Marines Target Taliban Stronghold In Afghanistan

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Melissa Block speaks to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson about the latest on the Marine operation to dislodge the Taliban from a key locale in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Afghanistan, before dawn today, hundreds of U.S. Marines stormed a long-time Taliban stronghold. The assault took place in the southern province of Helmand. They met heavy resistance and fighting continued throughout the day and into the night. No U.S. casualties have been reported.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is embedded with the Marines for this operation and she joins us from the town of Dahaneh. Soraya, why don't you describe where you are? And set the scene for us a bit, please.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, basically I'm in one of two compounds that the Marines have taken over and now sort of joined together by blasting a hole in the wall. And basically this is in this village, or town, if you will, of about 2,000 people. It's a rural town where a lot of (unintelligible) opium is grown. And so, we have a lot of opium fields that have been harvested. And we also have dried out opium bulbs drying all over the place. So there's little doubt that this is not a place that abides by any kind of law. And, in fact, the town of Dahaneh has had no Afghan government presence for many years. And at this point, you have no schools. You have no clinics. You have no government center. You have no police officers. You have no court. All of that is either absent or handled by the Taliban.

In fact, they had set-up checkpoints and were charging business owners and collecting, I'm sure, from farmers, collecting taxes from them and had quite a thriving little metropolis going here.

BLOCK: How did the assault today begin?

NELSON: Well, it started with helicopters and assault teams that landed here in Dahaneh and they were targeting two compounds where they suspected Taliban's financiers live. And so they came to these two compounds. They do have several detainees. But basically, it seemed that they were tipped off - I should say the Taliban was tipped off in the area. And so, the Marines met with far more heavy resistance than was anticipated. It continued for about eight hours initially. You know, you name it: gunfire, rockets, mortars and back and forth. At one point, toward the end of those eight hours, the U.S. Air Force sent a plane that dropped a bomb and killed seven to 10 militants based on the video that the Marines were able to see. And so, that seemed to stop the fighting for a while. There was a lull for about five hours. And then it picked up again later this afternoon - really heavy fire. Everybody was ordered indoors into the two buildings that are in the compound here. And we were all lying pretty low because it was coming from everywhere. And Cobra helicopters did come in. And right now, I don't know if you can hear them, they're still circling to some extent in the sky but it's quiet again now.

BLOCK: Soraya, you mentioned that it seemed the Taliban had been tipped off about the military operation. What have you heard about that? Who would've tipped them off?

NELSON: It's still unclear. It could be anybody, just about, because obviously it takes a lot to prepare for this kind of operation and you do involve local authorities in this sort of thing. In fact, I should mention that, for the first time, these Marines I'm with are paired with the Afghan National Army, which they have brought in here to try and set up an outpost to basically keep the Taliban out now that they're being pushed out.

BLOCK: Soraya, Afghan elections coming up next week - what is the objective of this military operation in the South there?

NELSON: Well, they certainly would like to clear the area so that the Afghan Independent Election Commission can come in and set up polls. In this district that we're in, Nawzad, of which Dahaneh is a part, they certainly would like to put in two polls if they can: one in a village that's a little bit to the north that's a little bit quieter and has a lot of displaced people from the district center, and then here, in Dahaneh, to sort of prove that Afghan is contiguous and you don't have areas that are in fact under the control of Taliban.

BLOCK: We've been talking with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's embedded with Marines on an operation in southern Afghanistan. Soraya, thank you very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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