MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - From the litany of requests made to Mike Mullen on Tuesday — from asphalt for roads to fertilizer for fields — one might think he was a visiting aid worker, not the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We want educational centres ... There is no good hospital ... We want all these roads to be paved,” a man with a long black beard told Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, at a “shura,” or tribal meeting in the heart of Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Mullen came to Marjah to see for himself what the Pentagon cautiously views as the first successful test of President Barack Obama’s strategy for reversing Taliban momentum after more than eight years of war.
Forty days after U.S. Marines moved in to oust the Taliban from Marjah, U.S. and Afghan commanders told Mullen they controlled the area and were making progress standing up a functioning Afghan local government and providing basic services.
But as the shura showed, while security may have improved, expectations in the town are high, and it is unclear how long residents will be willing to wait for the Americans and their Afghan allies to improve their living conditions.
Though the insurgents took heavy casualties, U.S. and Afghan officials acknowledge the Taliban still have a presence, mainly at night, and reporters were asked not to identify Afghan villagers at the shura with Mullen because of concern they could be targeted later.
Mullen said he was encouraged by what he heard, despite what officials described as serious problems training a local police force. Locals don’t trust them, Mullen was told.
“Please cooperate with us,” the Afghan man with the black beard told Mullen at the end of his wish list. “The budget that we need, please provide that. We’re looking forward to seeing the results.”
In addition to paved roads, schools, a hospital and cold-storage facilities to preserve local tomatoes, some villagers complained about Afghan plans to halt the cultivation of opium poppies. They said they feared losing income.
“I don’t have other means,” one tribal elder said.
“People here are poor,” another added.
“Next year nobody should cultivate poppy. If anybody tries to plant and cultivate poppy, that means he is a criminal and he will face judgment and he will go to jail,” Helmand governor Gulab Mangal told the gathering.
Mangal said eliminating poppies would open the door to development in the impoverished province.
Mullen, whose helicopter landed in Marjah in a small wheat field surrounded by larger poppy crops nearing harvest time, said the villagers were “eager to make their desires known” but complaints were “a very critical part of the process.”
Propped up on pillows, atop rugs, Mullen’s response sounded like a line from the counter-insurgency handbook.
“I fully understand your concerns. They clearly focus on what are very common needs. And I don’t come here today with any magic formula,” Mullen said.
“God willing, we’ll be able to deliver this capability and service as soon as possible. If it could be done overnight, we’d do that. It’s going to take some time,” he added.
The local governor was more optimistic, promising not only to pave roads and get seeds to farmers, but to build hospitals, schools and a university that will train doctors, engineers and religious leaders.
“I have programs for everything,” the governor said.
Editing by Jerry Norton