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First steps for stability in Marjah?

Afghan VP Abdul Karim Khalili visiting Marjan, Afghanistan 1 March 2010
Mr Khalili (c) looks on as a US marine gave medical treatment to an Afghan mine victim in Marjan

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Marjah, Afghanistan

Afghanistan's Vice-President, Abdul Karim Khalili, has visited the town of Marjah in Helmand Province, days after the national flag was raised over the former Taliban stronghold.

Nothing too surprising about that, you might think.

After all, Marjah has been the main focus of Operation Moshtarak, the largest military operation carried out by Nato and its Afghan allies since 2001.

It is not going to be like the past. We will stay, and we will build and we will defend you
Abdul Karim Khalili

But Mr Khalili's fleeting visit - accompanied by Nato commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal and senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill - draws attention to one of the most critical issues in this entire campaign.

Can the Afghan government, the central government in Kabul, actually deliver on its promises?

After stepping off a Nato helicopter, Mr Khalili certainly sought to reassure a crowd of local men gathered in a field on the edge of town.

'Only the beginning'

"We will bring peace and stability," he said.

"It is not going to be like the past. We will stay, and we will build and we will defend you.

"This," he said, "is only the beginning."

But do they believe him? Should they believe him?

There is no question that people have been badly let down before.

NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal with an unidentified British soldier during a visit to Marjah, Helmand province 1 March 2010
Gen McChrystal says getting direct feedback from the people is key

Mr Khalili's audience was polite but subdued. There were complaints about family members who were killed in the military operation, and about property which had been damaged or destroyed.

There is clearly a long way to go to establish trust. But Nato commanders hope something positive is beginning to happen.

Having a senior politician from Kabul visiting an area where the Taliban had held sway for so long in the absence of any government presence is a good first step.

"He came down to see Marjah and to represent the president," Gen McChrystal said as he watched from the sidelines, "[…] and, particularly in a difficult security environment, to get direct feedback from the people is really key".

Corruption

But what is equally important for Nato now is that the Afghan government really does follow up on its commitment - to development and security in places like Marjah - over the long term.

Given its track record, there are serious doubts about whether it has the capacity to do so.

Some Afghan ministries are clearly more capable than others, and corruption continues to be a huge cause for concern.

International experts from the US and Britain will be helping re-establish effective civilian government in remote parts of Helmand province.

But, in the end, it is the Afghan government which will have to deliver.

"We have to keep reviewing the progress we make and no-one expects that it is going to be easy," said Mark Sedwill.

"But I'm confident we have a better system in place to involve the central government than we've had before."

For now, the main focus is on one district - Marjah.

But other military operations are in the pipeline, in other parts of Helmand and in neighbouring Kandahar.

And all of them, if they are to succeed, will need strong civilian support from Kabul.

It's uncharted territory.



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