- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai heard a litany of complaints Sunday from residents of Marjah, the southern town that thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan troops just seized from the Taliban.

“Today I’m here to listen to you and hear your problems,” Mr. Karzai told about 300 elders in a mosque in the central part of the town.

The elders didn’t hold back.

They complained — sometimes shouting — about corruption among former Afghan government officials. They lamented how schools in Marjah were turned into military posts by international forces. They said shops were looted during the military offensive and alleged that innocent civilians were detained by international forces.

Seated on a cushion on the floor of the mosque, Mr. Karzai nodded as men in turbans and sequined hats held forth on the problems they’ve faced, both from years of government neglect and from heavy fighting in recent weeks.



Mr. Karzai’s visit with NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal was part of NATO’s new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which aims to rout insurgents from population centers, set up a credible and effective civilian government, and rush in aid.

The government’s task in Marjah is to persuade residents of the town in Helmand province that the civilian government can provide them with a better life than the Taliban, which were routed during a three-week offensive. Marjah is the first major test of the NATO counterinsurgency strategy since President Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.

In a message to the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said insurgents fired mortars into Marjah’s main intersection, but reporters traveling with Mr. Karzai and Gen. McChrystal did not witness any attack.

Elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, two NATO service members were killed in attacks Sunday, one by gunfire and another by a roadside bomb, the military alliance said in a statement. NATO released no further details, but a spokesman said neither death was related to the Marjah offensive, in which 15 international forces have died.

At least 35 civilians have been killed during the Marjah operation, the Afghan human rights commission said Sunday. Spokesman Nader Nadery said more than 10 deaths were result of homemade bombs left behind by insurgents while at least 14 were killed accidentally by NATO rocket fire.

Mr. Karzai flew to Marjah and met the elders near the town’s main bazaar. Gen. McChrystal joined him on the floor of the mosque but did not speak during the nearly two-hour meeting.

The elders expressed outrage over house searches conducted by the military and over civilian casualties that occurred during the offensive. They told Mr. Karzai they want Afghan troops, not international forces or local policemen, searching houses. The elders, some gesturing to express their frustration, also said they wanted clinics and schools and were losing patience with the central government’s inability to provide services.

The president, who has been dubbed “the mayor of Kabul” by critics who claim his authority doesn’t extend beyond the capital, said the central government intends to be more responsive to the people’s needs.

“Are you against me or with me?” Mr. Karzai asked the elders. “Are you going to support me?”

The elders all raised their hands and shouted: “We are with you. We are supporting you.”

Mr. Karzai promised to provide them security, open schools and start building roads and clinics.

Marjah residents have heard promises from the central government before. International and Afghan forces have taken over Marjah at least three times before. In the past, local governments that were set up failed to deliver on commitments to build clinics and schools. Marjah residents told the AP last month that the former police force sent in 2009 was so corrupt that locals rose up and drove them out — even before the Taliban returned.

Mr. Karzai told reporters he was not surprised that the people in Marjah were angry.

“They had some very legitimate complaints — very, very legitimate,” he said. “They felt as though they were abandoned, which in many cases is true.”

Mr. Karzai said he was glad to have the chance to talk with the residents.

They “told me of their problems with sincerity and clarity,” he said. “God willing, we will try to solve your problems. The promises that we have made of security and reconstruction, we will fulfill them.”

Gen. McChrystal told reporters later that he did not feel that the elders’ complaints meant they were against the international forces.

“What I heard today is frustrations,” Gen. McChrystal said. “When you put it with what President Karzai said, I think what you find is there’s actually an extraordinary amount of support for what we are doing. There’s always frustration.”

It was unclear whether Mr. Karzai or Gen. McChrystal discussed a controversy surrounding the newly appointed civilian administrator of Marjah, Abdul Zahir. Government authorities are investigating reports that Mr. Zahir, tasked with representing a new, credible government in the former Taliban stronghold, served part of a more than four-year prison sentence in Germany for stabbing his son in 1998.

Mr. Karzai said the Marjah residents told him they want to form a local council to help make decisions. He said it is important to work with the local population and listen to them, and that is what he intended to do.

“And if we do that, we will succeed. If we don’t, there is no way that we will succeed,” he said.

“This is a chance that we got today,” Mr. Karzai said, adding that if the new administration in Marjah is unable to meet the people’s needs this time, “then we don’t deserve to call ourselves the government of Afghanistan.”

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