If there was a place in Afghanistan synonymous with the Taliban, it was the district of Marjah in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand.
Two years ago, thousands of U.S. Marines and British and Afghan forces descended on this checkerboard of villages, canals and fields. They pushed out the insurgents — but at a heavy cost.
Now, with U.S. combat forces on track to depart in the coming months, many are asking whether Marjah’s relative peace will last after the Marines are gone.
‘We Have Good Security Here’
A busy market in Marjah — the site of a bitter fight in February 2010 — is emblematic of the difference two years can make. A nasty battle left at least 66 soldiers dead and many more wounded.
Today, that same spot is a bustling marketplace, buzzing with children and motorbikes. People chat and buy vegetables, nuts, raisins and CDs.
Afghan policeman Abdulla Jan, a slight man in a gray uniform cradling an assault rifle, guards a crossroads in the market.
“We have good security here. No Taliban. No enemy,” Jan says. “You can see for yourself, there’s a lot of stores open. The people [are] working good right now.”
Jan was only 19 when he was transferred here from the relative safety of Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkar Gar two years ago –- and he was not happy about it.
“I was really upset,” he recalls. “Taliban were here. They used to put the IEDs [roadside bombs] around. I was scared when they transferred me from Lashkar Gar to here.”
But now that Marjah is safer, Jan has moved his father and brothers here. And he never has to change into civilian clothes to hide his job as a policeman — a position that once made him an easy target.
“A year ago it was hard for a police officer to go to their house, to their home,” Jan says. “But now I can go home in my uniform, I can go to the bazaar in my uniform, I can walk around with my uniform.”
A City Transformed
Just a few feet away, dozens of children cluster around an American Marine, 2nd Lt. Jonathan Ross. Back in 2010, he says, Marines died on this very spot.
“I know that they took, in the first few weeks they were here, four casualties,” Ross says. “At least one killed in action, three wounded.”
Ross points to an abandoned mud-brick building, the sheet of plastic that serves as its roof is flapping in the wind.
“This place was the main opium bazaar for the Taliban,” Ross explains. “This building compound … was actually the Taliban headquarters. This is where they did all their government business.”
Ross, who is based out of North Carolina’s Camp LeJeune, can report something extraordinary to those who remember the Marjah of two years ago: None of his Marines has been shot at in the past six months – indicating how Marjah is relatively secure now.
‘They’re Ready For It’
But what will happen when the Americans leave?
In the coming weeks, Ross will head home with hundreds of other Marines, leaving something of a skeleton crew to work with Afghan forces.
Lt. Col. Michael Styskal, the top Marine officer in the area, thinks the Afghan army and police will be able to take over and keep the peace.
“I think they want us to leave. They’re ready for it,” he says, stopping by the small American combat outpost near the marketplace.
Currently, some 3,000 Afghan government forces are helping with Marjah’s security, so Styskal isn’t too worried about the Taliban returning.
Instead, he worries more about the lack of international help from the United Nations and aid groups in Marjah — a situation he fears could let the area slide back into chaos.
“From the beginning, we put a lot of effort into it. To fail would be very bad,” Styskal says.
Some Afghans Feel Unprepared
But many Afghan Army and police officers say the Americans can’t leave just yet. The Americans have the surveillance equipment, tanks, artillery and aircraft, and the Afghans say they need all those tools to fight the Taliban.
But Styskal brushes off these requests.
“I think they’ll do the job with what they have. They’ll fight the way they need to fight,” he says.
“I don’t think the Marjah people, and the elders, and the government and the security forces here want to have worked so hard for something, just to [let it] rot on the vine,” Styskal adds. “They’ll make it work.”
The hundreds of Afghan police in Marjah outnumber the Taliban, Styskal says. And, he adds, their weapons are better.
Back in the Marjah marketplace, a group of men sit on a large raised mat, sipping tea and selling vegetables. Yes, it’s OK for the Americans to leave, they say.
Police officer Abdullah Jan thinks so, too. He’s confident enough to tell the Marines that he and his fellow Afghan police can handle whatever comes.
“Yeah, they are free to go to their homes,” he says. “Now we can do something for our country.”
That may be the greatest measure of success for Marjah — the willingness of men like Abdullah Jan to stay on the job.