Afghan Spring Dangerous Season For U.S. Forces
SCOTT SIMON, host:
There's an ongoing military operation in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province. U.S. Special Forces have killed at least 14 Taliban fighters and destroyed tons of heroin and processing materials. U.S. military officers say that drug production is the lifeblood of the Taliban. They're gearing up for a particularly dangerous spring and summer, as thousands more U.S. troops head into this area, the spiritual homeland for the Taliban
We're joined now from Helmand Province by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
Tom, thanks very much for being with us.
TOM BOWMAN: It's good to be with you today.
SIMON: What can you tell us about this latest operation?
BOWMAN: Well, military officers say this is the largest drug cache they've ever seized and there's a huge amount of black tar opium here. And also, besides that, they have a lot of bomb-making equipment and also a lot of weapons and shells. There's a huge amount of it in the town called Mazer, which is not too far from the British base of Lashkar Gah.
And what we're told is that last night they blew up some of the bomb making equipment and you could hear the explosion about 15 miles away. And now we understand they're trying to figure out what to do with the actual drugs itself, burn it or explode it right now.
And this is a huge Taliban area and a lot of this operation went down in a bazaar in Mazer area. And the only folks there, the U.S. forces here, are some Special Forces troops. But a very, very dangerous area.
SIMON: Uh-huh. Now, you're at a British base now, right?
BOWMAN: That's right.
SIMON: And so there are more U.S. forces on the way?
BOWMAN: Well, that's right. There are about 8,000 Marines that are going to be coming here in the coming weeks, mostly in the southern Afghanistan and a lot of them right here in Helmand Province. And the general in charge of the Marines, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, is expected here today to talk to his British counterparts.
This is really, as you say, the homeland, the heartland of the Taliban. There have not been a lot of troops down here, whether Afghan troops or U.S. or international troops. So they expect a huge amount of fighting throughout this area into the spring and summer. This, again, is the Taliban heartland and also the source of most of their money. So they're going to be fighting for this like a terrier.
SIMON: Lot of questions, of course, about civilian casualties there in Afghanistan in the wake of the bombing two weeks ago that killed, depending on your source of information, between 30 and 140 civilians. What's the latest information on that?
BOWMAN: Well, the latest information on that operation in Farah Province was, you're right, the U.S. says a small percentage of what the Afghans say civilians died in this operation. What they're doing right now is going through a video of this operation, taken from one of the U.S. aircraft, a B-1 bomber. Both the B-1 and some F-18s dropped about a dozen bombs on this village. And now they're trying to find out exactly what happened.
And what they say is this video shows a lot of Taliban running through the village and then seeking shelter in a couple of the houses. They're also trying to prepare maps of exactly what they did. And we expect some time early next week that they'll have some sort of a press conference showing what evidence they have. But again, the Afghan government says 140 were killed here. U.S. still maintains maybe around 30.
But the bottom line is there's growing anger in Afghanistan about the rising number civilian casualties caused by these military operations. And also the Afghan government, President Hamid Karzai, is very upset about it. And part of these U.S. investigations, I believe, will try to minimize some of these civilian casualties as they move forward in the future, more troops coming in.
SIMON: NPR's Tom Bowman with the U.S. and British forces in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, thanks so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Scott.