WASHINGTON - U.S., British and Afghan officials met with tribal elders in the southern Afghanistan city of Marjah Monday to assure them the international community and Afghan government are committed to stabilizing and developing the area, now the scene of a major NATO operation against the Taliban.
At the tribal meetings known as "shuras," the message was "we are still in the early days of the military operations but we are here and we are here to stay," Rory Donohoe, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) representative in Helmand province told CNN in a phone interview, as he sat 25 kilometers from the battlefield.
Donohue, who has been working with provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan for three years, said he found a generally optimistic attitude from the Afghans he spoke with. "Even influential elders who we honestly didn't think would be supportive are aligning themselves with us," Donohoe said. "They see the work everyone has done in other areas of Helmand and are looking to seeing those benefits too." (Photo above: Afghan elders, trailed by children, leave following a meeting with U.S. Marines in Trikh Nawar, northeast of Marjah, on Monday.)
Donohoe stressed that this operation is different from previous operations in Afghanistan, because all the relevant agencies - including USAID, the U.S. State Department and British organizations - were all intensely involved in the planning with the Afghan government, including how actions would unfold and how they could assist the local population during operations.
Currently a joint U.S.-British "hot stabilization team" is sitting alongside with Marines at the edge of the battlefield, ready to move into Marjah to assist the local government in rebuilding local damage caused by the fighting, and to re-establish Afghan government services to local residents.
Donohoe said U.S. civilian personnel will take their cues from the Marines as to when conditions are safe enough to move in. The deputy district governor for Marjah currently is also currently waiting at Marine headquarters in Helmand with a "district support team," which is made up of State Department, USAID and British stabilization experts. Once the Marines say it is safe to go in, the deputy district governor will lead additional shuras with local elders to set medium- and longer-term priorities.
As the fighting continues, U.S., British and Afghan officials are already meeting to go over a line-by-line budget of what the Afghan government will need to deliver services, according to Donohoe. Both he and Matt Freear, with the British-led Helmand provincial reconstruction team, stressed planning for all these phases is being done down to the most minute levels.
In addition to making sure the facilities are secure and there are enough personnel, efforts include equipping Afghans with enough fuel, cell phones, textbooks and other items to make sure the stabilization runs smoothly. While the U.S. or British could purchase these items for the Afghans, attention is being paid to procuring them locally to get the economy moving.
"This can't be done by quick fix," Freear said. "It has to be done methodically."
Immediate stabilization efforts will include several aspects, according to Freear. First, the shuras will give the Afghan population an opportunity to develop a relationship with government officials, build trust and confidence in the government, and let Afghan officials know what is expected of them.
Meanwhile a "cash for work" program, Freear said, will provide an "instant sign that we, in support of the Afghan government can provide help." The program will employ local citizens in projects, such as repairing battle damage, to provide freedom of movement for the population by dredging canals, building sanitation projects and launching other reconstruction work, such as building schools.
A third aspect of the stabilization effort is deployment of the national Afghan police force for three months, while more local police are recruited. The police, Freear said, will be a "key part of providing security" during the stabilization phase.
As immediate stabilization efforts move forward, the Helmand Provisional Reconstruction Team, made up of 200 Americans, British, Danish and Estonian civilians, is working on longer-term reconstruction projects.
One major goal is to resume construction on the main north-south highway connecting Marjah to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. In addition to allowing farmers to get their crops to markets, the hope is the road will inspire good governances because Afghan officials will be able to travel more freely through the province.
The U.S. also is working on a robust agricultural program for farmers in advance of the upcoming planning season. Because now is the time for farmers to being deciding what to plant this summer, the U.S. wants them to plant "good" crops, such as pomegranates, and the U.S. will be providing agricultural vouchers, seed and discounted fertilizer.
–CNN's Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.