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What Do Civilians in Marja Think?

As the extensive NATO/Afghan campaign to take the Helmand Province regions in and around Marja — home to an estimated 75,000 Afghans– away from the Taliban enters its second week, NATO is emphasizing the steps its taking to provide for Afghan civilians. A New York Times report on Saturday played up opinion polling NATO conducted to gauge opinion of the locals. And The Wall Street Journal has an eloquent account of a Marine captain repeatedly delaying an air strike on insurgents planting roadside bombs out of fear that the attack will kill children. But anxieties among the populace are increasingly visible to reporters on the ground — to be expected in war, certainly, but an additional challenge for a mission predicated on protecting civilian lives.

The Times’ C.J. Chivers:

All the while, in northern Marja, the fighting grinds on at a pace of several firefights a day — a climate that has displaced many civilians and kept others hiding inside. Abdul Ajahn, an elder here, voiced a lingering fear.

“If the Taliban shoots from that side, and you are on this side, and I am in between?” he said to the Marines at a meeting arranged by a commander and local elders over the weekend. “Then I am sure you will shoot me.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Phillips follows Marines through a Marja marketplace:

At the bazaar on Monday, shopkeepers asked passing Marines when they would get compensation for broken locks, crushed display stands and other damage. Mr. Khan sought compensation for his prize Jersey cow, who produced 40 kilograms of milk a day before the troops shot her during a firefight, he said.

“It’s going to be a few stressful months trying to satisfy people and convince them we’re here to help,” said Cpl. Douglas Woltz, a 25-year-old from Hampstead, Md.

The colonel describes the locals he has met as “very pragmatic and stoic,” but not yet friendly. Some Marjah residents say they fear both the Taliban and the troops—and they still resent the way government officials trampled on tribal traditions in the past.

None of this is aided by a NATO airstrike that killed “at least” 27 civilians in southern Afghanistan several hundred miles from the fighting. Nor by a NATO announcement that getting development aid into Marja is “progressing slowly due to ongoing resistance by the insurgents”:

There has been an increase in displaced persons with 542 families registering yesterday. The local government has provided assistance and relief to approximately 1,430 people. Out of all those registered, five families have requested shelter since the clearing operation began. RC-S is looking at ways to facilitate the delivery of aid to address UN concerns of a lack of food and water in Marjah. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, Manoeuvre Enhancement Brigade and others are working together to establish how further assistance can be delivered within Marjah.

The longer the aid takes to arrive, the more difficult it will be to persuade the people of Marja that a capable and concerned Afghan government, backstopped by NATO, is in their interest. The Los Angeles Times [runs a story](http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/middleeast/la-fg-afghan-nawa22-2010feb22,0,7292845.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/middleeast+(L.A.+Times+-+Middle+East)) that raises doubts whether the so-called “government in a box” described by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, is actually prepared to deliver for the locals. Combined with Gen. David Petraeus’ [confirmation yesterday on ‘Meet The Press’](http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-afghan-petraeus22-2010feb22,0,7341241.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/news/nationworld/world+(L.A.+Times+-+World+News)) that the campaign plan is to export a stable security situation with capable governance and development from Marja east into Kandahar and beyond over the next 18 months, Marja is already shaping up to be a proving ground for the realism of NATO’s promises.

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