U.S. Afghan Forces Push Deeper Into Marjah

In Afghanistan over the weekend, U.S. Marines started an offensive targeting the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The going has been relatively slow because attack routes have been saturated with roadside bombs.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Im Renee Montagne.

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan are pushing ahead in that major offensive in and around the southern town of Marjah. The going has been slow because routes of attack are saturated with roadside bombs. Also slowing things down somewhat is something commanders had been hoping to avoid, and thats civilian casualties.

NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is with the Marines, and she joins us now. Hello, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, can you give us a brief overview of what conditions are where you are?

NELSON: We're basically in a northwestern corner here of Marjah, and this is a safe - it looks like a little village of sorts. You know, you have to picture, there's a little mud-front bazaar with very meager supplies in the stores. And I mean, we are talking about rats and snakes and really extreme cold conditions. And it's in these conditions that they are trying to secure this area, which has even more problems than just the ones I've mentioned.

I mean, we're talking about IEDs everywhere. I mean, it turned out that the place that I was sleeping in last night with a couple of dozen Marines, 10 feet away there were two IEDs located this morning, which were then, in turn, detonated. The biggest group of IEDs they found so far was what they called a daisy-chained group, and it was about 400 pounds of explosive, which they uncovered. And if they had come in town the way the Taliban were expecting, that would have created a lot of problems for the Marines. But they actually came in the back way, if you will. And as a result, they were able to find these IEDs, as well as the trigger man. They detained the person they suspected was the trigger man and detonated them yesterday, 400 pounds of explosives.

So, its been very difficult for them. They have had to tread very carefully. At the same time, there are insurgents still out there, shooting pretty regularly to try and draw the Marines out. What the Marines suspect is they're hoping to get them to come forward enough that perhaps they will step on one of these IEDs that have not been uncovered yet.

MONTAGNE: And as you say, you've come under quite a bit of fire, am I right?

NELSON: Thats correct. Its sporadic and its ineffective, as the Marines call it. I mean, it's - it doesnt - they're not using the most sophisticated weapons, although periodically they seem to pull out DShK or some other, you know, high caliber machine gun that they have. But its basically - I mean, you cant just ignore it, because, obviously, you dont want these people getting closer.

MONTAGNE: Could you tell us what you know about the civilian casualties? What more do you know about that?

NELSON: Well, the NATO-led coalition here is saying that one of their high HIMARS missiles, or - that stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. They apparently fired 300 hundred yards or so off the target they were intending and struck a compound with 12 people in it. Immediately, NATO did take responsibility. General McChrystal, who is the U.S. commander in charge of all international forces here, he apologized to President Karzai, and there have been many meetings today to discuss this. Its important to note that the Marines have really been - at least the ones I have been with - they have been very cautious.

They've also been treating civilians. There was a wounded civilian this morning who was brought here in a wheelbarrow by his two sons. The gentleman claims to be about 80 years old. In Afghanistan, age doesnt mean much since birthdays arent celebrated, but he was definitely an elderly gentleman, and he was shot in the groin area. The bullet wound exited. And so they - he claimed he was shot by an Afghan soldier, but, of course, you know, there is no 100 percent proof of it. But whatever the case was, the Marines treated him, and they're medevaccing him out.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You are welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is with a platoon of the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines regiment, taking part in the offensive in southern Afghanistan.

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