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Originally published Saturday, April 3, 2010 at 10:13 PM

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Taliban thwart strategy to win over Afghans

Since their offensive in Marjah, Afghanistan, Marines have poured in money to win over locals by paying for property damage.

The New York Times

Related developments

"Friendly fire": A contingent of Afghan reinforcements delivering supplies to a German military base was mistakenly fired on by German troops, and six Afghan soldiers were killed, officials said Saturday. The "friendly fire" killings Friday were the second deadly setback for allied troops in Kunduz province, in northeastern Afghanistan. Three German soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack earlier in the day.

Pakistan battles: Pakistani troops fought gunbattles and bombed militant hide-outs Saturday in the Orakzai tribal region, a Taliban stronghold near the Afghan border, leaving six soldiers and 30 militants dead, officials said. It was not possible to get independent confirmation of the casualties in the remote region.

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MARJAH, Afghanistan — Since their offensive in February, the Marines have flooded Marjah with hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. The tactic aims to win over wary locals by paying them compensation for property damage or putting to work men who would otherwise look to the Taliban for support.

The approach helped turn the tide of insurgency in Iraq. But in Marjah, the Taliban have found ways to thwart the strategy, including killing or beating some who take the Marines' money, or pocketing it themselves.

A few weeks since the start of the Marjah operation, the Taliban have "reseized control and the momentum in a lot of ways" in northern Marjah, Maj. James Coffman, civil-affairs leader for the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said in late March. "We have to change tactics to get the locals back on our side."

Col. Ghulam Sakhi, an Afghan National Police commander, said his informants told him at least 30 Taliban have come to one Marine outpost to take money from the Marines as compensation for property damage or for relatives killed during the operation in February.

"You shake hands with them, but you don't know they are Taliban," Sakhi said. "They have the same clothes, and the same style. And they are using the money against the Marines. They are buying IEDs and buying ammunition, everything," he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

One tribal elder from northern Marjah, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the killing and intimidation continued to worsen. "Every day we are hearing that they kill people, and we are finding their dead bodies," he said. "The Taliban are everywhere."

The local problem points to the larger challenges ahead as U.S. forces expand operations in the predominantly Pashtun south, where the Taliban draw most of their support and the government is unpopular.

The Marines admit to being somewhat flummoxed.

"We've got to reevaluate our definition of the word 'enemy,' " said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand province. "Most people here identify themselves as Taliban."

Work programs

The Marines hoped work programs would be a quick way to put to work hundreds of "military-aged males," as they call them. In some places, that has been successful. But the programs have run into jeopardy in other parts of Marjah, an area of about 80 square miles that is a patchwork of farmland, small bazaars and villages.

In northern Marjah, the biggest blow came when the local man hired to supervise the work programs was beaten by the Taliban and refused to help the Marines anymore.

The Marines also are using compensation payments to build support for the newly appointed district governor of Marjah, Abdul Zahir, telling people that to receive money they must get his approval. That effort has proved equally vulnerable.

In late March, an Afghan man was beaten by the Taliban hours after he had gone to the Marine outpost that houses Zahir's office to collect his compensation. The Taliban took the money, said Sakhi, the police commander.

"My greatest fear right now is not knowing if I have put money into the pockets of the Taliban," Coffman said.

In central Marja, where the work projects have had more success, about 2,000 Afghan men are employed by programs financed by the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, said the unit's civil-affairs leader, Maj. David Fennell.

At one of the battalion's outposts, shipments of cash arrive regularly. The last was 10 million afghanis, or $210,000, stuffed into a rucksack. The battalion doles out $150,000 a week, Fennell said.

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