MARJAH -- Azizullah Khan might be this town's best example of civic-mindedness.
He is a middle-aged farmer here in Marjah, a cluster of shops and low-slung mud walls at the center of a recent large-scale military effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province.
His dedication to community under the most trying of circumstances earned him the respect of Marjah's locals, who long depended on his pharmacy in the town's dusty bazaar as their only health-care option.
When news came that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would be visiting on March 7, following the anti-Taliban operation carried out by Afghan and NATO forces, it was Khan who was entrusted to speak for Marjah's residents. With their marketplace in ruins as a result of the offensive, the feeling was that Khan would be well-suited to present their demands and concerns based on firsthand experience.
Addressing the president inside the community's main mosque, Khan peppered his message with salutations and blunt grievances, even reminding the Afghan leader of his oft-repeated promises to step down if he failed to deliver security and services.
"We are not asking you to resign, but our patience is running thin," Khan told the only president that Afghans have ever elected. "For the past eight years the warlords have been ruling us. Their hands have been stained with the blood of innocents and they have killed hundreds of people. Even now they are being imposed on the people in the name of tribal and regional leaders. People are afraid to convey the real feelings of locals because they sense themselves to be in danger from all sides."
Khan pleaded for the government to ensure security, remove any military presence from schools and private homes, compensate locals for losses resulting from the recent fighting, and help rebuild schools, clinics, and irrigation canals.
His most impassioned and telling appeal, however, was for Karzai to avoid repeating a past mistake: Do not hand over control of local affairs to former militia commanders or other "people with influence."
The plea, met with cheers and nods of approval by the hundreds of locals assembled at the mosque, highlights a window of opportunity that has been opened in Marjah, a town that in many ways is a microcosm of what has gone wrong in much of southern Afghanistan.
War-weary locals initially welcomed the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, but their feelings soon began to change. After finding themselves ruled by former mujahedin commanders installed by the government in 2001, many of Marjah's youth went to the other side, joining the insurgent ranks who paid well and protected the opium-poppy crops on which many of the towns 15,000 farming families depended.
Kabul and its international backers tried to improve the situation. The governor, police chief, and other key officials were removed, and 5,000 British troops were tasked with controlling the area.
A girl looks on as U.S. Marines patrol over farmland in northeast of Marjah in mid-February.
The Taliban, however, filled the vacuum of governance. Many locals welcomed the development, preferring the stability provided by the Taliban over the chaos of life under draconian local strongmen. The Taliban enforced hard-line religious edicts and did not tolerate crime or feuds among the communities they controlled. Justice was cheap, swift, and decisive.
But locals were aware of the shortcomings as well. The Taliban offered no education, health care, or prospect of future development. The group was seen as controlled by foreign militants -- Arabs and Pakistanis in particular.
Many of those concerns are only coming to light following operation "Moshtarak," or "together." If it turns out that that locals are confident enough to look past their fears of a Taliban return and toward a better future, the transformation could prove to be the joint military offensive's greatest success.Familiar Story
Marjah residents appear eager for a fresh start, despite the fact that 25,000 of them have been displaced and scores killed during the recent fighting. But they are clearly voicing their demand that honest local officials -- untainted by corruption and attentive to their needs -- be in control of local affairs.
The man whose return to power they might fear most is 57-year-old former Helmand police chief Abdul Rahman Jan. Jan is typical of the power brokers dominating local affairs in rural communities across Afghanistan. Once an anti-Soviet mujahedin commander, his rise to power in the 1990s and again after the ouster of the Taliban eight years ago led to local suffering. Members of his militia pillaged, raped, and engaged in the drug trade, according to locals.
Since 2007, when the Taliban overran his Marjah stronghold, Jan has lived in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, with his extended family of 12 children and grandchildren. Marjah residents want it to stay that way, but the bearded patriarch is already hinting that he might soon return to his sprawling home and farmland in Marjah.
Jan has formed a 35-member Marjah Shura, or tribal council, in anticipation of renewed control of Marjah. While his return was made possible by the recent offensive, which cleared the agricultural town of insurgents, Jan has been openly critical of the effort's results.
"People were very optimistic that this offensive will free us from the clutches of the terrorists, but as the offensive advanced hardly any Taliban [fighters] were killed or captured," Jan laments. "Only two Taliban were killed and one was injured. There were around 470 [small] Taliban groups but none of their members were captured. Few weapons or mines were recovered."
His past might help explain his dour appraisal of the military operation. Formerly allied with Helmand strongman and former Governor Sher Muhammad Akhudzada, Jan was appointed as the provincial police chief after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. After that, Helmand slowly entered a downward spiral as the former mujahedin cabal took the opportunity to recoup financial and personnel losses they had incurred during the Taliban regime, when Jan was chased across Afghanistan by his Taliban enemies.
Haunted By Past
When thousands of UN-mandated British troops moved into Helmand in 2006, Jan was among the first officials fired because most locals were tired of the excesses of his tribal militia.
During the same period, a reinvigorated Taliban made inroads into much of southern Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. Then Marjah and Nade-Ali, an adjacent district in western Helmand, fell to Taliban fighters, who were dislodged only after the arrival of 15,000 Afghan and NATO troops in February.
Locals now see Jan busily lobbying in Helmand and Kabul to be given control of his former Marjah stronghold in return for having kept the region under nominal government control while in power. Many suspect him of using his influence within his Noorzai tribe against the Ishaqzai, who over the years have provided manpower to Taliban ranks to counter his influence. (Both Pashtun clans are part of the larger Durrani Pashtun tribal grouping, which populates much of southern Afghanistan and has played a central role in the country's politics.)
It is clear that when pharmacy owner Khan conveyed Marjah residents' demands to President Karzai, his advice against returning "people with influence" or former militia commanders to power was aimed squarely at people like Jan.
The market in Marjah on February 24
Karzai, who considers southern Afghanistan his home constituency because he was born and raised in a prominent ethnic Pashtun lineage in neighboring Kandahar Province, has indicated that he is listening.
In remarks to journalists after hearing complaints from Marjah residents for more than two hours on March 7, the president appeared to understand their concerns.
"They felt as if they were abandoned, which in many cases is true, and this sense of abandonment has to go away," Karzai said. "We have to address their problems, we have to give them what we have not [given them] so far, and provide them with the security that they require."Anxious Days
But this new attempt to provide good governance is fraught with difficulty as well, as the provincial government's appointment of one of Marjah's own to run the town's affairs has shown.
The candor of Haji Abdul Zahir Aryan, who was chosen to be Marjah's governor, appears to have won over the town's residents. The appointment has caused a stir outside Afghanistan, however, where reports have alleged that he served four years in a German prison after being convicted of stabbing his stepson.
Largely due to a name variation, the details remain murky. "The Washington Post," which has investigated the reports, writes that the case being cited corresponds to that of a "an Afghan man who went by Abdul Zahar" while in Germany.
Brushing aside any talk of controversy, the soft-spoken 60-year-old Marjah elder tells RFE/RL that he indeed lived in Germany for years, legally and with a visa. But he categorically denies having been convicted of or serving time for such a crime.
Looking ahead, he says the future of Marjah and its residents depends on how Kabul responds to their demands.
"As far as issue of the return of the Taliban is concerned, it depends on the performance of the government," Aryan says. "If the government continues to deliver on its promises and to carries on reconstruction and wins over Marjah's people, then the Taliban will find no space here in the future. But if the government turns its back on Marjah, as it did in the past, then the Taliban will rebuild their sanctuary here."
Aryan's message, seconded by people like Khan, clearly carries weight among Marjah locals. For Afghanistan's international backers, the message -- and the messages of others from a region largely silent in recent years -- will be tainted until they know for sure who is delivering it.
It's a tightrope that Kabul and its NATO allies must walk as they try to develop a formula that can work not only in Marjah, but throughout southern Afghanistan.