Gen. McChrystal Visits Marja Where 'Clock is Ticking'

Reconstruction effort begins in former Taliban stronghold.

ByABC News
March 1, 2010, 3:55 PM

March 1, 2010— -- U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, was greeted warmly by Afghan officials as he toured the former Taliban stronghold of Marja today.

He was joined by Afghan Vice President Karim Khalili and Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, who met hundreds of local residents at a "shura", or traditional council meeting.

"The most important thing is to bring peace and stability to the people in Afghanistan. This is our priority. This is a promise," Khalili told the gathering.

To that end, McChrystal had reconstruction teams and Afghan government officials ready to go into Marja as soon as it had been cleared of Taliban.

As part of Operation Moshtarak's "clearing and holding" strategy, an advance reconstruction team was sent in just days after major fighting ended. They are there now sleeping and eating alongside U.S. Marines.

"The clock is ticking," one member of the team sent in to help build Marja's new government told ABC News.

Getting basic infrastructure up and running as quickly as possible is seen as crucial by McChrystal in order to gain the trust of Marja's population.

"In the near term, they have to feel represented, they have to feel it's fair," he told reporters today.

So far several hundred residents have been hired to help clean up the city center, work has begun to repair the irrigation system and several schools have been reopened. Plans are being made to restart work on an important highway that will link the farming community to cities in the east and south.

The U.S. government has allocated millions of dollars to help. The Karzai government in Kabul has sent officials and money to the area but agencies are still short of trained leaders, civil service workers, police and other experts.

As U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry acknowledged when he toured the town this weekend, "There are serious challenges ahead."

Many people remain skeptical that the government will be able provide security, medical care or better services.