MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai made an unannounced visit to the southern town of Marjah Sunday, promising angry elders that he will rebuild the former Taliban stronghold after a big NATO operation.
NATO forces say persuading villagers in Marjah to back Karzai’s government is the ultimate aim of what has been billed as the biggest offensive of the 8-year-old war and the first test of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 30,000-troop “surge.”
“Today I’m here to listen to you and to hear your problems,” Karzai told a gathering of about 300 local elders assembled on rugs in a mosque near the town’s main bazaar.
The elders shouted at times during two hours of sharp exchanges, decrying looted shops, house searches, civilian casualties, arrests and Western forces using schools as bases.
“I have heard no good news over the last 30 years, just fighting and blasts,” said Mohammad Naeem Khan, in his 30s. “We want hospitals, roads, reconstruction projects and security.”
“We want an Islamic government based on sharia (Islamic law), that has been the goal of our jihad (holy war) for the last 30 years,” said Abdul Aziz Khan, among a list of eight demands that also included releasing prisoners and repairing destroyed shops.
Karzai promised to provide security, open schools and build roads and clinics. When he asked the gathering, “Will you support me?,” elders raised their hands and shouted, “We are with you.”
Karzai later told reporters: “They had some very legitimate complaints. Very, very legitimate. They felt as though they were abandoned, which in many cases is true. And this sense of abandonment has to go away.”
He was joined at the meeting by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces which have seized most of Marjah in operation Mushtarak, which began last month and has been described as the war’s single biggest offensive.
McChrystal sat on the floor during the meeting, listening to Karzai through an interpreter, but did not speak. He later put a positive spin on the angry words, telling reporters he was “impressed at how they went hard at the issues.”
“To me, that’s real democracy in action: people speaking their minds, and nobody seemed hesitant to do that,” he said, adding troops would check claims of property damage or looting.
The NATO-led force also announced the deaths of four of its members in separate attacks throughout the country, including three in southern Afghanistan.
Marjah, a fertile warren of desert canals in Helmand’s opium-growing heartland, was billed as the last big Taliban stronghold in the country’s most violent province.
Thousands of U.S. Marines flooded into the town last month, joined by about 1,500 Afghan troops, while thousands of British troops conducted assaults to seize areas on its outskirts.
The stated aim of the offensive was to bring an Afghan “government in a box” to Marjah, extending the reach of Karzai’s government to an area where it previously had no authority.
Some fighters may still be in the area. A rocket or mortar fell about four km (1.5 miles) from where Karzai was to appear before he arrived, but did not explode and no one was hurt, said Dawud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand provincial governor.
McChrystal’s forces have so far focused on Helmand, and say their next target will be neighboring Kandahar, provinces in the south that have been the Taliban’s traditional heartland. But while NATO is focusing on the south, fighters have been expanding their influence in other parts of the country.
Provincial officials in Baghlan in the north said Sunday there had been clashes over the last 24 hours between fighters from rival insurgent groups: the main Taliban faction and Hezb-i-Islami — an Islamist group usually allied to them.
General Abdul Kabir, police chief of Baghlan province, said 35 Hezb-i-Islami fighters and 15 Taliban members had died in the fighting, over control of villages in the area. There was no independent confirmation of the death toll, and combat casualties are routinely exaggerated in Afghanistan.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said he was unaware of the clashes. A man calling himself a Hezb-i-Islami commander, Mirwais, said none of the group’s fighters had died.
Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in Kandahar; Moahmmad Hamed in Kunduz; Peter Graff and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; and pool reporters in Marjah; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Charles Dick