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When the Marja Farmers Don’t Come Home

This New York Times piece about farmers in Marja voting with their feet is perhaps the clearest evidence yet that the “holding” phase of February’s massive NATO/Afghan invasion of the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province is going poorly:

Over 150 families have fled Marja in the last two weeks, according to the Afghan Red Crescent Society in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Marja residents arriving here last week, many looking bleak and shell-shocked, said civilians had been trapped by the fighting, running a gantlet of mines laid by insurgents and firefights around government and coalition positions. The pervasive Taliban presence forbids them from having any contact with or taking assistance from the government or coalition forces.

“People are leaving; you see 10 to 20 families each day on the road who are leaving Marja due to insecurity,” said a farmer, Abdul Rahman, 52, who was traveling on his own. “It is now hard to live there in this situation.”

More than once, I’ve heard from officials involved in the Marja operation that a key metric for determining success is watching the locals return home and rebuild their lives. It’s worth noting that the farmers fleeing Marja for the relative safety of Lashkar Gah don’t evidently express hostility toward the Marines who spearheaded the February invasion. They express discontent and anger over the inability of the NATO and Afghan government forces to actually protect them from Taliban fighters who are deeply embedded within the structure of Marja:

More Taliban fighters have arrived in recent weeks, slipping in with the itinerant laborers who came to work the poppy harvest and staying on to fight, villagers and officials said. Haji Gul Muhammad Khan, tribal adviser to the governor of Helmand Province, said he had reports of Taliban arriving in the area in the last three or four days.

Everyone in Marja knows the Taliban, since they are village men who never left the area although they quit fighting soon after the military operation. Gradually they found a stealthier way of operating, moving around in small groups, often by motorbike or on foot.

An intimidated population is not going to provide intelligence for NATO or Afghan government forces to adequately distinguish between civilians and insurgents. That makes it less likely to remove the sources of such intimidation. And that’s a downward spiral.

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