Marjah, Afghanistan Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was sitting cross-legged on a red carpet under a hastily erected tent in the dusty Afghan agricultural district of Marja, which had been “cleared” of Taliban by thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers over the previous seven weeks.
He was surrounded by four dozen bearded men in black-and-gray turbans, who wanted to know if the U.S. troops would remain, and whether they would destroy the poppy crops in the area. Marja is located in Helmand province, the opium poppy capital of the world, and the Taliban use the crop to finance their operations.
Mullen had flown in from Kabul to see how things were going in Marja and check on plans for the next stage of the U.S. operation in the Taliban heartland: the campaign to clear the militants from their spiritual home, the city of Kandahar.
But Mullen’s meeting with this shura (council of elders) touched on the biggest question that confronts U.S. efforts: Can Afghans who turn to the Taliban out of frustration with government corruption be convinced they can get a better deal?
The U.S. military chose to clear Marja before Kandahar because it was easier terrain and offered a chance to change the perception that the Taliban were winning. It also provided an opportunity to cut poppy production. And, unlike many other Afghan provinces, Helmand has a competent governor, Gulab Mangal.
But now that Marja has been cleared, its residents have to be convinced that their lives will improve, or else the Taliban may make a comeback. So Mullen and Mangal were sitting on that carpet, listening to the locals air their grievances.
This was only one of many shuras that U.S. officials have been encouraging local leaders to convene in Helmand and Kandahar provinces to give Afghans the sense that their views matter. One senior U.S. military official expressed hopes that the coalition members could “shura their way to success.”
Mangal, in a black-and-silver turban and black vest, urged his constituents to take advantage of “our opportunity. The international community is giving money for schools and agriculture. If they leave, bad guys will blow up our roads and bridges.” Indeed, the Taliban still threaten Marja at night.
“Let us work to hold a huge shura and bring everyone together,” Mangal urged. “We will consult it on all decisions. Then I can tell my good friend Admiral Mullen, ‘Your troops can go.’ But if they leave now, we lose.”
Mullen told the group, “It is for you to lead and for us to support you.” One younger man, in traditional gray tunic, loose pants, and knotted turban, stood up and said, “We need your help for good security.”
Another insisted, “Don’t bring us the local police,” whose corruption has driven many into the Taliban’s arms. The coalition has had to bring in special, Western-trained national police while it continues the daunting task of trying to retrain the local force.
Then the requests from the group came fast and furious: for a hospital (Marja has none), for schools and paved roads, for the cleaning of irrigation canals. “I know poppy is bad,” one farmer said, “but the reason I do it is that I have no other means.”
Mangal promised that he would give them seed and fertilizer for alternative crops if they destroyed their poppy crops, and that he would pay them to do so. “Next year, no one should cultivate poppy,” he warned, “or they will go to jail.”
Yet it was clear that these Afghans were not fully convinced — that they were wary of unfulfilled promises and hungry for speedy results. “I didn’t come with any magic formula,” Mullen cautioned. He knows that, despite a large monetary infusion from abroad and new cash for work programs, the Afghan government’s lack of capacity will slow down the process of change.
Indeed, the key to success in Marja (and in Kandahar) may be whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai develops the same sense of urgency about delivering jobs and services to the provinces as Mullen and Mangal show. Few people I’ve spoken to believe President Obama’s dead-of-night visit with Karzai earlier this week will change the Afghan leader’s behavior.
But U.S. officials are hoping that a multitude of shuras will have an impact. Meantime, the elders of Marja will be waiting warily to see if their lives improve.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org