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Marines face skepticism after taking Afghan town

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. forces who pushed the Taliban out of their main stronghold in Marjah, southern Afghanistan, have found residents there deeply skeptical of the Afghan government’s promises to rebuild, a top U.S. commander said on Thursday.

The concerns raised by Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson, the Marine commander in southern Afghanistan, put a spotlight on the big challenge still facing U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Marjah now that fighting has died down.

Gaining local support is key to President Barack Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy, which aims to clear the Taliban out of population centers like Marjah so President Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul can begin taking over.

In a televised video link from Afghanistan, Nicholson told reporters at the Pentagon that he wants to quickly hire more than 1,000 local residents, many of whom, he acknowledged, were “probably Taliban at one time.”

Many of these new hires “just quit being Taliban” for jobs on development projects clearing rubble and canals, he said.

NATO’s 3-week-old operation in Marjah in Helmand province, Afghanistan’s most violent, was the first major test of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to seize insurgent-held areas before a planned 2011 troop drawdown begins.

U.S. Marines hit pockets of stiff resistance but Nicholson said his forces have not come under “direct fire” in Marjah the last eight days.

“We’re very pleased with how things have settled down,” he said, but that “doesn’t mean it’s over by any stretch.” Marine and Afghan battalions will remain in the area for the foreseeable future, he added.

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Nicholson said he saw a very limited window of opportunity for winning over Marjah’s population.

“We’ve got a very skeptical population here,” he said. He said the Taliban had worked hard to convince people the Americans were going to take things from them, not help them.

“Unlike some of the other areas that we’ve been in that were generally glad to see us but were always wondering if we would stay, the population here is concerned about what we’re going to be able to do for them,” Nicholson added.

A top priority for the Americans is recruiting a local police force. The goal, Nicholson said, was to hire one-third of the force from the local Marjah population, while the rest would come from outside the area to limit corruption and tribal influences.

Nicholson said Marjah residents were particularly distrustful of what they see as government corrupt from Kabul.

He recalled a recent meeting with elders in which one self-proclaimed “Taliban leader” backed the presence of the Americans but then turned to their Afghan government counterpart and declared, “I don’t trust you.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Wednesday that it was “too early to tell” what Karzai has done to address the corruption issue, suggesting Washington was concerned inaction could undercut the campaign against the Taliban.

“He was duly elected by his people and he now has to perform in this area,” Mullen said. Karzai has faced credibility challenges after voter fraud marred his re-election last year.

U.S. officials see Marjah as a prelude to a larger military operation, expected to start in the summer, in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace in a neighboring province.

Editing by Doina Chiacu