On the satellite photographs of Marja that Marines scrutinised before launching a massive assault against the Taliban a week ago, what they assumed was the municipal government centre appeared to be a large, rectangular building, cater-cornered from the main police station.
Seizing that intersection became a key objective, one deemed essential to imposing authority and beginning reconstruction in this part of Helmand province once US and Afghan troops flush out the insurgents.
But when Marine officers reached the area, they discovered that two-dimensional images can be deceiving. What they had thought was the flat roof of the municipal building turned out to be a concrete foundation, and the police station was a bombed-out schoolhouse.
Although thousands of Marines and Afghan soldiers remain engaged in a gruelling fight against Taliban holdouts concentrated in southern Marja, top commanders and civilian stabilisation advisers face an even more daunting task: How to establish basic local governance and security in a place where there are no civil servants, no indigenous policemen and apparently no public buildings.
“The real challenge is still ahead of us,” said John Kael Weston, the State Department representative to the Marine brigade conducting the Marja operation. “We’re just in the opening act.”
How that effort plays out here will amount to the first major test of President Obama’s new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, providing insight into whether more US military forces and civilian specialists will be able to turn around a foundering, eight-year-old war.
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