MARJAH, Afghanistan — One by one, the men of Marjah tentatively approached the high-ranking Afghan official with their complaints.
One man accused U.S. Marines of insulting Afghan men by conducting intrusive searches. Two worried that the government would tax their poppy harvests — just like the Taliban did. A fourth was told he'd receive financial compensation for relatives killed during the fighting.
With U.S.-led forces now in control of the one-time insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai's deputy flew from Kabul on Monday to reassure Marjah residents that the Taliban were gone for good — and that things would slowly get better.
"We will be with you," Second Vice President Karim Khalili told more than 400 men at the biggest community gathering since the Taliban were pushed out.
"We will not abandon you," Khalili said. "It is not like it was in the past where they cleaned a place and left. No. We will stay — and we will fight."
Now that NATO forces have secured Marjah, the challenge is installing a credible, competent local government that can regain the trust of skeptical residents.
"What I think we've got to do is try to move fast enough to try to meet expectations, but carefully enough that we're not in any way . . . blind to some of the nuances that have to be worked through," said Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of coalition forces, who joined Khalili in walking down Marjah's main street as Marines threw candy to children and Afghan soldiers kept guard.
There was not much public jubilation when Khalili walked down Marjah's main street with a group of Afghan security forces and NATO officials, passing shuttered shops and austere town buildings, which U.S. Marines are transforming into military compounds.
At the afternoon shura, residents greeted Khalili with tepid applause.
Throughout the day, Khalili urged Afghans to be patient and give Karzai's government a chance to win their support.
"You've got to give us time." Khalili told more than 150 Helmand province leaders who greeted the vice president at the provincial government compound in Lashkar Gah.
In the coming days and weeks, with U.S. Marines providing a backbone of security, Afghan officials will reopen schools, expand the valley's critical irrigation system and set up the government. The biggest challenge is introducing an Afghan police force that doesn't demand bribes and undermine confidence in the new officials.
"It's going to be a test for the government to demonstrate to the people of Marjah and the people of Helmand that they're not going to put up with the shenanigans that we've seen in the past," said Army Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, America's top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan. "We're not kidding ourselves. It's not going to be eliminated. But it needs to be reduced so that it's out of their daily lives."
U.S. Marines in Marjah said they're gradually winning trust.
"Every day, more and more residents are coming forward to tell us where there are IEDs (roadside bombs)," said Lt. Col. Cal Worth of St. Louis, the commander of the 1,500-member 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, N.C., now based in the heart of Marjah.
While direct battles with the Taliban have come to a halt for now, Worth said the Marines' presence is still felt around town.
"You can go two clicks (kilometers) to the west, and it's almost like Taliban country," Worth said.
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