Our V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft touched down next to a field of bright pink opium poppies in Afghanistan's Helmand province, and soon we were hiking across a wheat field, over a muddy irrigation ditch and into the center of Marja, a village U.S. Marines and the Afghan army wrested from the Taliban in February.
The operation that ousted the Taliban from Marja was a kind of pilot project for the coming offensive in next-door Kandahar province, and its successes and shortcomings are important for U.S. military commanders to understand. My trip to the southern Afghan town late last month was with Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wanted to take stock of the situation firsthand.
We made our way to a mud-walled compound surrounding the district governor's shabby, two-story office building. There, Mullen sat cross-legged on a red carpet on the dusty ground as American and Afghan officers set up maps and walked him through their war stories. They had swept through the town and secured most of it in a matter of a few days, they explained, because after initial resistance, the Taliban largely disappeared in the face of the assault. But now insurgents were trying to filter back in to test the new order. The main need, the officers said, was for policemen, not soldiers, to hold things together.
Next up to brief the admiral was Gulab Mangal, the ebullient turbaned governor of Helmand province. "My main challenge right now is to win the hearts of the people," he said. "If we do not win the people, we will not win this war."
And that job, Mangal acknowledged, is a long way from done. When the Marines landed in Marja, they announced that they were bringing "a government in a box" -- a fully equipped local administration that would get services working and funnel aid from Kabul and Washington into the district's agricultural economy. But when the box was opened, there wasn't much inside. Of the half a dozen district ministers who were supposed to come and set up shop, only one -- the minister of rural redevelopment -- was brave enough to move to Marja; most of the rest stayed in the relative safety of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, about 18 miles to the northeast.
"It's been very slow," a U.S. official acknowledged. "It's very hard to recruit civil servants to come to a place like this." A government in a box? "It probably wasn't a good idea to use that phrase."
Still, even without a functioning civil administration, Afghans know a thing or two about democracy. Mullen and Mangal, still cross-legged, met for almost an hour with 31 farmers and merchants brave enough to come talk with an American admiral and a visiting governor despite knowing that the Taliban would not approve. They were a collection of weathered, mostly middle-aged men who have endured rule by communists, warlords, Taliban and now U.S. Marines.
They appointed a burly young man, Haji Abdul Salam, to speak on their behalf. A little nervously at first, clutching a folded sheet of notes, he listed the village's needs. "Education is almost at zero; we want education," he said. "We want healthcare; we want female health workers too." The list went on: new roads, repairs for irrigation canals, better storage for crops.
Mangal said yes to everything. "I will build a school," he promised. "I will get the road built, and I will drive my own car on this road." But he asked one thing in return: "Next year, nobody should grow poppies."
The farmers exchanged skeptical looks that quickly turned into a polite uproar. "I grow poppies because I don't have any other way to make a living," one protested. Opium is easy to store and ship, another said; other crops spoil before they get to market. "Until we have a factory here, nobody's growing vegetables," he said.
The governor, who has made his career as a dogged anti-opium crusader, was unmoved. "No poppies," he said.
By lunchtime -- roast chicken cooked by Afghan soldiers and served communally on big tin platters -- a couple of things were clear: Even in Marja, where the military operation was swift and successful, political and economic progress will take time. And victory will, in the end, elude the Afghan government if it fails to provide what the people need.
Afghanistan is unutterably poor. Towns and villages alike are collections of mud-brick houses, most without running water. The pervasive smells are of cooking fires and outdoor latrines. Barefoot children play with sticks and stones; a soccer ball and a dirt field count as luxuries.
But the Afghans, who have managed to survive in harsh mountains and lush river valleys, are people who look their politicians -- and visiting admirals from Washington -- in the eye and ask for what they want. They also complain about what they don't like, including pervasive corruption and civilian casualties.