Normalcy returning to key Afghan city

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Just a few dozen yards from the bullet-riddled government building, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson found more proof Saturday that the battle for Marjah was over.

"A popcorn vendor on the streets of Marjah," Nicholson said in a gleeful voice as he found some coins in his pocket and bought a bag of freshly popped corn.

"None of those tourist prices now," Nicholson joked as the vendor, understanding not a word of English, nodded in agreement.

Two weeks ago, the same government building was the hub of fighting as Marines and Afghan soldiers battled Taliban insurgents who held sway in the southern Afghanistan town. Residents hid in their homes; businesses were shuttered, fields were untended. Thousands fled.

Now popcorn is being sold, an adjacent bazaar has come back to life, and the main road into Marjah was packed with vehicles bringing residents back to their homes and farms on Saturday, the fifth consecutive day with no firefights.

The insurgents have either been killed, are in hiding or have fled to other areas of Helmand province, which has seen an increase in the number of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization military personnel killed in recent days.

Eight Marines, two Afghan soldiers and an Afghan police officer were killed in the battle of Marjah. No official tally of Taliban dead has been kept; the number is thought to be in the hundreds.

But if the fighting has ended, the battle to win the support of Marjah residents has only begun. Time is crucial.

"We have only a small window," said Col. Burke Whitman, the Marines' liaison to the Afghan police and army.

In the years before the Taliban reign in Marjah, the city's government and particularly its police force had a reputation for corruption and brutality.

As an initial step in the reconstruction plan, a cadre of police officers from outside Marjah has been put in place while a permanent police force is in training. That formula has worked well in other Helmand communities. No former Marjah police officers are being allowed to return to the force.

"What we can't do is bring back in the same government or police," Nicholson said. "The people of Marjah need a fresh start."