MARJAH, Afghanistan — Two weeks after the U.S.-led forces swiftly seized control of this long-standing insurgent stronghold, Taliban forces are posing a new threat by menacing, beating and even beheading local residents who cooperate with the emerging Afghan government, according to Afghan and American officials.
Unable to confront the U.S. military directly with any serious challenge, Taliban fighters are shifting tactics as they try to undermine the American-backed Afghan government before it can win the trust of these southern Afghanistan residents, who've lived under insurgent rule for years.
While the incidents so far appear to be isolated, American military leaders warned Sunday that they must contain the threat before it gains any momentum.
"We are in a very critical situation right now," said Matt, a U.S. military adviser to the Afghan security forces in Marjah who asked that his last name not be used to protect his identity. The Taliban are reorganizing. The capability they lost two weeks ago is coming back. The population knows that. And everyone is watching to see if we have the capability to address that new threat."
The evolving intimidation campaign is emerging as an early test for the U.S.-backed Afghan government that is struggling to establish credibility and convince skeptical residents that it will not allow the Taliban to return to power.
While U.S. military forces have steadily solidified their hold on much of this vast agricultural region filled with poppy fields used to finance the Taliban leadership, the new Afghan government is still trying to find its footing.
Haji Abdul Zahir, the newly appointed district governor of Marjah, has been working with a skeleton crew of Western advisers and one Afghan assistant. The U.S. military has been ferrying Zahir around in helicopters so he can assure locals that he's in charge. Zahir's government compound has only rudimentary infrastructure.
On Sunday, Afghan and American military leaders prodded Zahir with requests to exert more control and persuade reluctant Marjah leaders pushed out by the Taliban that they needed to return.
"How may of us are from Marjah?" U.S. Marine Col. Randy Newman asked the two-dozen men taking part in the meeting. "None. The Taliban are from Marjah. They have earned some amount of trust of the people. The people trusted the Taliban justice. If we continue in this manner, we will not earn their trust."
Although they have been pushed out of power in Marjah, Taliban insurgents have slowly been trying to reassert some measure of control.
Marjah residents have told U.S. Marines that Taliban insurgents are coming around at night to threaten and beat Afghans who cooperate with the Americans.
In at least one confirmed case, said U.S. military officials, the Taliban beheaded a local resident suspected of working with U.S. forces. The U.S. Marines are checking out at reports of at least two other beheadings in Marjah.
While the reports are difficult to verify, U.S. military officials said that even one beheading creates enough fear to dissuade some Afghans from coming forward to help.
"They know what it means to have your head cut off, it's a very visceral thing and very easy to understand," Newman said. "Our trust, our security, their government are all unknowns to them and so we have to eventually make sure they understand that as well as the visceral reaction to a beheading."
How Zahir and the U.S. military respond to the latest Taliban challenge will have a big impact on how much confidence local leaders have in the new Afghan government.
American forces have to constantly reassure Marjah residents that they aren't going to hand over control to a weak or corrupt Afghan government that can't prevent the Taliban from returning to power, not just this year, but in the years to come.
"They don't want to piss off the wrong Afghans," said Lt. Col. Cal Worth of St. Louis, the head of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, which played a central role in the military offensive that wrested Marjah from Taliban control. "They don't see the world in our 10-to-15 microwave minutes, rather they see it in 10-to-15 years."
Zahir spent most of the three-hour meeting listening to the concerns, posing questions and asking the U.S. Marines to pump more money into Marjah to get projects off the ground.
While the U.S. military has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair schools, clean canals, and compensate Afghan families who lost relatives killed during the recent fighting, Zahir asked the U.S. military to do more.
During Sunday's meeting, the U.S. Army adviser working with Afghan forces told Zahir that the security forces were being constrained because there was no judicial system in place to jail suspected Taliban insurgents turned in by local residents.
We need to sit down and have a very strong discussion about how we're going to deal with Afghan justice for these men we know are hurting people," said Matt, who's advising Afghan police in one section of Marjah. They look at me and smile because they know they're going to be released within 24 to 48 hours.
"The people of southern Marjah are not going to be confident in our ability to bring security until we can permanently take those men off the battlefield," he said. "That's where we earn the population's trust."
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