By Golnar Motevalli
BARCHA, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Winning ground is one thing. Convincing Afghan villagers you will not leave, abandoning them to a vengeful Taliban, is a bigger challenge for U.S. Marines advancing deep into southern Helmand province.
The Marines, part of a 10,000-strong force sent to Afghanistan this year, have pushed south into hostile terrain, winning ground and pledging to build the long-term trust and security needed to prevent insurgents from returning.
A day after taking over the former home of a local doctor which had been used as a post by the Taliban, the Marines were building it into a base and trying to win over local people.
"You have to make a decision, please. You want to work with us or you want to work with the Taliban?" the clean-shaven young Marine Captain Junwei Sun asked a wizened and bearded village elder at the first "shura" -- or meeting -- with local people.
The base is a sprawling, dry mud compound of rooms and a large courtyard, topped by a watch room which gives a panoramic view of the surrounding cornfields and villages.
"I'm good at fighting people like this (the Taliban). If you help me, I guarantee, over time we'll get security here," First Lieutenant Samuel Oliver said.
It took 200 men from the 2nd battalion 8th Marines two days to advance just 4km (2.5 miles) to Barcha in the face of insurgent attacks and a string of roadside explosive traps.
The eight-year-old war is at its most intense, with more than 400 NATO troops dead this year. U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has told President Barack Obama he needs 40,000 troops to push back a resurgent Taliban and convince the population insurgents will not win.
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