- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan | A month after losing control of its southern base in Marjah, the Taliban has begun to fight back, launching a campaign of assassination and intimidation to frighten people from supporting the U.S. and its Afghan allies.

At least one apparent government sympathizer has been beheaded. There are rumors that others have been killed. Afghans in the town that U.S., Afghan and NATO troops captured in a three-week assault that began Feb. 13 awake to letters posted on their doors warning against helping the troops.

Winning public support in this former Taliban stronghold in Helmand province 360 miles southwest of Kabul is considered essential to preventing insurgents from returning.

The Marjah operation will serve as a model for campaigns elsewhere, including one expected by summer to secure villages around Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace and the largest city in the south.

Military commanders believe the Taliban campaign is achieving some success because of questions raised at town meetings: Do the U.S. forces want to shut down the mosques and ban prayer? Will they use lookout posts on their bases to ogle women? Are they going to take farmers’ land away?

“Dislocating the insurgents physically was easy. Dislocating them socially — proving that we’re here to stay and to help — is a lot harder,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Rule, the head of operations for Marines in Helmand.

There are no firm figures on how many Taliban fighters are left in Marjah. Marine and Afghan military officials say they believe most of those still here are from the area and the foreign fighters have fled.

Regardless of Taliban numbers, its influence is still felt.

New cell-phone towers brought phone service to Marjah a little more than a week ago. But the service doesn’t work at night because the Taliban threatens or bribes tower operators to shut off the network, presumably to prevent people from alerting troops and police as militants plant bombs after dark.

Some of the workers on canal-clearing projects have been threatened or have been beaten by insurgents.

At least one canal worker who received threats returned and said he will keep working despite the risk, said Maj. David Fennell, who oversees about 15 civil affairs troops working to win over the population.

“That’s when you know that you fought the Taliban and you won,” Maj. Fennell said. “I tell my team time and time again: ‘What did we just do today? We hit the Taliban in the mouth.’ ”

The Marines are trying to win partly through diplomacy and partly through getting development and infrastructure projects running as quickly as possible to show that the Afghan government is serious this time.

U.S. troops are having success with offering to improve mosques — repairing structures or installing loudspeakers to try to win over influential mullahs while creating an unattractive target for Taliban militants who won’t want to attack mosques.

This may overestimate the restraint of the Taliban. The beheaded man was a mosque leader, said Capt. Iqbal Khan of the Afghan army, whose 91 soldiers are embedded with a Marine company in central Marjah.

Even so, projects of all types move ahead. Three medical clinics are open, staffed by doctors from Kabul and locals who ran private clinics under the Taliban, Maj. Fennell said. Two interim schools have started, staffed by locals and with more than 100 students.

Marjah’s administrative chief, Abdul Zahir, said he and his advisers have decided they must show they have the upper hand in town by the end of the month.

But he acknowledged that the task is difficult. Homemade bombs still appear every night on roads traveled by the military. Gunfire can be heard many evenings in the center of town. Earlier this week, a Marine foot patrol tripped a bomb planted near the district center, seriously wounding several of them.

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