MARJAH, Afghanistan — Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top allied military commander in Afghanistan, sat gazing at maps of Marjah as a Marine battalion commander asked him for more time to oust Taliban fighters from a longtime stronghold in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.
"You've got to be patient," Lt. Col. Brian Christmas told McChrystal. "We've only been here 90 days."
"How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?" McChrystal replied.
A charged silence settled in the stuffy, crowded chapel tent at the Marine base in the Marjah district.
"I can't tell you, sir," the Fort Bragg, N.C., native finally answered.
"I'm telling you," McChrystal said. "We don't have as many days as we'd like."
The operation in Marjah is supposed to be the first blow in a decisive campaign to oust the Taliban from its spiritual homeland in adjacent Kandahar province, one that McChrystal had hoped would bring security and stability to Marjah and begin to convey an "irreversible sense of momentum" in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.
Instead, a tour last week of Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali district, during which McClatchy had rare access to meetings between McChrystal and top Western strategists, drove home the hard fact that President Obama's plan to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011 is colliding with the realities of the war.
There aren't enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security that's needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn't dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive.
"This is a bleeding ulcer right now," McChrystal told a group of Afghan officials, international commanders in southern Afghanistan and civilian strategists who are leading the effort to oust the Taliban fighters from Helmand.
"You don't feel it here," he said during a 10-hour front-line strategy review, "but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."
Throughout the day, McChrystal expressed impatience with the pace of operations, echoing the mounting pressure he's under from his civilian bosses in Washington and Europe to start showing progress.
Residents fear Taliban
Progress in Marjah has been slow, however, in part because no one who planned the operation realized how hard it would be to convince residents that they could trust representatives of an Afghan government that had sent them corrupt police and inept leaders before they turned to the Taliban.
A hundred days after U.S.-led forces launched the offensive, Marjah markets are thriving, the local governor has begun to build a skeleton staff and contractors have begun work on rebuilding schools, canals and bridges.
Marines are running into more firefights on their patrols, however. Taliban insurgents threaten and kill residents who cooperate with the Americans, and it will be months before a permanent police force is ready to take control of the streets from the temporary force that's brought some stability to Marjah.
The U.S.-backed Marjah governor, Marine officials said, has five top ministers. Eight of 81 certified teachers are on the job, and 350 of an estimated 10,000 students are going to school.
In an attempt to contain the creeping Taliban campaign, Lt. Col. Christmas' 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, in northern Marjah recently ceded direct control of an outlying rural area, collapsed its battle space and moved a company back into the population center, which had been neglected.
"There was no security," said Haji Mohammed Hassan, a tribal elder whose fear of the Taliban prompted him to leave Marjah two weeks ago for the relative safety of Helmand's nearby provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
"By day there is government," he said. "By night it's the Taliban."
13 months left
"What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible," McChrystal said in one meeting. "We said: 'We're taking it back.' We came in to take it back. And we haven't been completely convincing."
Still, no one proposed sending more troops to Marjah.
McChrystal's top commanders in southern Afghanistan did weigh a suggestion from the top U.S. Marine general in the country, who said the time had come to gamble on turning over some areas to Afghan control more quickly than planned.
"I think if we want to shorten the timelines, then we are going to have to assume more risk in certain areas," said Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills.
In the final briefing of the tour last week, one American civilian strategist told McChrystal that it would be hard to force Marjah residents to shed their skepticism quickly.
"The vast majority of people are going to be on the fence, and they're going to wait," said the U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because the meeting was meant to offer candid advice to McChrystal.
"The hard question for us is: Can we push them off the fence or do we have to wait for them? It will take time, and even if you throw two more battalions in there, it is still going to take months and months."
On the flight back to Kabul, McChrystal said he'd intentionally asked provocative questions about troop levels to light a fire under the team and to convey a renewed sense of urgency.
McChrystal now has 13 months to produce some elusive, irreversible momentum before Obama plans to start bringing U.S. forces home — and the president expects to stay on schedule.