Afghan army commandos stand on a sand bank as a U.S. Army Apache helicopter… (Patrick Baz / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — The U.S.-Afghan military operation in Marja succeeded in securing the town, but American officials said Thursday that steep challenges remain to improving local government functions throughout Afghanistan.
Senior U.S. diplomats and military officers said developing stronger governments would require a greater number of capable Afghan officials.
The assessment of the Marja operation, which began in February, came as Afghan President Hamid Karzai prepared to travel to Washington next week. Karzai has recently sounded more equivocal in his position on U.S. operations, including an expected offensive in Kandahar.
But Pentagon officials hope the upcoming visit will be a chance for the U.S. to improve relations with Karzai and solidify his support for the U.S. and allied strategy.
Lawmakers, military officers and other officials are looking closely at the Marja campaign and its aftermath for lessons that can be applied to the upcoming offensive in Kandahar.
As they did in Marja, U.S. officials will try to build up and improve local government in Kandahar concurrently with military operations in the city, pushing out some corrupt officials and replacing them with technocrats.
But the Taliban has begun an assassination campaign in Kandahar, using motorcycle teams to target U.S.-backed Afghan government officials, Frank Ruggiero, the senior State Department representative in southern Afghanistan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Appearing alongside Ruggiero, Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., who directs the Pentagon's Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell, called Marja a "work in progress, but trending in the right direction."
"It's not the enemy that concerns me as much as this ability of the government to connect with the people," Nicholson said.
Ruggiero said security concerns continued to hamper the development of local government.
Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey Jr., speaking earlier to reporters, compared Marja to Fallouja, the Iraqi city that U.S. forces retook from insurgents in 2004. Rebuilding Fallouja's government took three years, he noted.
"You just don't build effective governance in two months," he said.