Marines Keep Pressure On Taliban

U.S. Marines are setting up small outposts in the southern part of Afghanistan. Some 4,000 Marines pushed into Helmand province last week in an effort to dislodge the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents who have had a grip on much of the region for years.

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In southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marines are setting up outposts in the towns and villages of Helmand Province. It's part of a major effort to push out the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents who've controlled much of this region for years. Marine commanders say so far, the mission has exceeded expectations. NPR's Jackie Northam has this report from the U.S. Marine base at Camp Leatherneck.

Unidentified Man: All right, get to the COC. Apparently, it's too lateā€¦

JACKIE NORTHAM: The Combat Operations Center here at Camp Leatherneck is jammed with military watch officers monitoring U.S. Marine operations as they unfold over the more than 10,000 square miles of Helmand Province. Given the scale of this operation, the mission in Helmand so far has gone remarkably smooth.

Marines and Afghan forces have quickly taken back towns and villages long held by the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents. Brigadier General Larry Nicholson is the commander of the Marines' Helmand operation.

Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (U.S. Marine Corps; Commander, Helmand Operation): If our mission was to just kill Taliban, if that's what this mission was about, we would've done this very, very differently. But the way that this thing was crafted and the way this thing was put together was to get to the people, get to them quickly and start separating them from the Taliban, and I think we're off to a good start. But we've got a long way to go, and there's going to be some tough days ahead. I'm sure of that.

NORTHAM: Still, during an interview, Nicholson can barely suppress a grin, obviously pleased with the progress so far. He says insurgents are being rounded up, as are weapons.

Captain Bill Pelletier, a Marine spokesman, says the Taliban's most likely tactic is to wait before hitting back.

Captain BILL PELLETIER (Spokesman, Marines): Their spokesmen have been quoted over the last few days as saying we're not going to do anything. We're going to outwait these guys, these Marines. We're going to wait them out.

NORTHAM: What little fighting there's been has taken place further down into the Helmand River Valley region, a fertile area which produces tens of millions of dollars of opium each year for the insurgents. The Marines are setting up small outposts throughout the region. Commander Nicholson says he expects that at some point, perhaps soon, that the Taliban will try to reclaim the area.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: And I think we will see over the next couple of days the amount of engagements increase. I think once the enemy finds out that we're not leaving, then the enemy will probably come at us in more significant ways than he has so far.

NORTHAM: In the meantime, there's a push to start implementing economic and development programs in areas that have been cleared of Taliban fighters.

Caroline Mulcahy(ph), a British political advisor and liaison to the Marines, says some of the areas have been without a local government for years. She points to the town of Nawa(ph).

Ms. CAROLINE MULCAHY (British Political Advisor, Liaison to the Marines): Expectations are really high. For example, in Nawa, I think that the local population believes that now that the Taliban have been kicked out, that the district center will now thrive. And hopefully that will be true.

NORTHAM: Mulcahy says the international community can help initially, but Afghanistan's central government will also have to step up to ensure funding reaches the province to deliver services and to provide much-needed Afghan forces to help maintain security.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province.

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