An Update On Marjah, Months After Offensive

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Earlier this year, the U.S. military began an offensive in Marjah to push out the Taliban. After initial reports of resistance, then success, the Taliban have resumed their insurgency, and Afghan civilians are fleeing the area. Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times talks to Robert Siegel about her experiences in Marjah, where she was embedded with the Marines early last week.


Now, the disconcerting news from Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province. In February, the U.S. Marines moved into Marjah in force, having publically declared the district of 75,000 a key objective. They were there to push the Taliban out of their last remaining stronghold in the province. This was part of the Afghan surge, more U.S. and Afghan troops that would hold the city and protect the population.

Well, after initial reports of resistance and then success, here's what's disconcerting: the Taliban have resumed their insurgency and Afghan civilians are fleeing the area.

Marie Colvin is the Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and she just returned from Marjah. And Marie Colvin, it seems from what you've written that a relatively small number of insurgents in Marjah are using fear and intimidation very effectively.

Ms. MARIE COLVIN (Middle East Correspondent, The Sunday Times, London): Very effectively. There's probably only several hundred Taliban in Marjah, but they are approaching turning the whole surge on its head. A very, very difficult situation for the residents of Marjah. They are at night being intimidated. Letters are put up in the mosque saying, you know, if you do not stop dealing with the American forces, we will kill you.

There was a very popular farmer refused to pay a Taliban tax, he was taken out into the desert, beaten to death and his body was dumped on his father's doorstep. So it's very, very tense. General Petraeus, you know, as we know, and General McChrystal, it's clear, hold, build. We haven't really gotten past the clear stage. The Taliban are back in Marjah.

SIEGEL: Are U.S. forces making any progress in rooting out what Taliban are there? That is, is that number of several hundred, is it at least lower than it was a couple of months ago or does it seem to be unchanged?

Ms. COLVIN: Well, that's a hard one to call. I personally was out on patrol with the American Marines. We were on a night patrol and we were spotted by what was the Taliban. They started following us with the light from a roof and there were others in the tree line. It was very clear that they had some kind of network in Marjah. I would say about 50 percent are local Marjah residents. Everyone knows who they were, they put their Kalishnikovs down, they picked up a shovel, and now they've come back, given that the poppy harvest is in.

The Taliban make their money from taxing local poppy farmers. That money is they've been reinvigorated. Certainly other Taliban, other supporters have come back into Marjah. But a lot of the insurgents and the intimidation you're seeing is actually coming from local Marjah Taliban sympathizers or members.

SIEGEL: Did U.S. commanders appear to be responding flexibly to this? That is, are they seeing greater Taliban resiliency than they'd counted on and are they adapting to it and altering tactics in response to it?

Ms. COLVIN: I came out of Marjah optimistic only for that reason. Because we've kind of got the A-Team there. You've got officers there who are explaining it to 19-year-olds. Now, a lot of those 19-year-old Marines are not happy about what they're doing. They've been taught to, you know, be aggressive, to go in they're walking around poppy fields, they are signing little chits saying, yes, you've destroyed your poppy, you can now come in and get your money.

They are being very, very, very careful partnering with Afghan police and soldiers, listening to them, being very careful about not entering houses. It's almost become a religious mantra, but partnering and trying to somehow connect to the population. The officers are aware of what they need to do, and they're really trying to do it. I don't know if it will work. I don't know if it's too late, but it certainly has the potential to work.

And the Taliban are a negative force. They did not build one bridge. They did not clear one canal, which every Afghan in Marjah will tell you. So, they want it to work, we want it to work, it's possible that it will. But it's a very, very fraught situation now.

SIEGEL: Marie Colvin, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. COLVIN: Okay. Thanks, Robert, bye.

SIEGEL: That's Marie Colvin, who is Middle East correspondent for The Sunday Times of London. She spoke to us from London. She's just back from Marjah in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

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