Test of counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan

In the windblown town of Marja, the challenge faced by Gen. David H. 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, Marja’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, Marja, 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 something of a cautionary tale.

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

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

And in Marja, American 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, told reporters in Kabul this week.

About four months ago, he said, “the Taliban flag was flying, Marja was a center of narco-trafficking and of IED [roadside bomb] facilitators…. It is just taking some time to reverse a situation that was so bad.”

Petraeus is taking over the war at a time when progress is “slower and harder” than military officials anticipated, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday. But despite problems, Gates insisted, the United States is 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, Marja is little more than a pinpoint in a constellation of urgent needs confronting Petraeus.

This Western military death toll here this month is already the highest of the nearly nine-year war, in which more than 1,700 Western troops have been killed. The insurgency is gaining ground in previously calm areas, such as the north, and Afghan security forces still 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 the parliamentary elections scheduled in September will be a flashpoint for violence and vote-rigging. Daily life is punctuated by sudden death: On Thursday, seven Afghan constructions workers were killed by a bomb planted on a road in Oruzgan province.

Marja was scripted as an unambiguous success story — and in some ways, residents say, life is better than it was during the years that the Afghan government was virtually invisible in their lives.

Nonetheless, they 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 like baking bread, or occasionally kill people known to have friendly ties with the still-struggling local Afghan administration.

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

Although Western troops have already 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 gambits. 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 Marja.

McChrystal, who enjoyed a close relationship with Karzai, had recently coaxed the initially balky Afghan leader into greater involvement in laying the groundwork for the Kandahar operation. Local officials and tribal leaders are watching closely to see whether that personal cooperation will flag when Petraeus steps in.

“McChrystal has been to all the districts around Kandahar — Arghandab, Panjwai, Maiwand, Spin Buldak. He visited about half a dozen times in the last few months,” said Haji Ehsan, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council. “We hope [Petraeus] will have that level of commitment.”

Meanwhile, the clock ticks loudly: The start of Petraeus’ tenure coincides with the beginning of a 12-month countdown to July 2011, when Obama has promised to begin drawing down American forces here.

In the wake of McChrystal’s tumultuous departure, Western civilian and military leaders sought Thursday to signal a sense of continuity.

“We remain absolutely focused on our tasks, and the operational tempo will not miss a beat,” said Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, the British officer who is serving as acting commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force until Petraeus arrives. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry told Afghan reporters: “We continue to have a very clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum.”

Karzai’s government, too, expressed confidence in Petraeus, saying the Afghan administration already regarded him as a “trusted partner.”

But in Marja, Kalim the baker said he was still too frightened to return to his trade, even though his oldest customers have begged him for the fragrant flatbread loaves that are a staple of almost every Afghan meal.

His fellow bakers feel the same way — which is clearly what the insurgents are seeking through such systematic efforts to disrupt daily life by threatening people who cooperate in any way with rebuilding the town.

“We have the sub-governor, the police, the Afghan army, the Marines here, and with all these forces they can’t destroy the Taliban,” Kalim said. “Who will protect us?”

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.