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Originally published Friday, June 25, 2010 at 9:17 PM

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Counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan a big test for Gen. Petraeus

Despite initial success in taking the Taliban's spiritual home Marjah, insurgents still make good on threats made there. The operation to drive the Taliban out of Kandahar is a much more complicated and dangerous operation.

Los Angeles Times

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KABUL, Afghanistan — In the town of Marjah, the challenge faced by Gen. David Petraeus, chosen as the new commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, comes down to the simplest of sustenance: daily bread.

Four months after an offensive led by U.S. Marines in the southern farming community that had been a longtime Taliban stronghold, a virulent campaign of intimidation by insurgents has lately centered on a particularly humble target, Marjah's bakeries.

"They ordered us to close down," said a baker named Kalim, describing an abduction ordeal this month that left him and a colleague too terrified to return to their brick ovens.

He said the insurgents told them, "You are helping the Americans. Don't reopen, or we will kill you."

By now, Marjah, in strategic Helmand province, was supposed to have been a showpiece of what a judicious combination of Western military might and a ramping up of Afghan government services could accomplish. Instead, it has become a cautionary tale.

The plan to remake the town is emblematic of the counterinsurgency strategy laid out by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and expected to be pursued by his replacement, Petraeus, who could arrive in Afghanistan next week, after his expected Senate confirmation.

Killing insurgents, this doctrine holds, is not enough. Military victory is meaningless unless the Afghan population is won over. The path to that, the thinking goes, lies in showing people how good government can improve their daily lives.

In Marjah, U.S. civilian and military officials alike have repeatedly described steady, if slow, progress.

"The situation is still difficult in the central Helmand River valley," Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said in Kabul this week.

About four months ago, he added, "The Taliban flag was flying, Marjah was a center of narco-trafficking and of IED facilitators ... it is just taking some time to reverse a situation that was so bad."

Petraeus is taking over the war at a time progress is "slower and harder" than military officials anticipated, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday. Despite problems, Gates insisted the United States was not "bogged down" in Afghanistan.

"I believe we are making some progress," he said. "It is slower and harder than we anticipated."

Gates said Petraeus would have until the end of the year to show that the current strategy can work. "We're not asking for victory by December, or by July of 2011," he said.

President Obama, at a news conference Thursday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington, put it this way: "We didn't say we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. We said we'd begin a transition phase that would allow the Afghan government to take more and more responsibility."

In some respects, Marjah is little more than a pinpoint in a constellation of urgent needs confronting Petraeus.

This month's Western military death toll in Afghanistan is already the highest of the nearly nine-year war, in which more than 1,700 Western troops have been killed. Three U.S. troops were reported killed and the bodies of 11 men, some beheaded, were found Friday. Their deaths brought to 83 the number of international service members killed in June. At least 49 were Americans.

The insurgency is gaining ground in previously calm areas such as the country's north, and Afghanistan's security forces appear far from ready to assume responsibility for safeguarding their nation.

President Hamid Karzai's government remains widely mistrusted, mainly because of pervasive corruption. Many fear that September parliamentary elections will be a flash point for violence and vote-rigging. Daily life is punctuated by sudden death: On Thursday, seven Afghan civilian constructions workers were killed by a bomb planted on a road in Uruzgan province.

Marjah was scripted as an unambiguous success story, and in some ways, locals said, life is better than it was during the years the Afghan government was virtually invisible in people's lives.

But Marjah residents nonetheless cite a familiar refrain of disillusionment with corrupt Afghan police officers, a sense of helpless terror when Taliban fighters leave threatening "night letters" ordering them to desist from simple activities such as baking bread, or the occasional killings of people known to have friendly ties with the still-struggling local Afghan administration.

The unexpected difficulty of establishing security and governance in Marjah has been cited by senior military officials as ample reason to proceed cautiously — and considerably more slowly than planned — in Kandahar, the much larger hub of Afghanistan's south and the Taliban's self-declared spiritual home.

Although Western troops have begun a gradual tightening of security in Kandahar's outlying districts, it is Petraeus who will take ownership of one of the war's riskiest operations. Almost everything about Kandahar — its tribal ties, entrenched criminality, the insurgency's deep roots there — is more complex, by orders of magnitude, than the situation in Marjah.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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