MARJA, Afghanistan — Elders in a former Taliban stronghold berated and challenged Afghanistan's president Sunday, delivering a litany of complaints about government corruption and NATO's military operations on his first visit to Marja.
President Hamid Karzai said that's exactly what he had come to hear.
"Today, I'm here to listen to you and hear your problems," he told about 300 men who sat shoulder to shoulder on the floor of a mosque in central Marja.
Thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan troops seized the town of 80,000 from the Taliban this month in a three-week offensive seen as a major test of a new strategy to win over Afghans by routing insurgents from population centers, setting up an effective civilian government and rushing in aid.
On Sunday, many of the assembled elders said they wanted to side with the government, but that their experience so far made them skeptical.
They complained — sometimes shouting — about corruption among former Afghan government officials. They lamented how schools in Marja were turned into military posts by international forces. They said shops were looted during the offensive, and alleged that innocent civilians were detained by international forces.
Seated on a cushion in his trademark peaked hat and a dark suit, Karzai nodded as men in dusty tunics and long beards stood up at a podium next to him and catalogued grievances. Sometimes he interrupted their speeches to respond, or just to agree. Elders in the crowd occasionally stood up to correct the speakers.
The government's task is to convince residents of the town in southern Helmand province that the civilian government can provide them with a better life than the Taliban.
Mohammad Naeem Khan, in his early 30s, said his loyalty is to whoever will provide for him. "If the Taliban tap me on the shoulder, I will be with them, and if the government taps me on my shoulder I will be with them," Khan said.
In a message to the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said insurgents fired mortars into Marja's main intersection, but reporters traveling with Karzai and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal did not witness any attack.
Three NATO service members were killed in attacks Sunday — one in the south and two in the east, the military alliance said in a statement.
At least 35 civilians have been killed in the operation, according to the Afghan human rights commission. Spokesman Nader Nadery said insurgent bombs killed more than 10 people, while NATO rocket fire killed at least 14.
Karzai and McChrystal flew into Marja aboard U.S. military helicopters. McChrystal joined Karzai on the floor of the mosque, but did not speak during the nearly two-hour meeting.