Offensive Launched Against Taliban Stronghold

Thousands of NATO troops and Afghan soldiers began an offensive Saturday against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The operation is an attempt to establish Afghan government control over the area.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.

A major military offensive is underway in Afghanistan. Its in the countrys southern Helmand province. Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops are trying to take back one of the last Taliban strongholds, the town of Marjah.

NPRs Tom Bowman joins us from the Pentagon. Tom, what more can you tell us about this offensive?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, its underway, weve been able to confirm. And its also been called Operation Moshtarak, which is Dari for together. Now the message they are trying to send is that both Afghan and Allied Forces are conducting this operation.

Now, thats something new, this larger Afghan presence. Now there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Taliban fighters there in Marjah. This is a district that really has had no police or soldiers there at all, either Afghan, British or U.S. for years now. So, its really become a haven not only for Taliban but for drug traffickers as well.

BLOCK: And this assault on Marjah, Tom, has been much anticipated, much publicized in advance. Why is that?

BOWMAN: Well, I think they wanted to make sure civilians stayed inside and were aware of the operation, stayed inside their houses, although some civilians, we understand, have fled.

And also, I think they hope that some Taliban would lay down their arms. Theres a big push now trying to get Taliban fighters who are maybe just doing it for pay to lay down their arms. And also, I think theyre targeting mid-level commanders. This is probably the most publicized operation really in recent memory.

BLOCK: Tom, Im curious about that this notion that the civilians should stay in Marjah, which seems to fly in the face of common sense if youre trying to avoid civilian casualties.

BOWMAN: Exactly, right. I think they want them to stay inside their houses, but youre right. I mean, clearly if a lot of Taliban stay and fight and the Marines come rolling in, they can get caught in a crossfire. So, it really doesnt make a lot of sense. And again, what we understand is a number of civilians have fled.

BLOCK: Tom, as you mentioned, a key part of this effort is the notion that Afghan soldiers and police will be playing a part in this offensive.

BOWMAN: Thats right. Last summers Marine operation had really few Afghan soldiers. And they say this will be different. Theyre expecting thousands of Afghan soldiers and police to take part in this. And theyre also being brought in from other parts of the country.

And one reason is because recruiting in southern Afghanistan for the army has been a problem. Southern Pashtuns are just not signing up for the Afghan military. The southern Pashtuns are the heart of the insurgency. And also, the local police are highly corrupt, so theyre bringing in police from other parts of the country.

BLOCK: You spent time, Tom, in Helmand province. Do you get a sense of the strength of the Taliban in Marjah and how long this operation could last?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, we really dont have any sense how long the operation could last. There are a lot of problems here. There are canals going through this area. Its going to be difficult for the Marines to get across. And the Taliban are really part of the local population, so they could just melt into the population. They could take off from the area.

But clearly, theres a huge Taliban presence not only in Marjah but really in pockets throughout Helmand province despite the Marine operations there over the past eight or nine months.

BLOCK: Thats NPRs Tom Bowman whos talking about a major offensive that has began in the southern Afghan town of Marjah. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: Youre welcome.

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