Marines Launch Offensive In Helmand Province

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In Afghanistan's Helmand Province, U.S. Marines have launched a large helicopter-led assault against the Taliban. Taliban fighters have been resurgent in the area.


Ten thousand Marines are now assembled along the Helmand River valley in southern Afghanistan. They're gearing up for a major operation to take back the area from Taliban control.

And joining us now is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, you're just recently back from this area, from Camp Leatherneck, that's the Marine base in Helmand Province. What can you tell us about what's going on there?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Melissa, this is really the stronghold of the Taliban in Helmand Province. It's a string of small cities, villages that stretch along the Helmand River valley. And it's mostly an agricultural area and that's part of the problem. It's also a source of the lifeblood for the Taliban, the poppy crop there that they turn into heroin, and that gives them hundreds of millions of dollars to mount their operations.

So it's a crucial area and it's one that largely is not under Afghan government control. And right now you have the largest concentration of U.S. troops ever in Afghanistan in this area, 10,000 Marines, and they've been there a little over a month. They've been training now and at this point they're getting ready for combat operations.

BLOCK: This part of Afghanistan, Tom, we should make clear, the Helmand River valley, different from the area that we do here more about, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

BOWMAN: Yeah, right. This is in southern Afghanistan, hundreds of miles from the Pakistan border, not mountainous at all, desert and some river valleys along this area.

BLOCK: This buildup of Marines that you're talking about, Tom, getting ready, as you said, for combat operations, how does this fit in with the Obama administration's strategy for the war in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, it's part of the new strategy. And it's not just numbers, it's also the way they fight. When they had too few troops here, they could mount operations against the Taliban and then just pull back. What they can do now with these additional forces is what's called clear, hold and build. We heard those words in Iraq. And they're going to do that here. So they'll be able to go into an area, clear it of Taliban and then they plan on holding this.

So when the Marines go into action, they'll take the ground and then they'll set up small combat outposts, live among the population. The harder part is going to come later in the coming weeks and months when they have to rebuild part of this area, come up with better governance and create competent Afghan forces that are not corrupt. That will take years.

BLOCK: And any number of complications, too, in the short term, Tom, let's talk about some of the possible pitfalls here. How, for example, would the Marines be trying to avoid civilian casualties?

BOWMAN: Well, that's a serious concern. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan had risen a great deal, particularly over the past year, mostly due to Marines and soldiers calling in air strikes. When I was there, there was a serious incident involving civilian casualties, anywhere from 35 to 140 civilians killed when air strikes were called in.

And the commander of the Marines, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, he's made that point very clear to his Marines, listen, we don't want you call in air strikes. Sometimes you may have to, but what we'd rather have you do is surround a house or a building that has Taliban in it and just wait them out rather than, as he says, drop the house and potentially kill innocents.

BLOCK: And if U.S. military action is coming soon, as you describe it, what would Afghan troop involvement be?

BOWMAN: Well, they don't have enough Afghan troops, and that's been the problem from the get-go. Part of the additional U.S. forces that are going there will be training the Afghan police and army. Right now, for the operations that we expect, they'll have about 600 to 800 Afghan troops and, again, 10,000 Marines, up to 800 Afghan soldiers.

And the concern here is when you go into some of these villages and cities, they don't want to have a Marine face there, an American face, they want to have an Afghan face, but the problem is right now they just don't have the numbers.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He's just back from spending several weeks with the Marines in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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