Laura King / Los Angeles Times – 2010-07-10 18:03:03
KABUL (June 25, 2010) — In the windblown town of Marja, the challenge faced by Gen. David H. Petraeus, chosen as the new commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, comes down to the simplest of sustenance: daily bread.
Four months after an offensive led by US Marines in the southern farming community that had been a longtime Taliban stronghold, a virulent campaign of intimidation by insurgents has lately centered on a particularly humble target, Marja’s bakeries.
“They ordered us to close down,” said a baker named Kalim, describing an abduction ordeal this month that left him and a colleague too terrified to return to their brick ovens.
He said the insurgents told them: “You are helping the Americans. Don’t reopen, or we will kill you.”
By now, Marja, in strategic Helmand province, was supposed to have been a showpiece of what a judicious combination of Western military might and a ramping up of Afghan government services could accomplish. Instead, it has become something of a cautionary tale.
The plan to remake the town is emblematic of the counterinsurgency strategy laid out by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and expected to be pursued by Petraeus, who could arrive in Afghanistan as soon as next week, after Senate confirmation.
Killing insurgents, this doctrine holds, is not enough. Military victory is meaningless unless the population is won over. The path to that, the thinking goes, lies in showing people how good government can improve their daily lives.
And in Marja, American civilian and military officials alike have repeatedly described steady, if slow, progress.
“The situation is still difficult in the central Helmand River valley,” Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, told reporters in Kabul this week.
About four months ago, he said, “the Taliban flag was flying, Marja was a center of narco-trafficking and of IED [roadside bomb] facilitatorsâ€¦. It is just taking some time to reverse a situation that was so bad.”
Petraeus is taking over the war at a time when progress is “slower and harder” than military officials anticipated, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday. But despite problems, Gates insisted, the United States is not “bogged down” in Afghanistan.
“I believe we are making some progress,” he said. “It is slower and harder than we anticipated.”
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