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What comes after Marjah?

As the wave of US-led Operation Moshtarak sweeps through Marjah, Afghanistan, local tribal leaders are scrapping for the spoils sure to follow.

“There is a bond [between drug smugglers and the Taliban],” said Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal. “This is normal. It is a business, and they have common interests. In areas under the control of the government there is no poppy.”

Mazlumyar heatedly denies that he has drug interests in his native Marjah, but at a recent shura, or council, during President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Helmand, the local population denounced him as corrupt and cruel.

“We do not want people like this Mazlumyar,” said one tribal elder. “He took all the poppy money for himself.”

Mazlumyar, not surprisingly, rejects the accusation.

“These were not tribal elders,” he snorted. “They were a collection of shoemakers and terrorists.”

Aside from its now endangered poppy culture, Marjah is a fairly insignificant piece of land not far from the capital, Lashkar Gah. But Operation Moshtarak, the largest and most widely advertised offensive of the war to date, has vaulted it to prominence.

“The eyes of the world are on Marjah,” said Governor Mangal, with some satisfaction.

Operation Moshtarak is supposed to bring a tsunami of assistance money in its wake, and there has been fierce jockeying for position among Marjah’s local khans. Each felt that he should be the one to lead Marjah out of the crisis.

The crown eventually went to an outsider — a native of Helmand who spent more than 15 years in Germany, nearly five of them, according to media reports, in prison for assault.

But Haji’s Zahir’s conviction for stabbing his stepson has not dimmed his luster in the eyes of his constituency.

“He is a good man,” said Mohammad Iliyas Dayee, a prominent Helmandi journalist. “These are internal family matters, and should not affect his status.”

One reason Haji Zahir has had such an easy time of winning over the locals, say many, is the violent dislike many residents of Marjah feel for the former rulers of the area — men like Mazlumyar.

“Boys could not leave the house without fear of being kidnapped [when he was in charge],” said one resident. “People had their lands extorted. He is a bad man.”

“Nonsense,” snapped Mazlumyar. “Show me one family where a boy has been kidnapped.”

No one took him up on his offer.