MARJAH, Afghanistan --
After establishing a bi-monthly schedule for their meetings last month, the city’s third elder shura took place at the government center in Marjah Afghanistan, June 6.
Shuras, the Afghan equivalent of a town hall meeting, serve as a forum where the concerns of the city residents can be discussed, and proposals deliberated upon. Prior to beginning the meeting, Haji Zahir, the regional district governor of Marjah, presided over a ribbon-cutting ceremony, marking the end of reconstruction efforts at the government center and symbolized a formal presence of the Afghan government in Marjah.
“The ceremony officially marked the government center’s refurbishment after it was repainted, had new doors and windows installed, and had interior restructuring done,” said Capt. Anthony F. Zinni, commanding officer for Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “Having all the block leaders there, see the government of Afghanistan slowly establishing itself presents the perception of the government improving on what it has and a sense of status that comes with legitimacy.”
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony and a customary moment of prayer, the members gathered under the crowded solar shade, sharing a small space away from the sun. Compared to the last shura, when 60 elders attended, roughly 200 men were present, the majority of whom were village elders, mullahs, the religious figureheads of community, or block leaders.
At the previous meeting, the key points of discussion were about trust in the government and personal accountability for local leaders, marking a dramatic shift from the first shura, held months before, when the main concern of elders were the intentions of coalition forces.
“When we first started holding the [shuras], the main concern was civilian casualties,” said Zinni. “The last one was focused on accountability of block leaders. This one was aimed at establishing the structure and workings of an elder shura as a governing body.
Representatives from Afghan security forces, the regional governor and elders at the shura discussed several different topics, the foremost being how to establish a governing body of elders to work as a council for the city.
“We’re trying to get them to buy into the idea of the council because it’s a form of empowerment,” Zinni said. “They can vote, speak up and in doing so make changes. [The elders] are on the ledge, wondering if they should take a leap of faith and put their trust in Afghan government or not. They’re going to support the guy who can oust the other. In a lot of ways the Taliban have burnt bridges since they’ve been here.”
Other key points were the recruitment of local men into the Afghan Uniformed Police and the need for the various tribes and villages that comprise the city to present a unified front against the Taliban.
“The people of Marjah like the idea of having locals police their own city, as they’re not too trusting of outsiders,” said Zinni. “The fact that there will be Marjah residents being police officers in their city gives them a sense of ownership over their community.”
One of the final points of discussion was on tribal support, as smaller tribes and villages are at the highest risk of being targeted by the Taliban. The idea of going out of one’s way for someone not from their village or specific tribe can be controversial among many Afghans, but the elders at the shura appeared hopeful that their communities would lend assistance.
“A lot of villages that are farther away are isolated and are at risk of reprisal from the Taliban if they cooperate with us,” said Zinni. “The Taliban aren’t targeting areas that are unified, because the larger tribes are fighting back. Some of the larger tribes have been encouraged to unify with the smaller ones for security. It’s possible in Marjah, which is a melting pot of different tribes and ethnicities.”
“If they had their way the Taliban would be gone, but they can’t,” said Zinni. “They’re afraid and at the end of the day are unsure who their neighbors will side with: the government or the Taliban?”