March 4th, 2010
02:02 PM ET

In Marjah, it's still a competition with the Taliban

WASHINGTON – Citizens of Marjah remain very skeptical of U.S. troops and the Afghan government that has moved in and taken over the southern Afghanistan town, according to the U.S. general in charge of the operation.

U.S. Marine Corps Brig. General Larry Nicholson said on Thursday that 20 days into the operation to rid the area of Taliban influence, the public is concerned about what the new Afghan government is going to be able to do for them.

"We are in competition every day for the confidence and support of the population – we're in competition with the Taliban," Nichols told reporters at the Pentagon during a video-teleconference briefing from Helmand province.  "We have a very narrow window of opportunity here in Marjah to make that first impression and you get one shot at it," he said.

U.S. and Afghan troops started an offensive - dubbed Operation Moshtarak -  in this central Helmand region in mid-February. Nicholson said the first phase of clearing and maintaing security in the area, called the "hold" phase, would last 30 days, which is mid-March.

As part of the overall plan to keep the town out of Taliban hands the Marines, U.S. civilian advisors and Afghans are working with the locals to convince them to participate with the Afghan government.

Last summer the Marines attempted to rid the area of Taliban, but now concede it was poorly planned and did not have enough Afghan troops to effectively convince the locals to move away from Taliban rule.

The hope now for the U.S. is to convince the locals to change their crops from poppy – grown for the Taliban's drug trade – and grow crops such as wheat that can help them survive and provide income as well.

Nicholson said for years the Taliban-run town had no police force and now the Afghan government is in the process of recruiting citizens of Marjah to join a new police force who would be trained by the Marines.

Nicholson had no timetable on how long it would take to truly secure the town.  He said his troops have not fired a shot in the last eight days.  But said he would be keeping the 2,500 Marines and 1,500 Afghan troops in the area for now and reevaluate this summer.

"We are very conscious of the fact that this is a very fragile area," he said.

Nicholson also gave some insight into the first days of the operation saying they were able to get the first 4,000 troops in to the area fairly fast despite the number of roadside bombs that had been planted by Taliban fighters.

They dropped a number of troops early into the center of Marjah and worked their way to the outskirts.

He said the military had massed forces on the outside of the town ahead of the offensive and used those troops as a deception operation with no intention to go into the areas those troops were massed.

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