Taliban Regaining Strength In Helmand Province
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We just heard General McChrystal speak of the lessons learned in Marjah. The offensive there in Helmand province was supposed to epitomize the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The U.S. was going to take advantage of the surge in troop levels, push the Taliban out, get a local Afghan administration up and running and set a model for what could happen next in Kandahar.
Well, now, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post reports, after early reports of successes by the Marines in Marjah, residents there see signs of the Taliban resurgent. And Rajiv Chandrasekaran joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.
Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN (Reporter, Washington Post): Good to talk to you.
SIEGEL: Marjah was a Taliban stronghold before the offensive, how would you describe the Taliban's situation there now?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the Taliban are conducting a campaign of intimidation, of assassination, of a slow attempt to try to reassert control. And what happened there was that U.S. forces after the initial operation back in February, assumed that they had essentially got the Taliban on the run. Now what appears to have been the case is that the insurgents were simply laying in wait, trying to understand what the Marines were going to do, what the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government was going to try to do, search for that soft underbelly and then try to reassert themselves, which they have done with increasing potency over the past couple of weeks.
SIEGEL: Judging from your reporting, that includes both planting a lot of mines or improvised explosive devices, but also meting out retribution to people who corporate with the U.S.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: That's right. One of the tools that the United States government had hoped to use was essentially an economic stimulus, if you will, trying to get literally thousands of young men to lay down their weapons and to get hired for, in some cases, five or $10 a day to clean irrigation canals, to build roads, that sort of thing, thinking that cash would be a very effective weapon there to try to turn this community.
Well, the Taliban has decided to try to counter that by attacking or, in some cases, killing people who have been availing of this. And it has spread a climate of fear across this community and has led these programs to be far less widespread and effective as U.S. officials had hoped they would be.
SIEGEL: What happened to the idea of the Marines with Afghan forces or Afghan civilians along would come into Marjah, take over and government in a box would be with them, readymade administration would take over?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: It was a great idea, except the box turned out to be largely empty, despite a lot of planning and working with the Afghan government to try to identify civil servants who would be able to come to Marjah and provide basic services, a representative, for instance, from the ministry of health to run the clinic. Somebody from the ministry of education and so forth.
What has happened is that those officials have been reluctant to come to Marjah, to provide those basic services, which U.S. officials believe are essential to winning over the local population and getting them to side with the government and oppose the Taliban.
SIEGEL: When you spoke with Afghans around Marjah, did the subject of how long the U.S. is going to remain there come up? Were they confident that there would be people guaranteeing their security beyond, say, the middle of next year?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: This is one of the key challenges that the United States faces in Afghanistan. Ordinary Afghans really question the length of the U.S. and international commitment to their country, and perhaps for good reason. President Obama has noted that U.S. forces will start drawing down in the summer of 2011.
To the people on the ground in places like Marjah, they think that means everybody's going home next summer. And so, those who are supportive of the government or those who would like to be supportive of the government have this great fear that they will be once abandoned by the United States and its NATO allies.
SIEGEL: Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, thank you very much.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Great to talk to you.