Marines Press Hard Across Southern Afghanistan
DAVID GREENE, Host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
The thinking behind sending thousands of U.S. Marines into the most dangerous region of Afghanistan, one filled with Taliban and fueled by the opium trade, is simple. The way to defeat the insurgency is to offer the people protection. To that end the Marines who fanned out across the Southern province of Helmand yesterday are now digging in. They are at the heart of the largest operation launched by American troops since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.
NPR's Jackie Northam is with the Marines and joins us now from Camp Leatherneck. Jackie, what is the scene like there today?
JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, the Marines have pushed quite a long way into the Helmand River Valley and they're setting up forward operating bases or combat outposts throughout the area. The farthest one is in a place called Kanisha(ph) and it's where the river bends sharply, and for that reason it's called the fish hook. U.S. Marines haven't been this far south before, and you're probably going to hear a lot about this fish hook into the near future. So they're setting up these small bases and in the meantime they're continuing to try to push the insurgents further south into the desert and away from the populated areas.
Basically they're trying to disrupt routes, they call them ratlines, that the Taliban has used to move weapons and forces into Helmand from Pakistan. And Helmand bumps up against the Pakistani border. And we're getting reports that the Pakistani military is also fortifying that border. So you know, the British forces are also trying to prevent insurgents from coming into Helmand from the east. So you have a lot of things going on here, but certainly this is a big operation by the Marines.
MONTAGNE: And what sort of resistance are the Marines getting from the Taliban?
NORTHAM: Well, military officials here are saying that there have been sporadic skirmishes, but mostly it's small groups of insurgents that they're encountering. Still, you know, a Marine was killed yesterday and there is an American flag flying at half mast here at Camp Leatherneck. And there had been number of injuries as well. But really, the Taliban for the most part is doing what it does and that's just melt away and wait it out, wait until the American forces leave. But this time the Marines say they are not leaving and they are going to hold the areas that they've cleared.
MONTAGNE: And that's part of the marching orders for the Marines - right, Jackie? I mean we've heard the term tactical patience being used. What does that mean exactly?
NORTHAM: Well, essentially it's a different sort of strategy that's going on now. Before they used to go in and they would clear an area of Taliban and then they'd have to leave. They simply didn't have the manpower, the resources to hold those areas. Now you've got this huge injection of U.S. Marines, U.S. troops coming into Afghanistan. And what they're going to do is they're going to go in and clear these areas. This time they're planning to stay and they're going to start dealing with the local population.
For example, in some areas they're already building these tents. They call them shura tents. And essentially what it allows is for the local people to come, they sit under the big tent. They talk to the Afghan forces that are working with the Marines and others to just say, you know, what they think about the operation, what they want, what they fear, that type of thing. It's a very slow process to bring security to these regions and all this is sort of leading up to the August 20th elections. If there's security, these elections will go ahead, but it is going to be a very long process.
MONTAGNE: And you're talking to officers there at Camp Leatherneck - how are the commanders characterizing the first day of the operation?
NORTHAM: You know, they're very cautious in what they say - you now, it's just one day in. Again, it's a slow - it's not a full onslaught that they're seeing, you know, Taliban clashing against the U.S. Marines. It's a different type of battle that they're fighting here. It's slow, it's guerrilla warfare, and so they are being cautious. And I think that'd probably be the best way to describe it. Presumably they're quite satisfied with how it's gone so far though.
MONTAGNE: Jackie, thanks very much.
NORTHAM: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Jackie Northam. She's at Camp Leatherneck, the U.S. Marine outpost in Southern Afghanistan.