Afghan Forces In Spotlight As U.S. Debates Role

Afghan auxiliary police are seen as vital to U.S. plans to scale back the mission in Afghanistan. Their role gains prominence as President Obama decides how many U.S. troops to bring back from the country.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

President Obama meets with his national security team on Afghanistan tomorrow. In the next few weeks, he'll have to decide how many American troops to bring home from Afghanistan. And while the president isnt expected to order dramatic troops cuts, the debate over how fast to scale back the American mission is heating up.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan. He's reporting for the next month on the progress of the war effort. And he'll be looking at what has to happen there on the ground, in order for American troops to complete their mission and eventually leave.

Tom joins us now.

Tom, tell us what troops you're operating with, where you are, and why that's an important part of the American military strategy.

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Jacki, we're in Helmand Province, it's in the southern part of the country and it's really a key area of the insurgency. It's right next door to Kandahar, which is where the Taliban movement began. And we've been spending some time with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marines patrolling with Golf Company. And the Marines have been involved in clearing operations around here for the last two years. And right now, we're in area called Marjah.

LYDEN: I remember talking to you last year about that. It was a huge operation.

BOWMAN: That's right. The main Marjah operation took place about 15 months ago. It involved thousands of Marines and it took a lot of effort to take back Marjah. Now they've cleared Marjah but there is still Taliban around here, dozens of fighters who the Marines are now trying to roll up.

LYDEN: Tom, I know you haven't been there long but you have been out on patrol with the Marines. How is it going?

BOWMAN: Well, we went out at dawn the other day on a four-hour patrol. And along the way we met a handful of local villagers, and many of them said they're still on the fence about supporting the Afghan government. And partly because of Taliban intimidation. One elderly farmer we talked with said, you know, he didn't want to talk with the Marines too long.

Also, the Marines brought with them a relatively new Afghan security force. It's an auxiliary police force. The Marines say this has been a real success story here. These police are chosen by local tribal elders. Now, the benefit of these police is that they know the area, they know who is an outsider, and they also tend to be very aggressive in going after the Taliban.

Here's Marine Sergeant John Moulder. He went on patrol with us and he talked about this auxiliary force.

Sergeant JOHN MOULDER (United States Marine Corps): The locals come in on the Taliban and snatch them up and bring him back to us, because they know who the bad guys and who aren't in their area.

LYDEN: Now, Tom, obviously a big difference between these national Afghan forces and recruitment efforts, district-to-district for local police.

BOWMAN: Thats right. There really is a difference. A lot of the soldiers come from other parts of the country - mostly the north and they belong to different ethnic groups. This is a Pashtun area, and the young Pashtuns around here want to serve locally. So this auxiliary police force is really good for everyone.

LYDEN: How does the American military see a local force like this? Is it crucial for plans to eventually withdraw U.S. forces?

BOWMAN: you know, Jacki, it really is. One senior officer I spoke with says this is one of the biggest things he's seen in the six months since they arrived. This auxiliary police force, they're really helping with security and that, of course, a key part of the exit plan for the Americans.

President Obama and other leaders say they plan to turn over security to the Afghans in two and half years.

LYDEN: Thats still a pretty long time, two and half years. And there's a lot of talk in Washington about drawing down the U.S. forces faster than that.

What are the troops you're seeing have to say about that?

BOWMAN: Well, right. Polls show Americans are increasingly tiring of the war, now going on 10 years. And I talked with the Marines about this and they acknowledged that many back home are frustrated.

Here's Captain Frank Meese. He was in command of the combat outpost where we stayed.

Captain FRANK MEESE (Commanding Officer, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines): We're very focused now on the objectives. I don't get to pick and choose where and when and how long we stay. They do, quite frankly. But, you know, I do think that it's worth winning. We need to win. You know? Do we need this to be a success.

BOWMAN: Jacki, I hear that from a lot of Marines, that they finally believe they're making progress and they want to win. They want success. And success is really training Afghan security forces. It's building a government. It's getting people to support that government, and somehow making this a reasonably stable state. And frankly, that's a lot harder than clearing a bunch of guerrilla fighters from an area.

LYDEN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He's with U.S. Marines in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

Thank you very much for that report, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Jacki.

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