Now we're finding that the operation is bogging down and that the Afghan people aren't helping us as we had anticipated. Somewhere along the way, the Marines apparently diverged from the playbook. They engaged the population very well in the initial successful offensive. But now, according to senior Pentagon officials who just returned from the area, they have failed to constructively engage the locals.
And Marjah was supposed to be a template for the much bigger Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Here's what AP is reporting, based on leaks from two senior Pentagon officials who recently came back from Marjah:
"The drive this summer to secure Kandahar was supposed to build on the success of the much smaller Marjah operations.
"But so far the U.S. and NATO haven't achieved their goals in Marjah, military and civilian officials said, as the government has been slow to provide services and villagers have not rallied in large numbers to the Kabul-based government.
"'We're still moving forward more slowly than the people would like,' Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative, said on a trip to Marjah this month.
"Sedwill still sees overall progress, and other civilian reconstruction specialists said it was unrealistic to expect a smoothly operating local government little more than two months after the initial assault on Marjah.
"Two senior Pentagon officials who visited Marjah in recent weeks said the Marines who provide the backbone of security in the district are not getting enough tips from the villagers or spending enough time with local leaders.
"People are hanging back, afraid to throw their lot with the government even if they hate the Taliban, military officials said, and the opportunity to win their trust is fading.
"The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
"The worry among military strategists is that if their tactics don't take hold in Marjah, with a population of roughly 80,000, what will happen in Kandahar?"
The Marines appear to have missed a very simple formula that the Army appears to have learned: Build and maintain the support of the local population through confidence-building measures that will prove to the locals that they can trust us, that we won't abandon them, that they'll be safe from the Taliban once we're gone, and that we will deliver on our promises.
Corrective action is needed now. I'm becoming less optimistic now. US military commanders in Afghanistan are issuing contracts to badly-needed subject-matter experts - not hiring the best people available, but hiring the cheapest. That's a very bad sign. Not a way to win a war.
(USMC Photo: US Marines in Marjah, 10 March 2010)