OUTSIDE MARJAH, Afghanistan – Hundreds of Afghan men walked for miles over dusty roads Saturday to hear the Marines explain those angry sounds of war coming from the Taliban stronghold of Marjah.
Nearly 400 elders, farmers and tradesmen attended the open-air meeting called by their tribal leaders. In the distance, artillery boomed and Hellfire missiles exploded as the Marine-led assault on Marjah entered its first full day.
For the U.S., the meeting was part of a strategy to move quickly from the fighting to the establishment of at least the beginnings of a government that answers to President Hamid Karzai, not the Taliban.
Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson has ordered each of his commanders to hold a public meeting as soon as possible to explain the mission and ask the residents of Marjah and surrounding communities what they want from a government. Saturday morning’s meeting, attended by Marine Lt. Col. Matt Baker, commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment, was the first.
When Baker’s convoy was delayed by the discovery of a roadside bomb in its path, the audience members, sitting cross-legged on rugs outside an abandoned school, waited patiently for an hour. When he arrived, they stood and applauded, cheered on by Helmand provincial government leaders who have long seen Marjah as a threat.
“I hope the fighting goes quickly and the people in Marjah take a page from Nawa (a nearby community) and begin to enjoy peace and prosperity,” Baker told the group.
Reaction was mixed. Some applauded. Others seemed to scowl, and at least three men in their 20s stomped out in protest.
But a man asserting that he had been a Taliban sympathizer stood up and renounced his former allegiance and said he hoped that the Afghan government could help him find a job.
Baker told the group that he had no doubt that other Taliban members were present.
“There may be insurgents in the crowd, and I welcome them,” he said. “Now is the time to start talking about projects, like rebuilding this school. Let’s stop fighting.”