Mission: Make Taliban Area Safe For Afghan Voters

U.S. Marines launched an offensive last month in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. The mission is aimed at clearing the Taliban from the region, and paving the way for Afghan government control. The immediate aim is to make the area is safe enough so Afghan authorities can set up polling stations in time for the Aug. 20th elections.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're in Washington. Our colleague Renee Montagne is in Kabul, Afghanistan. She's been reporting on the run-up to the country's elections next week, and she's been talking with one of our colleagues who's been based in Afghanistan during many years of war.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That's right, Steve. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is embedded in the south of the country, with the Marines in the province of Helmand. It has long been a Taliban stronghold, and it is the world's leading source of opium poppies. The U.S. Marines launched an offensive in Helmand last month with a - aim of clearing the Taliban out of the region and paving the way for Afghan government control. The immediate aim is to make the area safe enough so that Afghan authorities can set up polling stations in time for next week's elections. And Soraya, tell us where you are, exactly. And you're with the Marines. What are they doing in that area?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Okay, I'm in a district called Now Zad. And basically, this was the second largest economic center of Helmand province some years back. But at the moment, it's a ghost town. Everybody has fled. In fact, they fled three years ago during fighting between the British and the Taliban. And you now find some of the people who lived in this very thriving district residing in some of the villages around the district center, waiting for a time when they can come back home. And so the Marines have come here - they've been here since May, and their goal is to try and clear the area of the Taliban with an eye toward opening an actual polling station in this place that - you have to imagine - has absolutely no government presence, no police, no schools, no nothing, but they are hoping to open a polling station on the 20th in the one of the villages near the district center.

MONTAGNE: If there aren't so many Afghans there - those that you've been able to find, I guess, and talk to - what are they saying about this Marine presence?

NELSON: Well, they're cautiously welcoming. They've actually started to come out of their homes more when they see a Marine patrol coming along into their village. But they don't invite you in for tea, like you might see elsewhere in Afghanistan, because they are being watched by the Taliban - or so they say. They claim to be opposed to the Taliban, although there's probably some complicity because otherwise, they could not bury as many roadside bombs as they do. They are also saying that they want an Afghan presence here. They want to see Afghan police, Afghan army. They don't really want Americans basically doing their security.

MONTAGNE: Well, do they actually plan to vote on election day if somehow that poll - that those electing places are set up, that you spoke of?

NELSON: Well, some indicated they would if that poll was, in fact, set up in this district of Now Zad. But others said, you know, even if a polling station goes up, what's the point? If there's no security, voting doesn't mean anything. Governance doesn't mean anything. I mean, their lives have basically, in the last three years, consisted of farming - including poppy farming, as you mentioned - and basically paying alms to the Taliban. It's actually based on a religious premise, but it really serves as a tax to help fund Taliban activities here.

MONTAGNE: A lot of the Afghans voted back in the last presidential election in great numbers and at risk to their lives. I mean, do you get the sense that, at least in this little place that you are at, that people may not be willing to risk their lives this time in order to vote?

NELSON: Well, I think some may turn out. In fact, if they see some sort of Afghan government presence, curiosity, let's say, may drive them in. They're supposed to technically be registered, and I'm not really sure what provisions are being made for these people here who, obviously, have had no opportunity to register. And so it'll be interesting to see what happens. But it's very important that they get this polling station here. It's important for the government of Afghanistan. It will be a really strong symbol that they, in fact, do control the country, and not the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: Now, just a last question: Western and Afghan officials say the number of Afghan civilians killed in air strikes is down significantly in recent months. Is that news getting to Afghans where you are? Is it resonating with them?

NELSON: Well, certainly, the fact that they are coming out to meet with the Marines suggests that they're less afraid than they've been in the past. But some of them that we spoke to also did complain about all the deaths that has been caused by the West, and so I'm not sure that news has really filtered down yet. I think it's going to really take a long time for those sorts of wounds to heal. And there's no doubt that the West and, in particular, the Marines - as they're here at the moment - are being blamed for everything that has come before, whether it's caused by coalition forces or, more than likely, by the Taliban who have been in control here.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, good talking to you.

NELSON: Thanks. Great talking to you, too.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's been traveling with U.S. Marines in Southern Afghanistan. She was speaking with our colleague Renee Montagne, who's been reporting from Kabul.

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