Reporting from Nawa, Afghanistan — Intelligence reports and a new flurry of roadside bombs suggest that Taliban fighters pushed from their sanctuary of Marja are trying to return to communities they fled last year, Marine commanders said Saturday.
As the Marja offensive continued, Marine Lt. Col. Matt Baker, commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, said that in recent days more roadside bombs have been found in the "green zone" of Nawa near the bazaar and the district government center.
Before Marines descended on sprawling Helmand province in southern Afghanistan last summer, Taliban fighters controlled Nawa, extorting money from merchants, closing its school and clinic and killing anyone who opposed them. They fled to nearby Marja after several weeks of sporadic gunfire aimed at the Marines.
At a community meeting Saturday in an outlying neighborhood of Nawa, Baker urged a group of more than 200 Afghan men to help the Marines keep the Taliban from reasserting its dominance in this agricultural area.
"The people need to be brave," Baker said. "The reality is that many of the insurgents from Marja will try to come to Nawa. We have to be a strong team and force them out."
Haji Abdul Manaf, the district governor, appealed to his countrymen's masculine pride as he urged them to report any signs of Taliban fighters returning to Nawa.
"How are you going to guard your area if you're scared of Taliban and won't come out of your house?" Manaf said.
In Nawa, the bazaar has reopened and the clinic and school are open. Still, progress is slow and incremental, amid bureaucratic wrangling between local officials and the provincial government.
Manaf also pleaded with the crowd not to believe rumors of corruption. "I am not a corrupt governor," he said. "I promise you people, anything I get will go to you."
Even from their sanctuary in Marja, Taliban fighters have continued to strike at Nawa residents. Three members of the community council have been assassinated, leading the rest of the two dozen council members to seek refuge in the district government headquarters next to the Marine base.
Fear of the Taliban remains high, but Baker noted that when he came to the same part of Nawa for a meeting five weeks ago, none of the Afghans would volunteer to get involved in construction projects.
On Saturday, dozens besieged him with proposals for building roads and bridges, renovating public buildings and cleaning irrigation canals that have become clogged.
Among other tactics, the Marines are bringing a Muslim chaplain to Nawa to talk to the community's elders and religious leaders. Support for the Taliban has been strongest among mullahs and others, who often tell their faithful to oppose the Americans and any Afghan who sides with them.
"Religion is one of the strengths of Afghanistan," said Baker, adding that the Marines are in Nawa to stay. Although his Hawaii-based battalion will leave in a few months, another will take its place, he said.
"Your Marines, the Nawa battalions, are ready to keep working with you," he said.