NATO, Afghan Troops To Launch Offensive In Marjah

Marines in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province are gearing up for a major offensive against a Taliban stronghold. The target is the town of Marjah. As militants have been pushed out of other areas, they've flocked to Marjah. Residents have been warned for weeks now that the fight is coming to them.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne. In Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan troops are ready to launch whats expected to be the biggest joint offensive of the war. The target is the town of Marja. Its in the southern province of Helmand. And as militants have been pushed out of other areas there, they've flocked to Marja, turning it into a Taliban stronghold. Residents have been warned for weeks now that the fight is coming to them. NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is embedded with American Marines and she joins us now.

Good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Where are you and whats the status of the offensive, Soraya?

NELSON: Well, Im at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province. This is Marine headquarters for their area of operations here. And theyre preparing for this offensive that, as you said, has been well publicized - for two reasons, really.

One is to let civilians know that the Americans are coming. And the other was to try and drum some fear into the Taliban with hopes that they might either lay down their arms or walk away from this, because the goal is to try and reduce as much bloodshed as possible.

MONTAGNE: And tell us more about why this offensive focused on this particular town. I mean, how much have the militants transformed Marja into their place?

NELSON: You have to picture - its about 50 square miles. This is an area that America helped develop in the 50s and 60s. They built canals and irrigation ditches here. They really improved farming capabilities and power as well. I mean, this is an area from which they - even now theyre trying to hopefully create some power sources for people who live here in southern Afghanistan.

But whats happened is, because of corrupt police and because there just wasnt enough Afghan government and security force infrastructure that was actually functioning properly, the Taliban was able to come in and - as well as what the military refers to as the narco-barons, you know, the landlords here who grow vast amounts of poppy, which helps fund the insurgency in their own operations.

And the goal is to sort of clean this out with hopes of connecting north to south and allowing people to start living life here in a way that they havent been able to for years.

MONTAGNE: And Soraya, this could be a sort of last stand for the Taliban in Marja, or not. I mean, might the Taliban simply leave and regroup someplace else?

NELSON: Well, this has always been the problem. I mean, the Taliban are fairly fast moving. Theyre light. They don't have a lot of heavy equipment and gear. They plant a lot of IEDs, which of course slows down the movement of Western troops. And so what they do is they tend to sort of melt into the mountainsides, melt into the hillsides and regroup somewhere else.

But this time, the Marines and Afghans and Army soldiers who are also involved in this operation, theyre trying to prevent the Taliban from sort of sliding to the north or sliding to the west. I mean, were not talking tens of thousands of Taliban or anything like that. I think the numbers are probably closer in the hundreds that were talking about. And its not even clear how many of those are hardcore Taliban versus Taliban that are just sort of opportunistic ones who sort of are doing this because theyre being forced or for the money.

MONTAGNE: And Soraya, the civilians who have been warned about this fight, are they in fact fleeing?

NELSON: Well, actually in very small numbers. One thing, its very difficult to know how many people actually live in this 50 square mile area. The Marines say, for example, 80 to 120,000. And local officials put the number far lower than that. But what weve been able to piece together is that there are residents who are fleeing in the hundreds, we should say.

And some of the ones that weve talked to, like Abdul Hadi(ph), a 20-year-old student, he tells us that the Taliban are digging in. I mean, the reason they fled is they are fearing the fighting, because the Taliban are digging trenches. Theyre setting up in residential areas in hopes of drawing out Marine fire. And they are blowing up cell phone towers, that sort of thing.

But on the other hand, whats kind of interesting is that the governor of Helmand Province is asking residents to stay. They don't want this to become a ghost town. They want, in fact, people to be there to see what the Marines are able to do and what the Afghan National Security forces are able to do, so that life can return to normal more quickly there when this is all over.

MONTAGNE: NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is embedded with U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan.

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