MARJAH, Afghanistan — Afghan officials raised the national flag over Marjah on Thursday, asserting government control even as Marines searched for militant holdouts.
Kabul also confirmed the arrest of another top Taliban leader — part of a roundup that could further strain the insurgent movement.
About 700 men in turbans and traditional caps gathered in a central market for the flag-raising ceremony, during which Abdul Zahir Aryan was installed as the top Afghan official in this town of 80,000 in Helmand province. The provincial governor told the crowd that authorities were eager to listen to requests from the townspeople and provide them with basic services that they didn't have under the Taliban.
Taliban fighters still control about 25 percent of the 80-square-mile area in and around the town, nearly two weeks after U.S. and Afghan forces launched their attack to seize Marjah, a major Taliban logistics and supply center and the largest community in the south under insurgent control.
Marines and Afghan soldiers slogged through bomb-laden fields of northern Marjah on Thursday in search of an estimated 100 Taliban and foreign fighter holdouts — the last significant pocket of insurgents left in the town. Progress was slowed by difficult terrain with no roads, few tracks and many hidden mines.
Several residents told Marines that the Taliban were falling back and trying to delay the allied advance with hidden bombs.
"I'd expect they can't keep this up for long," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, a company commander in the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. He predicted the insurgents will soon hold their ground and fight.
Despite the insurgent holdouts, enough of the town has been secured for NATO and Afghan authorities to begin the most difficult part of the mission — restoring local government and rushing in public services to win the confidence of the population to dry up support for a Taliban return.
Aryan, the chief administrator, cannot work out of the main government building because the Taliban rigged it with bombs and booby traps.
"When an area has been liberated and cleared, then we provide governance immediately, we provide development assistance, we provide the local community with a better livelihood," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at an alliance meeting in Spain. "The current operation in Helmand province will serve as a role model for further operations."
The loss of Marjah comes as the Taliban is reeling from the arrests of key figures, including their No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was picked up this month in Pakistan.
Two Pakistani intelligence officers told The Associated Press that nearly 15 senior and mid-level Taliban figures have been detained in Pakistan in recent weeks. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't supposed to release the information.
An Afghan government spokesman, Siamak Herawi, said Thursday that Pakistani officials had told Afghan authorities that the top Taliban commander for eastern Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Kabir, was among those taken into custody. Kabir's arrest last week had been rumored for days, but Herawi's comment was the first on the record by an official of either country.
NATO troops have taken over Marjah before, only to withdraw and leave the town under the control of corrupt and ineffectual administrators who alienated the townspeople and enabled the Taliban to come back.
International officials are keenly aware of the challenges, including the possibility that old-style regional powerbrokers could interfere, using their political clout to install inept cronies in the local administration and divert funds earmarked for the town.
"There is the influence they will seek to have over appointments, and we have to accept the political realities. These guys have some influence," said Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.
Aryan is an outsider from the town of Musa Qala in northern Helmand who has spent much of the past decade in Germany. Western diplomats say they hope this will be an asset because he doesn't have ties to warlords. But it could also mean he doesn't have the local allies needed to stand up to regional power brokers.
The former governor of Helmand province said that bringing in an outsider will alienate local elders and drive them back toward the Taliban.
"The people will become frustrated and lose their hope, and they will start to go toward the other option, which is the Taliban," Sher Mohammed Akhunzada said.
Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal is trying to prevent this by bringing influential Marjah leaders together into an oversight committee to help make decisions that affect the town.
The first priority is a road linking Marjah to the nearby provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, said Frank Ruggiero, the top U.S. civilian representative for southern Afghanistan.
In addition, more than 2,000 area residents have signed up for day-laborer jobs aimed at getting money in their pockets quickly. Seed is ready for distribution at the end of the month to jump-start agriculture in an area that has long depended on the opium-poppy crop.
U.S. researchers have identified five health clinics that supposedly exist. If they do, doctors and nurses must be recruited and the buildings renovated.
Still, NATO says the number of residents returning to Marjah is increasing and shops in the more secure areas have opened, selling telephones and computers along with fresh fruits and vegetables. Tips from residents about hidden bombs are up 50 percent, NATO said in a statement — a sign they're willing to cooperate with international and government forces.
At least 13 NATO troops and three Afghan soldiers have been killed during the offensive, according to military officials. Eighty NATO troops have been wounded, along with eight Afghans.
At least 28 civilians have been killed, including 13 children, according to the Afghan human-rights commission.
The deaths occurred even though NATO says its priority is protecting civilians through strict rules to prevent casualties.