MARJAH, Afghanistan — The dusty squares of Marjah are empty; there is no life, the soul of the place seems to have disappeared. Those residents who are left cower in their homes, afraid of bullets or mines if they venture out, even for food.
“It is a small picture of Doomsday,” said Alishah Mazlumyar, the head of Helmand’s Department of Information and Culture, and a member of the Marjah shura, or council. “Dozens of civilians have been killed. Their families cannot bury the bodies, and for days they have been lying in their houses, beginning to decompose. There is a smell of death here.”
Twelve days into Operation Moshtarak — pitting 15,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops against a few hundred Taliban — the message from the military and diplomatic communities is resolutely upbeat.
Western diplomats term the operation a success, and the media office of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) points to a bright future.
“Signs of steady progress in development and governance are being seen in central Helmand province. Bridges, roads and culverts are being repaired, bazaars are re-opening and attracting customers, and a variety of initiatives are being planned or implemented,” read the IJC press release of Feb. 22.
But those in Marjah are telling a very different story.
“There has been very little progress,” said Haji Abdurrahman Jan, the head of the Marjah shura and a former police chief in Helmand. “The foreign and Afghan forces have advanced only 2 kilometers from their descent point. This is very little in relation to their numbers.”
The residents of Marjah, perhaps unrealistically, expected that the operation would be over much more quickly.
“We thought it would take three days, maximum,” said Abdurrahman. “This will have very bad consequences for the people of Marjah.”
But Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the governor of Helmand, insisted that the slow pace is a deliberate tactic designed to protect the civilian population.
“We do not want civilian people to be harmed,” he said. “We need to take every step with care.”
The official rules of engagement have been made quite strict, according to military sources. The combined troops are allowed to open fire only if they see an insurgent about to shoot.
“The Taliban were waiting to ambush us in Mullah Dost Mohammad square,” one Afghan Army soldier recalled with a grin, as he toyed with his rocket-propelled grenade launcher (RPG). “We attacked them, and they ran into people’s houses. So we conducted a search, and there they are, sitting with no guns, and the owner is telling us ‘No, they are not Taliban.’ There was nothing we could do. Our commander would not let us take them.”
But residents say that the foreign forces are firing with abandon at anyone they suspect could be an insurgent — a difficult call in this predominantly Pashtun area, where most men wear heavy beards and cover their heads with turbans.
Casualty figures for civilians are difficult to confirm; officially, the government is saying that 16 people have died. But residents in Marjah say the toll is much higher.
“Seddiq Jan was a good person,” said a resident of Wakil Wazir Square. “The Americans shot him. There was no one to bury him, so a friend and I dragged him away and quickly put him in a shallow hole and covered him with dirt.”
Many of those who are fleeing Marjah for the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, tell of seeing numerous bodies along the way.
“On the way to Lashkar Gah I saw a woman in a black shawl, lying dead, with blood all around her,” said a man who introduced himself as Sher Jan, from the 1C block of Marjah. “About 100 meters away there was a young man on a motorcycle. He was on the ground, his bloodied hands still gripping the throttle. Someone had shot him in the head.”
Another reason for the lack of progress has been the thousands of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that the Taliban have laid on every available surface.
“You cannot possibly imagine how many mines have been planted here,” said Ghulam Farooq Tarokhel, commander of the 2nd brigade of the Afghan Army’s 3rd Battalion. “They are in places you would not even think of.”
According to Tarokhel, the combined forces have defused more than 400 IEDs so far.
Even so, the roads are still all but impassable, hindering not just the military, but humanitarian aid workers.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has five medical staff in Marjah, who up until one week ago were operating a first-aid post. Now, they say, it is too dangerous.
“Since movement in Marjah is difficult due to fighting and IEDs, the ICRC first-aid personnel have been treating patients in their homes,” read an ICRC press release. “Those in need of care are often unable to move about or are afraid to do so.”
Those willing to brave the mines and the fighting are fleeing to Lashkar Gah, where humanitarian services are being put to the test.
According to Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, the head of the Helmand department of refugees, there are more than 3,600 families, or close to 20,000 individuals, in need of assistance, and the numbers are still rising.
“We have suggested to UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan] and to UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees] that they send assistance for 5,000 families,” he said. “So far we have only been able to help 2,219 of them, with food and non-food items. The need is quite urgent.”
Mullah Hekmat, a local Taliban in Marjah, blames the foreign forces for all of the suffering.
”We haven’t brought this situation to Marjah,” he said. “It is the fault of the occupying forces.”
He insists that the Taliban have the support of the population. “We have been staying here with the help of the people of Marjah for two years now,” he said. “The people are happy with us, and they are ready to help us even if they are killed. They are giving their lives for the jihad.”
But Daud Daud Jan, a resident of the Hashtian area of Marjah, dismisses the claim.
“Those who support the Taliban are those whose interests coincide with theirs,” he said. “Drug smugglers and thieves are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with them; but not the people of Marjah, who are fed up with the Taliban.”
Marjah has been billed as the first great test of the surge — the new strategy announced by U.S. President Barack Obama in his West Point speech on Dec. 1. But with military casualties also rising — ISAF confirms 13 soldiers killed in action so far in the operation — there are those who doubt it is worth the price.
Taliban expert Alex Strick van Linschoten says that even if Marjah turns out to be a success, it will prove little.
“The key test of the surge will be Kandahar city,” said van Linschoten. “The Taliban know very well that Marjah is irrelevant. Whatever happens there will make no difference to their ability to conduct guerilla warfare for the next several years.”