DELARAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The bearded Afghan men in traditional dress sat cross-legged on the floor listening to the U.S. colonel address them -- a common sight in Afghanistan in recent years, but now with a subtly changed message.
“International forces and Americans and Afghan National Army will come soon in greater numbers,” said Colonel George Amland, second in command of more than 10,000 Marines, addressing a “shura”, or council meeting, on a base in southern Afghanistan.
“They will provide, once again, that opportunity for you to choose the path that the people of Delaram and your community will take,” he added. “But I’m also bound to tell you that this window of opportunity that is presenting itself to you will only be open for a short period of time.”
Gone are the phrases “we are here to stay” or “we are not going anywhere”, often heard at past shuras.
Last northern spring, U.S. Marines moved into Delaram, a small desert town in the northern tip of Nimroz province only a few kilometres from Helmand province, the opium-growing Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan.
They set up a base just outside Delaram from where they launch operations into Helmand’s north and conduct patrols inside the town.
Now the Marine force in Afghanistan is set to double, with thousands more already arriving in the south as part of a wider 30,000-troop push by Washington to try and turn the tide in an increasingly unpopular war which began in October 2001.
There are already more than 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including nearly 70,000 Americans.
But in announcing the extra forces, President Barack Obama also said troop levels would start to be scaled back in 18 months, and the White House has said it does not want to have troops in Afghanistan another eight or nine years from now. That message is now being delivered clearly on the ground.
“I just want to remind everybody here that ... eventually Americans will leave and the window will be once again closed. You have to choose and we are here to help you,” Amland said.
Washington has said any pullout of troops will be “conditions based” and would involve a gradual handover to Afghan troops. Talk of a timeframe could worry many Afghans, who welcome the new security but are still sceptical about the future.
“The security in the city is okay but 2 km outside the city belongs to the Taliban,” said one man at the shura.
“We have been promised many things before but we haven’t seen anything. We have no electricity, no clean water,” he said.
The man, who did not give his name for fear of retribution from the Taliban, also said he and other farmers would go back to growing opium poppy next season because the government hadn’t delivered on its promises to help with alternative crops.
The Marines say they have money to spend in the area and already have several development projects planned.
But Barilay, a 25-year-old shopkeeper from Delaram, said the help did not reach those who needed it most.
“It’s good that help is coming. But the help doesn’t reach people like me. It goes to those with power, those with money,” he said after the shura. Like many Afghans he uses one name.
Mohammad Khawas, 40, a money changer, said things were better in Delaram but no amount of U.S. troops would bring peace to Afghanistan without involving the Taliban.
“Not 30,000 troops, if you bring even 20 times that, even the whole of the United States, fighting will not bring a result,” said Khawas. “The solution is we have to sit at one table with the Taliban to solve the problem.”
Editing by Peter Graff and Paul Tait
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