As the Afghan flag was raised over Marjah at the end of February and President Karzai made his second trip to the town on March 7, it was clear that the hardest part of the campaign to make enduring improvements in the key southern town remains. During Karzai's recent visit, it was clear that the main issue on the minds of most locals was likely: How will this operation really change anything and make my life better in the long run?
Already, there are early indications of a return to the way things were before. As I discussed in my previous post, there are three main challenges that lie ahead: 1) Providing enduring security with ANSF (ANA and ANP forces) that are viewed as legitmate and competent by locals; 2) Providing an alternate source of income in the wake of large-scale poppy eradication efforts; 3) and 3) Providing improved local governance and the district and sub-district level.
In my mind, the most important (and most daunting) of these challenges is the governance piece. A recent must-read article by Radio Free Europe provides the best open-source analysis I've read to date of the governance challenges we face in Marjah. The article gives an excellent quote from Azizullah Khan, a prominent local elder in Marjah, who sharply questioned/criticized Karzai during his last visit. Azizullah explained the current dilemma that the people of Marjah face:
"For the past eight years the warlords have been ruling us. Their hands have been stained with the blood of innocents and they have killed hundreds of people. Even now they are being imposed on the people in the name of tribal and regional leaders. People are afraid to convey the real feelings of locals because they sense themselves to be in danger from all sides."
Khan pleaded for the government to ensure security, remove any military presence from schools and private homes, compensate locals for losses resulting from the recent fighting, and help rebuild schools, clinics, and irrigation canals. His most impassioned and telling appeal, however, was for Karzai to avoid repeating a past mistake: Do not hand over control of local affairs to former militia commanders or other "people with influence."
This last statement was clearly a reference to the current battle over influence/control of the Marjah district governor position. As I discussed last week, two individuals (both backed by different elements at the national level) are currently vying for control - Abdul Zahir (the "official" civilian leader that was appointed by the Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal) and Abdul Rahman Jan (the former police chief/local warlord who is recognized by many as the most powerful "strongman" in the area). During the last few weeks, Abdul Rahman Jan (ARJ) has formed a 50-man "Marjah Executive Committee" in a clear move to re-consolidate the power he previously had (until he lost control to the Taliban over the last 2-3 years). During the time that he held sway, he was known as brutal, corrupt, and mostly ineffective. Yet, in the wake of Operation Moshtarak he's making another bid to capitalize on the power vacuum left behind after the Taliban were pushed out. Abdul Zahir, appointed by Provincial Governor Mangal (recognized by ISAF leaders as quite an effective leader) is also mounting a campaign to gain influence. It will be very difficult given perceptions among the local populace that Abdul Zabir is an outsider.
During the weeks to come, it will be crucial to monitor this tenuous situation. ISAF leadership must work to further legitimize Abdul Zahir, who is definitely the "least worst" option for the crucial post of Marjah district governor. Additionally, as we look forward to planning and preparations for possible large-scale operations in/around Kandahar, we must consider how we'll fight a similar battle there to install a leader who is viewed as more legitimate than the current de facto team of powerbrokers (Ahmed Wali Karzai - the President's brother and head of Kandahar provincial council, Gul Agha Shirzai - former Kandahar provincial governor, and Muhammad Arif Noorzai).