Forces Launch Operation In Afghanistan

Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops have mounted an offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The operation is an attempt to impose Afghan government control over the area.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

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

NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is there. Shes embedded with American Marines. Soraya, what can you tell us about what youve seen and heard so far?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Earlier this morning - and its a Saturday morning here in Afghanistan - you could hear helicopters in large (unintelligible). I mean, basically, what the Marines have been doing in the last few days is to try to figure out where the main spots are, where they have heavy machineguns and that sort of thing that they can take out.

Thats part of began and the troops, or I should say, Marines who have gone in by helicopter and they are starting the assault and the whole city is surrounded by U.S. Marines and Afghan National Army who are part of this particular operation. So this will be a very busy day.

BLOCK: You mentioned Marines going in by helicopter. What about ground troops? There has been a lot of concern, of course, about mines and IEDs.

NELSON: That certainly is the case. And, in fact, General Nicholson, when I spoke to him a couple of days ago says that was among his concerns because the Taliban has built what they described as an IED crust around town.

Certainly theres a lot of equipment here, a lot of mine-sweeping equipment, mine-detecting dogs that have been going around and doing work in the last few days and try and determine these areas that are going to be, you know, very dangerous for the Marines and the Afghan National Army. But this certainly going to remain a concern today.

BLOCK: What have you heard at this early stage about the level and intensity of Taliban resistance?

NELSON: If where I am is any indication, and Im right on the outskirts of town, there is going to be some resistance. I mean, they were taking pot shots at us all day yesterday. But the Marines, I should say, theyre incredibly cautious. I mean theyre very determined not to create any more civilian casualties as absolutely necessary and preferably none, because that defeats the purpose of this operation. They really do want to win these people over, to actually join the government of Afghanistan again.

BLOCK: Soraya, you mentioned civilian casualty, trying to avoid them. There have been reports of civilians trying to flee march, jamming the roads today in advance of this offensive. They had been told, though, to remain in the town. Why is that?

NELSON: The feeling is that if you create a ghost town, thats not really going to achieve a purpose. And the Marines actually have had a very good record during their time here in Helmand of not creating civilian casualties.

So the feeling is this operation is going to be done with minimal problems to the civilians. Of course, thats difficult for the civilians that when they hear a lot of booms and firing and they see Taliban taking up positions in their town, I mean I think it might be natural for them to want to leave. But the feeling is that, by and large, people are staying put.

BLOCK: When the Taliban fighters, theyll be trying to embed themselves within the civilian population?

NELSON: Well, they are hoping that with the Marines are hoping that with the help of the Afghan National Army and the contacts that theyve made with the elders of Marjah over the last weeks here that theyll be able to sort out bad guys from good. But, yes, thats always a concern or risk.

But, again, the Marines have said that if these people even shooting at them put down their guns, they will not be fired at. And so far, from what Ive seen in the days leading up to this, they seem to be abiding by that.

BLOCK: Thats NPRs Soray Sarhaddi Nelson speaking with us from Marjah in southern Afghanistan where a NATO-led offensive has begun against Taliban fighters.

Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: Youre welcome.

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