U.S. Prepares For Afghan Offensive

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A major offensive by U.S. Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand Province is expected to begin shortly. Ahead of the offensive, Marines exchanged fire with the Taliban on the outskirts of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In Afghanistan, U.S. Marines are preparing for a much anticipated military offensive against the Taliban. It involves several thousand U.S. Marines backed by British and Afghan government forces in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The focus of the offensive is in a region called, Marja. It's a Taliban stronghold.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson is embedded with the Marines, now in position on the outskirts of Marja and she joins us now. Soraya, what are you able to see there?

SORAYA SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, it's evening right now but in the distance from where I'm standing, you can see a bright light, which I'm told is where the Taliban are. Basically this region there's a lot of desert and it surrounds an area that has a lot of canals and irrigation ditches that were built by the Americans in the 1950s. And you do see some people, shepherds, and farmers in the like around. But it looks fairly isolated where I'm standing right now.

NORRIS: Why this is offense have taken place in Marja? Why the focus there?

SARHADDI-NELSON: This is what's considered the last stronghold of the Taliban in the area of operations that the American Marines are in charge of. And basically Marja sort of sits in the center of the Helmand valley area. And at this stage, the northern and southern parts of the Helmand valley, which is where most the population lives, have been secured to great extent by the U.S. Marines and by the British. And the hope is that by now eliminating this last stronghold, the people will be able to move freely up and down the Helmand river valley.

NORRIS: What can you tell us about Marja itself? How many Taliban fighters might be there?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, probably in the hundreds. I mean, a lot of this information is still being gleaned and because the operation has not begun yet, a lot of things are being obviously kept close to the vest. But the feeling is that there are many Taliban who are local here, who basically are what they describe as opportunistic Taliban who do this for money or because they're under duress, but that there is also a contingent of foreign fighters, possibly even from outside of Afghanistan.

NORRIS: You note like that a lot of the information has been held close to the vest. So help me understand something, why is this offensive been so widely publicized?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, there are several reasons. One is the idea that perhaps some of these Taliban, these opportunistic Taliban who aren't hardcore ideologues might agree to set down their weapons and just walk away. Also the Afghan government in this area is asking civilians to stay, and by publicizing it, saying, look, the Marines are coming with Afghan forces to liberate you and you need not be afraid. Stay here and that was another reason.

NORRIS: This sounds like it's a fairly populated area. What are the Marines planning to do to avoid civilian casualties, particularly if all those civilians do stay?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, they're definitely looking to make sure that if they open fire, that they're only going to do so against people who are firing on them. Today, there was some sporadic fire as the Marines were setting up here in, you know, in and around the Marja area and they did not fire back. In fact, they were very cautious and they're not just willy-nilly even when they are being fired upon.

NORRIS: Are there plans for after the offensive? What happens then?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, first of all, like, civil affairs teams that the military has will be going in to find out what it is that the population needs most, be it drinking water, schools, clinics and the like. And also there is a new sub-governor, an Afghan, who is originally from Helmand province, who spent many years abroad. He will be brought in so that there can actually be an Afghan government presence almost immediately once security is established here. And there are also a lot of efforts on behalf of USAID and, you know, other U.S. government civilians who will be coming in here to try and provide cash for work and again just to quickly bring about some sort of economic and social change for the people who live here.

NORRIS: Thank you very much, Soraya.

SARHADDI-NELSON: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson. She is embedded with the U.S. Marines on the outskirts of Marja in southern Afghanistan.

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