- Associated Press - Thursday, December 13, 2012

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Nearly three years after U.S.-led forces launched the biggest operation of the war to clear insurgents, foster economic growth and set a model for the rest of Afghanistan, angry residents of Helmand province say they are too afraid to go out after dark because of marauding bands of thieves.

During the day, they say, corrupt police and government officials bully them into paying bribes.

After 11 years of war, many here long for a return of the Taliban. They say that under the Taliban, who routinely punished thieves by cutting off a hand, they at least were safe from crime and corruption.

“If you had a box of cash on your head, you could go to the farthest part of Marjah, and no one would take it from you, even at night,” said Maulvi Daoud, who runs a cubbyhole-sized shop in the town of Marjah. “Today you bring your motorcycle in front of your shop, and it will be gone.

“Now the situation is that you go on the road and they are standing in police and army uniform[s] with weapons and they can take your money,” he said.

It was in Marjah in early 2010 that about 15,000 NATO and Afghan forces waged the war’s biggest battle.

They not only fought the Taliban with weapons but also promised to bring good governance to Marjah and the rest of the southern province of Helmand and demonstrate to the residents the advantages of shunning the militants.

But it appears the flaw in the plan was the quality of Afghans chosen by President Hamid Karzai to govern and police the area after most of the fighting ended.

That adds to growing doubts about the entire country’s future after foreign troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

No security

Despite military claims of gains across the province and an overall drop in violence, Marjah residents told The Associated Press that NATO’s counterinsurgency experiment has failed.

A bleak picture also emerges from anecdotal evidence collected from dozens of interviews with residents elsewhere in the province, some from the most violent districts.

Many claim the U.S.-funded local police, a type of locally sanctioned militia, routinely demand bribes and threaten to accuse those who do not comply of being members of the Taliban. Good governance never came to Marjah, they say.

In villages of sun-baked mud homes, at crowded bus stops and in local teahouses where residents sit cross-legged on plastic-covered tables drinking tea and eating off communal plates, people scoffed at claims of security and development.

They heaped criticism on the Afghan government and officials, accusing them of stealing billions of dollars in aid money meant for the people, and chided an international community that they said ignored their needs and pandered to a corrupt administration.

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