THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Afghans take control of Taliban stronghold

Troops hunt for militants Restoring town services is key

Gulab Mangal, governor of Helmand Province, asserted government control in Marja yesterday by raising the Afghan flag during a ceremony yesterday. The town of 80,000 people has been a major Taliban logistics and supply center. Gulab Mangal, governor of Helmand Province, asserted government control in Marja yesterday by raising the Afghan flag during a ceremony yesterday. The town of 80,000 people has been a major Taliban logistics and supply center. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)
By Taimoor Shah
New York Times / February 26, 2010

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MARJA, Afghanistan - The black, red, and green flag of Afghanistan was hoisted over the center of this onetime Taliban stronghold yesterday, as Afghan officials symbolically claimed control after a major American-led military offensive.

While this city has emerged from the worst of the fighting, there were reports of scattered battles to the north of Marja, and American and Afghan troops continued to pursue Taliban militants. The militaries now face formidable challenges in securing the city enough for the government to begin to provide the services that it hopes will win people’s loyalty.

Residents who fled began to return, and some markets reopened yesterday. But there is little food because the major road into Marja is still mined, and the city remains a dangerous labyrinth of buried bombs, booby traps, and pockets of insurgents.

With Afghan soldiers, tribal elders, and residents of Marja looking on at the flag raising, the governor of Helmand Province, which includes Marja, and a top Afghan Army officer promised to restore security and stability to the city and to transform it from a bastion of the Taliban into a “symbol of peace.’’

The officer, General Sher Muhammad Zazai, the Afghan Army’s top commander in the Marja campaign, said the operation’s military goals were “almost achieved,’’ and he promised residents that the Taliban would no longer pose a threat to the area. Marja, a city of about 80,000 near the Pakistani border, had been a Taliban enclave for nearly three years.

But General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said at a news conference in Kabul that it could take up to a month for troops to defuse bombs and rout the remaining fighters. Sporadic fighting and resistance could last even longer, adding to the difficulties of setting up a fully functional local government. American military officials have described the battle for Marja as part of a larger campaign, political as much as military, to weaken the Taliban.

The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, who attended the ceremony, said that troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force would remain in the area until security was restored and that they would not allow Marja to fall again to the Taliban. He promised that reconstruction projects would begin soon and that President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government would run the city better than the Taliban had.

“What did they do for you people?’’ Mangal said at the ceremony, which took place near the site of the new government offices. “Are there any schools, clinics being built by the Taliban? Are they helping you?’’

Coalition officials, trying to quickly restore government services, have begun to set up schools and hire employees to fill jobs in the district government.

Afghan officials also expressed their condolences over the civilians who were killed or wounded in the offensive, which began Feb. 12 and was the largest military campaign since the invasion in 2001. But Mangal said it was a “great achievement’’ that so few civilians had been killed.

The military warned of the offensive for weeks in an effort to drive away Taliban militants and keep civilian casualties to a minimum. But the Afghan human rights commission said 28 civilians had nonetheless been killed in the fighting. At least 12 service members in the NATO force, including eight Americans, have been killed during the campaign.

As residents watched the flag raising some expressed mixed feelings about the change of power. They said that the Taliban had provided order and security and that the Afghan Army now needed to prove that it could open schools, clear mines and explosives from the roads and fields, and keep the population safe.

Juma Gul, 20, said his family had remained in the city even after his grandfather was shot and killed in front of his home.

“The operation was painful and full of miseries for our family,’’ Gul said, adding that he wanted to see the troops leave as soon as possible. “For us, they are not useful.’’

NATO said two service members died in southern Afghanistan - one on Wednesday when an improvised explosive device blew up, and the other yesterday from small-arms fire. NATO said neither service member died as part of the Marja campaign.

Meanwhile yesterday, two policemen were killed and another was wounded in suicide attacks in Kabul.

Abdul Ghafor Sayedzada, a top investigator for the Kabul police, said a series of explosions occurred this morning near Kabul City Center, a nine-story shopping area. Sayed Kabir Amiry, the director of the hospitals in Kabul, said that about five other people were wounded in the attack.