MARJA, Afghanistan — Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top allied military commander in Afghanistan, sat gazing at maps of Marja as a Marine battalion commander asked him for more time to oust Taliban fighters from a longtime stronghold in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.
"You've got to be patient," Lt. Col. Brian Christmas told McChrystal. "We've only been here 90 days."
"How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?" McChrystal replied.
A charged silence settled in the stuffy, crowded chapel tent at the Marine base in the Marja district. "I can't tell you, sir," Christmas finally answered.
"I'm telling you," McChrystal said. "We don't have as many days as we'd like."
The operation in Marja is supposed to be the first blow in a decisive campaign to oust the Taliban from their spiritual homeland in adjacent Kandahar province, one that McChrystal had hoped would bring security and stability to Marja and begin to convey an "irreversible sense of momentum" in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.
Instead, a tour last week of Marja and the nearby Nad Ali district, during which McClatchy Newspapers had rare access to meetings between McChrystal and top Western strategists, drove home the hard fact that President Barack Obama's plan to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011 is colliding with the realities of the war.
There aren't enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn't dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive.
"This is a bleeding ulcer right now," McChrystal told a group of Afghan officials, international commanders in southern Afghanistan and civilian strategists who are leading the effort to oust the Taliban fighters from Helmand.
A hundred days after U.S.-led forces launched the offensive, Marja markets are thriving, the local governor has begun to build a skeleton staff, and contractors have begun work on rebuilding schools, canals and bridges.
Yet, Marines are running into more firefights on their patrols. Taliban insurgents threaten and kill residents who cooperate with the Americans, and it will be months before a permanent police force is ready to take control of the streets from the temporary force that's brought some stability to Marja.
The U.S.-backed Marja governor, Marine officials said, has five top ministers. Eight of 81 certified teachers are on the job, and 350 of an estimated 10,000 students are going to school.
In an attempt to contain the creeping Taliban campaign, Lt. Col. Christmas' 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, in northern Marja recently ceded direct control of an outlying rural area, collapsed its battle space and moved a company back into the population center, which had been neglected.
"There was no security," said Haji Mohammed Hassan, a tribal elder whose fear of the Taliban prompted him to leave Marja two weeks ago for the relative safety of Helmand's nearby provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. "By day there is government," he said. "By night it's the Taliban."
Even in Nad Ali, where British commanders have had success holding elections, opening schools and building the beginnings of a functioning local government, there are pockets of Taliban resistance. The local police force, the British commander said, is about half the size that's needed to patrol the area.
"What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible," McChrystal said in one meeting. "We said: 'We're taking it back.' We came in to take it back. And we haven't been completely convincing."