MARJAH, Helmand — The American soldier standing guard at the main intersection in Marjah looked hot and tired. Sweat and dust covered his face and uniform as he sought shelter from the burning sun under a tree. Even his nametag was obscured by the dirt.
As an Afghan reporter approached, the soldier stiffened visibly. But when shown the journalist’s identification, he relaxed and even smiled a bit.
“We have lost our credibility here,” he said, explaining his initial hostility. “Even small children to whom I offer candy are Taliban spies. We have to be suspicious.”
The soldier would not say any more, or even give his name.
Marjah, the focus of a much-hyped battle just a few short months ago, said to herald “the turning point of the war,” is now a dangerous and volatile place.
Read: In Marjah, US forces battle for hearts and minds
As the U.S. Army weighs the pros and cons of conducting a similar effort in Kandahar, a much larger and more difficult target, the Marjah operation provides a cautionary tale for those who think that military offensives can bring stability to the Taliban heartland.
Marjah may never have deserved its exalted status: a small patch of desert containing at most 50,000 inhabitants, it was the target of Operation Moshtarak, which began on Feb. 13. More than 15,000 soldiers from the U.S., British and Afghan armies took part in the offensive against at most 2,000 Taliban. Within weeks the Marines declared victory.
It was not until a few months later that the serious cracks in the arrangement became too apparent to hide. The “government in a box” promised by Gen. Stan McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, did not bring the stability and peace it was supposed to.
Instead, district governor Haji Mohammad Zahir could not establish rapport with the local population and was quietly removed in mid-July. The Taliban, far from “melting away” as expected, stood their ground and began to mount terror operations against the local population.
Follow GlobalPost's Afghanistan blog.
By July, conditions had deteriorated to the point that residents were afraid the district was about to fall once again to the Taliban.
“It is like Doomsday,” said Haji Abdul Samad, a shopkeeper in Marjah. “The bullets drop like rain from the sky. I have not been able to go to my shop for 10 days. Cattle and sheep are dying. There is no humanity here, no kindness.”
The main bazaar in Marjah, Loya Charahi, is almost deserted. Only a handful of the hundreds of shops are open; the intersection looks as it did in the early days of the operation.
“The Taliban has warned us not to open our shops,” said Gul Ahmad, whose store remains shuttered. “There are more and more of them and they are very cruel. If I open my shop, they will beat me to death. Perhaps they are trying to demonstrate their power, or perhaps they just want to show that life is not normal in Marjah.”
Reconstruction and development is also lagging. The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy places great emphasis on economic assistance, hoping it will wean Afghans away from the insurgency. But judging from the Marjah experience, it is not working.
Cash for Work, a major U.S. program funded by the military, which pays a day-labor rate for physical work such as cleaning out canals or digging ditches, has almost stopped. The reason: Residents fear retribution if they cooperate with the foreign forces.
“I was working in one of those Cash for Work projects but the Taliban forced it to close,” said Assadullah, 22. He could hardly contain his anger as he spoke.
“I was with one project for a month; we were cleaning out stream beds and drains. I was paid 250 afghani [about $5] per day. But the number of Taliban fighters increased so much that there were attacks every day. I had to leave. People are dying every day.”
According to Assadullah, the Taliban presence is constant and menacing. “There are Taliban on every road, at every intersection,” he insisted. “Few of them carry guns. Some are collecting intelligence, others are just monitoring the situation. They give information about the movement of the American patrols. Some armed Taliban stay at home and prepare for attacks.”
An Afghan employee of ARD, a U.S. contractor that works in agricultural development, said that he had been trying to distribute water pumps to Afghan farmers for the past two months.
“No one will take them,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I had pumps for 300 farmers, but I have not been able to give away even 50 of them. People are afraid. The Taliban burn the water pumps if they find them, and they kill the farmers. Our work has stopped and our project is about to fail.”
Helmand officials dismiss talk of Marjah’s imminent collapse, saying that things are not as bad as local residents say.
“Of course there are problems in Marjah,” said Haji Zahir, the district governor, shortly before his ouster. “We face Taliban attacks, but the people support us and the situation is improving. This talk of collapse is just propaganda.”
Dawood Ahmadi, spokesperson for the governor of Helmand, told Global Post that Marjah was part of a growing problem in Helmand.
“The Quetta shura has decided to make Helmand insecure,” he said. "It is not only Marjah. But soon everything will be under control.”
The Quetta shura is shorthand for the Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar, which is believed to be based in Quetta, Pakistan.
Deputy Helmand Governor Abdul Satar Mirzakwal recently visited Marjah and recommended sending a Rapid Response Battalion, consisting of 200 Afghan army and police, accompanied by American army officers, to help stabilize the situation.
“A Rapid Response Battalion could investigate within minutes any location where people have said the insurgents are gathered,” he said.
Mirzakwal seemed confident that the battalion would help free people from fear of the Taliban.
But Tara, an army specialist in Helmand, who uses only one name, is not so sure.
“If the Quetta shura has made Helmand its main focus, as the government claims, then Marjah cannot be secured by 200 officers,” he said. “Even 10,000 could not do it.”
The Taliban claim to have popular support, and say that they are winning in Marjah. “We are very powerful in Marjah,” said a Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi. “We will never let the U.S. and Afghan government forces succeed there. People help us; they give us food and support, and that is why we are doing so well.”
Jabir, a police officer in Marjah, who also uses only name, is afraid that Marjah could soon fall again to the Taliban.
“We cannot patrol on our own, but go with the Americans,” he said. “The Taliban are very bold and very brave. They have new weapons and they conduct more than 10 attacks every day in Marjah. It is horrifying.”
The situation is untenable, he insisted. “Everything has changed here,” he said. “We are afraid of every farmer, and see Taliban fighters behind every tree.”
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is a freelance journalist in Helmand.