Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson buys a bag of popcorn from a smiling vendor… (Tony Perry / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Marja, 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 Marja was over.
"A popcorn vendor on the streets of Marja," 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 this town in southern Afghanistan. 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 Marja was packed with vehicles bringing residents back to their homes and farms on Saturday, the fifth consecutive day with no battles.
The insurgents have either been killed, are in hiding or have fled to other areas of Helmand province, which have 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 Marja. 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 Marja 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 Marja, the city's government and particularly its police force had a reputation for corruption and brutality. U.S. officials say that made it easier for the residents to accept rule by the Taliban, which had its own cruel streak.
As an initial step in the reconstruction plan, a cadre of police officers from outside Marja has been put in place while a permanent police force is in training. That formula has worked well in other Helmand communities. No former Marja 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 Marja need a fresh start."
A district governor, Haji Abdul Zahir, has been called back from self-imposed exile. On Saturday, he met Nicholson and a group that included Marine Gen. James Mattis and American novelist Steven Pressfield (author of "The Afghan Campaign," a fictional account of the battles of Alexander the Great).
"The Taliban did nothing for Marja; we will bring back dignity and prosperity," said Zahir, repeating a line he used Thursday when the Afghan flag was unfurled above a temporary government center.
Although Marja is called a city, it could be more accurately described as a network of impoverished villages connected by rutted, trash-strewn roads. Homes are made of mud, many with mud walls encircling the property.
Each village has its own bazaar, with stalls and straw roofs. Fifty-five businesses had reopened by late in the week, selling fruit and vegetables, motorbike parts, clothing, pharmaceuticals and more.
The recent rains have left the fields green and lush. Farming, including crops of poppies that are used to make heroin, is the dominant industry here, helped by irrigation canals built by the U.S. government in the 1950s.
A plan has already been cobbled together to offer wheat seeds and fertilizer to farmers in an attempt to persuade them to stop growing poppies.
Beyond its symbolic value as a place where a U.S. and Afghan force wrested control from the Taliban, Marja and its surrounding fields are thought to be key to the insurgency's finances, providing profits from the heroin trade to hire recruits and buy weaponry and the makings of roadside bombs.
Three Marja residents, including a former police official, have been identified as potential leaders in a campaign to undercut reconstruction efforts, possibly because of their links to the heroin trade. Marja police will be watching their moves.
A group of U.S., British and Danish reconstruction specialists has devised a multimillion-dollar plan for Marja that includes reopening schools and health clinics, installing solar lighting in the bazaars, repairing culverts and streets, and offering cleanup jobs for the many unemployed, who are sometimes recruited by the Taliban. The three governments are contributing money.
Later on, the plan calls for building police stations and small hydroelectric pumps and offering microloans to farmers and merchants.
So-called stabilization specialists from the U.S. and Britain have already set up a tent at the government building, where many of the Marines who were in the thick of the fighting are stationed. The specialists' first goal is to talk to village elders about their needs and to convince them that the provincial government is on their side.
As Nicholson and Mattis, who is commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, met with Afghan leaders, soldiers, police and Marja residents, the emphasis Saturday was on remembering those killed in the battle.
"I'm sorry for the Marines you lost," Zahir said. "We will pray for them."