Troops Hold Helmand Province, But The Cost Is Rising

It's been a bloody few weeks for American soldiers, their allies and civilians in Afghanistan. Some have died almost every day, in the southern province of Helmand. They've been killed mostly by roadside bombs. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is trying to get the country ready for elections in a couple of weeks. Guest host Daniel Zwerdling talks with Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is embedded with U.S. troops in Helmand province.

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DANIEL ZWERDLING, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Daniel Zwerdling.

It's been a bloody few weeks for American soldiers and their allies and civilians in Afghanistan. Some have died almost every day in the southern province of Helmand. They've been killed mostly by roadside bombs. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is trying to get the country ready for elections in a couple of weeks.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is embedded with U.S. troops in Helmand Province, and she joins us now. Soraya, hi.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hi, how are you?

ZWERDLING: I'm okay. Where are you and how are you and what's the situation there?

SARHADDI NELSON: I'm at a Marine forward operating base in Noza(ph) district. And you could say that this district in Helmand Province, which of course is a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, really exemplifies the struggles that Marines face here in this southern part of the country.

The main town, which is also called Nowzad(ph), which was once very famous for its pomegranates, is an abandoned town where basically 20,000 residents fled in 2006 during intense fighting between the Taliban and the British, who were here at the time. And so there's been no Afghan government presence.

Basically the people who lived here have dispersed and are living in other little towns. Some of them have moved to the provincial capital, and there's just no government presence here whatsoever. And basically the Marines are here to try and help reconnect this place, if you will, with the country of Afghanistan once more.

ZWERDLING: And are the Marines you're with feeling optimistic about their work and how well they're doing on the mission? Or are they feeling somewhat less than optimistic?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, they're very confident that this battle that they're waging is winnable. The problem is, they're waiting for Afghan security forces to join them here, because they want this not to really be an American effort; this should really be an Afghan effort, and which the Americans back. So that's sort of holding things up a bit.

And also these are pretty trying times for the Marines because they've lost so many of their own to roadside bombs in particular, which are planted by the Taliban all up and down the province. This particular company that I'm with, since arriving in mid-May, has lost two Marines, and seven others were seriously injured, including three of them losing both of their legs in these roadside bombings.

ZWERDLING: And what are local Afghans saying about the Marines? Because we keep hearing they're very torn about the Marine presence in general.

SARHADDI NELSON: Yes. I haven't had a chance myself to go out yet. That's something I'm going to get to do tomorrow, since I just arrived here a short while ago. But what the Marines have been telling me is that the Afghans are in fact welcoming, but tentatively so. I mean, they don't like the Taliban. I think that's pretty evident even from conversations I've had with Helmand's residents in the past.

But the problem is, they don't know whether the Marines are staying. I mean, they've seen the British come and go, they've seen others come and go, and they just want to be sure if they actually back the Marines, you know, that they're backing the winners here, that they're backing people who aren't going to turn around and leave and then basically leave them at the hands of the Taliban again.

So there are mixed feelings. The way you can see this materializing, for example, is the Afghans who are here have started showing the Marines where the IEDs are planted, on one hand. But on the other hand, they are refusing to take any of the jobs that the Marines are offering.

You know, Marines, when they set up a base, will offer local jobs, just like other Western forces here will, to Afghans who really do welcome the money. But in this case they're frightened because they're afraid if they do work for the Americans that in fact the Taliban will seek retribution.

ZWERDLING: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Soraya, thanks.

SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome.

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