KABUL // Emerging cautiously into the winter sunlight, Afghans in the besieged cluster of villages in Marjah, southern Afghanistan, are opening the bullet-riddled shutters of their shops, going to mosques and greeting one another in the street. For the past week most residents have hidden in the basements of their mud-walled houses, sleeping with their livestock and turning Marjah into a ghost town. Huddled indoors, they have learnt the different pitches of machine-gun rounds and sniper bullets.
But yesterday, as Nato and Afghan troops slowly ground their way through minefields, drawing fire from tenacious Taliban guerrillas, a semblance of normality began returning. A trickle of customers ventured out to buy goods for the first time in a week. "Some shops are open in the main bazaar," Saleh Mohammad, 23, a student, said by phone. "At the same time you can hear gunfire and explosions near and far away."
Marjah has been dragged out of sleepy anonymity to become the focus of the largest military offensive in Nato's nine-year war in Afghanistan, after allied commanders identified it as the biggest Taliban stronghold in Helmand province. Small bands of guerrillas have dug in and are preparing for a fight to the death, Pentagon sources say. Generals warn the battle may continue for a month. But with Nato's overwhelming numbers and firepower, there is little doubt over the military outcome.
Instead, under US Gen Stanley McChrystal's reinvigorated counterinsurgency campaign, the mantra is that the population - estimated at anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000 residents - is the prize. It is not good enough just to seize Marjah. In the battle of perceptions that accompanies the smoke and gunfire, avoiding collateral damage is the key. An indication of how damaging Gen McChrystal knows civilian casualties could be was his prompt apology to President Hamid Karzai when 12 Afghans, including at least nine civilians were killed in a Nato rocket strike.
It is an emotive issue, with the Afghan government, the Taliban and rights groups all weighing in. A top Afghan general has accused the insurgents of using human shields, something residents have confirmed and the Taliban have denied, while Amnesty International criticised Nato for failing to have a "credible mechanism" for investigating the civilian deaths after conflicting versions of events emerged.
Less reported but perhaps far more important are the thousands of people who have run the gauntlet of minefields and illegal checkpoints to escape Marjah. At least six thousand refugees have reached the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, where aid agencies are providing food and shelter but refusing to build camps in an attempt to prevent the exodus becoming permanent. In Nimroz province, a swathe of desert to the west, Governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad said another 1,800 refugees had taken shelter in a clutch of abandoned buildings.
"There was fighting, planes were flying overhead all the time, there were tanks all over the place, bullets were hitting our houses - so when the chance came to leave, we did," Wali Jan, one of the refugees, told the BBC. "Where we are staying is just shelter, nothing more - no gas, no blankets, no flour and no food. We are all sick but there is no transport to get to anywhere where there is help."
And once combat operations conclude, rolling out government services and development projects is where the fight will move. Within "a couple of days" Nato hopes to install a government-in-waiting in Marjah, including subdistrict governor Haji Zahir, back in Afghanistan after over a decade in exile. His job is to run an administration that is honest and competent, enabling hundreds of western and Afghan stabilisation advisers to start bringing services and security to the area.
One of the first development projects the allies are planning is construction of a paved road, which will generate jobs and foster commerce, linking Marjah with the nearby town of Garmsir, Helmand province and beyond. Also high on the agenda is bringing electricity, clinics and schools to the area. This is the Achilles heel of the operation. Hopes are pinned on the Afghan administrators to usher in competent, effective government from which peace and prosperity will flow.
But eight demoralising years of violence and corruption have left many sceptical over how successful development plans will be. Expectations are modest. "Every one is tired, they just want peace and calm and a normal life," said Abdul Qabir, a village elder. Stabilisation experts say 2,000 specially trained Afghan police are on standby to help maintain security once combat operations end. Whether they prove to be any less corrupt and incompetent than regular police is one of the biggest question marks hanging over the long-term prospects of Operation Moshtarak (Together).
Another major difficulty will be weaning farmers off opium poppies and encouraging them to grow far less lucrative crops such as wheat. Counter-narcotics experts hope that greater security will remove some of the barriers to growing illicit crops. For example, freedom of movement will allow farmers to take their crops to market, something impossible when the roads are sowed with bombs and dotted with Taliban checkpoints.
But with narco-corruption encompassing not just crime syndicates and the insurgents who tax them but government officials as well, unwinding the industry even within a comparatively small area such as Marjah will prove difficult. "You're almost in an impossible situation, where you are going to take over this area, kick out the guerrillas, terminate the Taliban shadow government - and at the same time you're going to change the livelihood of a lot of the peasants," Arturo Munoz, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Reuters.
"That would be hard enough to do even when there's no war." firstname.lastname@example.org