The Taliban have begun waging a campaign of intimidation in Marja that some Afghan leaders worry has jeopardized the success of a U.S.-led offensive meant as an early test of a revised military approach in Afghanistan.
The Taliban tactics have included at least one beheading in a broader effort to terrorize residents and undermine what military officials have said is the most important aim of the offensive — the attempt to establish a strong local government that can restore services. The offensive ousted the Taliban from control of their last population center in southern Helmand province, but maintaining control over such territory has proved elusive in the past.
Though Marja has an occupation force numbering more than one coalition soldier or police officer for every eight residents, Taliban agitators have been able to wage an underground campaign of subversion, which residents say has intensified in the past two weeks.
The new governor of Marja, Haji Abdul Zahir, said the militants were now holding meetings in randomly selected homes roughly every other night, gathering residents together and demanding that they turn over the names of anyone cooperating with the authorities.
Zahir said the Taliban also regularly issued "night letters," posted at mosques or on utility poles, warning against such collaboration, and often intimidated residents into providing them with shelter and food, even in densely populated neighborhoods of the city, which has a population of 80,000.
"They are threatening and intimidating these people who are cooperating," he said. "They have been involved in the area for a long time, and they know how to intimidate people. They threaten them with beheadings, cutting off hands and feet, all the things they did when they were the government."
More than 6,000 U.S. soldiers, Marines and British soldiers fought their way into Marja beginning Feb. 13, along with thousands of Afghan troops and police officers.