't come here today with any magic formula."
Although the military are out daily dealing with mines planted by the Taleban, the rebels quickly replace them, sometimes in the same holes from which old ones were removed, locals say.
One senior police officer said, "We still detect new mines or they blow up vehicles on a daily basis, inflicting casualties. The Taleban's activity has reduced in Marja, but it has not stopped. They make new preparations every day."
The ISAF spokesman acknowledged that Taleban may still exist in the Marja area, “Locals have said that Taleban come in the town at night, but it's hard to say for sure. No one has produced any real evidence to support this. We are just going to have to gain their trust more and more everyday and find out the information we need to rid the area of insurgents and continue to provide the people the security they need so they realise that the Afghan government, their government, is here to serve their needs and protect them.”
The people of Marja had expected rapid reconstruction work after the fighting ended, but have been disappointed that little has happened.
Local resident, Sayed Wali, fled to Lashkar Gah for a month at the height of the military operation and heard reports about security and reconstruction work going on in Marja, but when he came home, nothing matched what the media had said.
"This is how it was during the era of the Taleban. Our lives have not changed but the military operation has bothered us a lot," he said.
Wali said he found his wheat fields had dried up when he returned home, his sheep had died and his house was damaged by bullets.
Locals also say that promised compensation for losses from Operation Moshtarak has not been forthcoming.
Dr Mirwais, who has shops in Marja that were used as bases by foreign forces during the offensive, said, "Only a few houses and shops have been compensated. The people lose patience on a daily basis. If they are not going to pay for the losses, they should tell people.”
The ISAF spokesman said compensation was paid quickly where it was possible that the allied force had caused damage. Construction was under way but takes time, he said.
Kahn, the governor of Marja, has pledged that the authorities will pay for damage to any shops or houses caused during the military operation.
But he was also dissatisfied by the reconstruction effort, telling reporters, "No schools have been opened in Marja yet. Education officials came, but they fled from here. I have only hired one temporary teacher who teaches 60 children in the ruins.
"People in Marja want jobs and a functioning administration, but some government organisations have not sent their representatives here."
However, he said he was happy that he had been able to provide 1,000 young people with daily work in Marja. They get five US dollars a day, funded by the American military.
And in mid-March, senior officials of the Red Crescent came to Marja with food and other supplies. "We provided assistance to more than 500 deserving families whose houses were destroyed and who had lost their belongings,” Red Crescent director, Ahmadollah Ahmadi, said.
But some local officials believe that they will struggle to get Marja back on its feet because of the continued rebel presence.
The head of the council in Marja, Abdorrahman Jan, called for talks with the insurgents, "I say instead of wasting time, we should negotiate with the Taleban in the area and make them reconcile with us. We have no other solution.”
Since the allied operation, the Taleban have killed ten civilians in the area, accusing them of spying for the foreign and Afghan forces, local people say.
The Helmand governor and many other government officials are worried that Marja may become a second Musa Qala. That northern Helmand town was recaptured from the Taleban in an earlier operation and government and foreign forces made promises of assistance, but they did nothing for the district in practice, people say.
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.
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