Afghanistan‘s red, green and black flag was raised over Marjah by the governor of Helmand province, watched over by senior U.S., British and Afghan commanders and a crowd of several hundred residents, an AFP photographer said.
Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan declared it a “historical day” as authority over the area was handed to Governor Mohammand Gulab Mangal after 12 days of fighting.
“It’s a very historical day, a new beginning,” Brig.-Gen. Nicholson said at the ceremony, attended by several hundred residents, watched over by U.S. Marine snipers stationed on the roofs of surrounding buildings.
In what had characteristics of a victory celebration, Brig.-Gen. Nicholson said: “They are voting with their eyes, and they believe there is a fresh start for Marjah under the government of Afghanistan.”
Around 15,000 U.S., Afghan and NATO forces launched Operation Mushtarak (“Together”) on February 13 in what has been billed the biggest military operation since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime.
Their mission was to capture the Marjah and Nad Ali areas of Helmand from the Taliban and drug lords in a major test of U.S. President Barack Obama’s troop surge battling to end the eight-year Afghan war.
Speaking by telephone from the Helmand capital Lashkar Gah, provincial spokesman Daud Ahmadi said the civilian government had taken over responsibility.
But amid the tight security and reports that Taliban fighters were still active in some parts of Marjah, it remained unclear just how close the combined forces are to a true victory.
“If the Taliban see me talking to you, they’ll kill me,” an elderly man with a white beard told NATO troops in Showal, Nad Ali district, sliding his thumb across his throat.
Soldiers patrol with maximum care. Closed for three weeks, run-down shops in a local market reopened anxiously, said an AFP reporter.
NATO and Afghan leaders have said the fighting is the first, military stage of Mushtarak, with consolidated occupation and rebuilding to follow, to ensure the Taliban do not return, as they have in the past.
The counter-insurgency strategy has four phases — shape, take, hold and build, referring to military preparation and assault, followed by the establishment of civilian security and services such as hospitals and schools.
Elite police battalions — trained by U.S. Marines to reverse reputations for corruption and abuse — have already moved into Marjah, NATO has said.
Mangal is expected to announce a plan for the development and reconstruction of the area once the Taliban threat has been eradicated.
In contrast to the celebratory language, the Taliban said that outside the main Marjah bazaar their fighters still held sway.
“Our mujahedeen are still in Marjah and still fighting, and the people are still with us, fighting the American invading forces,” spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
NATO said shops and clinics had re-opened in Marjah and new shops were offering “telephones, computers and other electronics… alongside fresh fruits and vegetables”.
Newly appointed district administrator Abdul Zahir had supervised distribution of rice, beans, cooking oil and sugar, it said, adding that many people who had fled the violence were returning to the area.
The formal flag-raising follows a fleeting visit to a crossroads bazaar by Mangal last week, when an Afghan soldier raised the national flag on a bamboo poll even as fighting continued in other areas of Marjah.
Humanitarian groups have said residents are facing deteriorating conditions as food, medicine and other supplies run dangerously low and the innumerable Taliban-planted bombs make movement in and out of Marjah perilous.
“Families are coming night and day, whenever they find time,” said Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, Helmand’s director for refugees’ affairs.