MARJAH, Afghanistan — Bouwudin courteously greeted the Afghan and American officers who came to meet him, offering tea and eventually a meal as the meeting lingered on. No amount of invitations could get him to walk a few hundred yards to the Marines' base.
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that, it's too early," said Bouwudin, a tribal chief. "I'll go when security has come back."
Despite an 11-day-old U.S.-led attack to capture the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, most Afghan tribal leaders in this town are like Bouwudin — still sitting on the fence. The mission may be proceeding militarily but it has not yet won over the people who matter most.
Many of them seem unwilling to believe that the Americans and the Afghan military will stay long enough to ensure that the Taliban never come back.
"If you leave again, I'll have too many problems with the Taliban," Bouwudin, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, said with a polite smile.
The Marines made no fuss about it. They knew Bouwudin had worked with NATO before, only to be beaten and jailed by the Taliban when they moved in when British forces left in 2007.
His family had to pay a ransom for his release. When British and Afghan troops reclaimed the town again in March last year, Bouwudin stayed away. It was a wise move because the British pulled out again.
Winning over people like Bouwudin is key to NATO's efforts in the embattled Afghan south. The critical step is to prove that American troops and Afghan units are going to stay — and provide better governance than the strict Islamist Taliban, who, residents say, at least ruled the town without corruption and allowed the lucrative opium poppy business to thrive.
"He's exactly the kind of person we call 'on the fence,' " said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. "We need to bring him over to our side, because if he does, the population will follow."