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Taliban ruining US efforts to win over locals

Since their offensive here in February, the Marines have flooded Marja with hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. The tactic aims to win over wary residents by paying them compensation for property damage or putting to work men who would otherwise look to the Taliban for support.

world Updated: Apr 05, 2010 00:26 IST
Richard A. Oppel Jr (NYT)

Since their offensive here in February, the Marines have flooded Marja with hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. The tactic aims to win over wary residents by paying them compensation for property damage or putting to work men who would otherwise look to the Taliban for support.

The plan helped turn the tide of insurgency in Iraq. But in Marja, where the Taliban seem to know everything, they have already found ways to thwart the strategy in many places, including killing or beating some who take the Marines’ money, or pocketing it themselves.

Just a few weeks since the start of the operation here, the Taliban have “reseized control and the momentum in a lot of ways” in northern Marja, Maj. James Coffman, civil affairs leader for the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, said in an interview in late March. “We have to change tactics to get the locals back on our side.”

Col. Ghulam Sakhi, an Afghan National Police commander, says his informants have told him that at least 30 Taliban have come to one outpost here to take money from the Marines as compensation for property damage or family members killed during the operation in February.

One tribal elder from northern Marja, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being killed, said in an interview that the killing and intimidation continued to worsen. “Every day we are hearing that they kill people, and we are finding their dead bodies,” he said. “The Taliban are everywhere.”

The local problem points to the larger challenges ahead as American forces expand operations in the predominantly Pashtun south, where the Taliban draw most of their support and the government is deeply unpopular.

In Marja, the Taliban are hardly a distinct militant group, and the Marines have collided with a Taliban identity so dominant that the movement appears more akin to the only political organisation in a one-party town. Even the Marines admit to being somewhat flummoxed.

“We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy,’” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province. “Most people here identify themselves as Taliban.”

“We have to readjust our thinking so we’re not trying to chase the Taliban out of Marja, we’re trying to chase the enemy out,” he said.