Reporting from The Outskirts Of Marja, Afghanistan — Hundreds of Afghan men walked for miles over dusty roads Saturday to hear the Marines explain those angry sounds of war coming from the Taliban stronghold of Marja.
Nearly 400 elders, farmers and tradesmen attended the open-air meeting called by their tribal leaders. In the distance, artillery boomed and Hellfire missiles exploded as the Marine-led assault on Marja entered its first full day.
For the U.S., the meeting was part of a strategy to move quickly from the fighting to the establishment of at least the beginnings of a government that answers to President Hamid Karzai, not the Taliban.
Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson has ordered each of his commanders to hold a public meeting as soon as possible to explain the mission and ask the residents of Marja and surrounding communities what they want from a government. Saturday morning's meeting, attended by Marine Lt. Col. Matt Baker, commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment, was the first.
When Baker's convoy was delayed by the discovery of a roadside bomb in its path, the audience members, sitting cross-legged on rugs outside an abandoned school, waited patiently for an hour. When he arrived, they stood and applauded, cheered on by Helmand provincial government leaders who have long seen Marja as a threat.
"I hope the fighting goes quickly and the people in Marja take a page from Nawa [a nearby community] and begin to enjoy peace and prosperity," Baker told the group.
Reaction was mixed. Some applauded. Others seemed to scowl, and at least three men in their 20s stomped out in protest.
But a man asserting that he had been a Taliban sympathizer stood up and renounced his former allegiance and said he hoped that the Afghan government could help him find a job.
Baker told the group that he had no doubt that other Taliban members were present.
"There may be insurgents in the crowd, and I welcome them," he said. "Now is the time to start talking about projects, like rebuilding this school. Let's stop fighting."
In July, battalions of Marines landed in the middle of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. After weeks of fighting, insurgents fled, mostly to Marja. But until recently, the Marines lacked a sufficient partner in the Afghan army to push into Marja.
That changed Saturday, when U.S., British and Afghan troops mounted a coordinated assault on the sprawling city crisscrossed by canals.
By midday, U.S. officials were reporting that the offensive was going as planned and had met only small-arms fire.
Marine Capt. Tom Grace, whose Bravo Company had seized a key roadway leading out of Marja to prevent Taliban fighters from fleeing, said the combat "sends a message to the insurgents that we are not afraid of them."
Although the assault had the look of classic warfare, it was still war in the context of counterinsurgency, in which the primary goal is to win over the populace rather than to kill the enemy.
Grace told the group that if the Marines damaged property or offended local customs, the elders should immediately report the incident.
"We are here for you," he said. "I realize we sometimes make mistakes and do things that may offend your culture. Please talk to us and we will make things better."
Haji Abdul Manaf, the district governor of Nawa, applauded the Marine-Afghan army effort. Insurgents have used Marja as a sanctuary to launch strikes against Nawa.
"We just want the Marines to clean up Marja in a few days," said Manaf, who fought to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan.
Haji Hayjihayatullah, who will assume responsibility for security in Marja, said he wasn't alarmed by the pounding sound of artillery.
"For 30 years we have heard that sound," he said. "We just want it to stop."