U.S. Officials Tour Former Taliban Stronghold

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U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry paid a visit Monday to the Afghan district of Marjah — the scene of a major U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban earlier this year. Reclaiming the area is likely to be a long-term project.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Until a few months ago, Marjah was just a dusty town in southern Afghanistan that attracted little attention. Then American troops and other NATO forces drove out the Taliban and took control of Marjah in February.

Yesterday, top American officials visited the area for a look at the progress and problems in a place that is now a top priority for United States military. Ambassadors Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry got a taste of why reclaiming this area is likely to be a long term project. Here's NPR's Corey Flintoff in Marjah.

COREY FLINTOFF: The counter-insurgency strategy laid out for Marjah is called clear, hold and build - that is, clear the area of Taliban fighters, supply enough military force to hold it, then gain the confidence of local people by rebuilding the local government.

Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in the dusty farming region for briefings from civilian and military officials who've been working on the building part of that strategy. He was accompanied by Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the top NATO military commanders in the region.

Holbrooke and his party were listening to a briefing from Edward Messmer, a State Department civilian working in Marjah, when the pop of gunfire was heard in the background.

Mr. EDWARD MESSMER (U.S. State Department): We have 14 contractors who are certified to bid on projects here in Marjah. Most of them are from (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of gunfire)

FLINTOFF: Holbrooke, who got his own diplomatic start in Vietnam, appeared unperturbed by the shooting. He calmly asked questions about the programs Messmer was describing, including the opening of new schools and shifting the region's farmers from opium poppies to legal crops.

Later, he told reporters that he hadn't noticed the gunfire.

Ambassador RICHARD HOLBROOKE (U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan): It's happened before. It's part of a - it's part of the job. I've been shot at in other countries - a lot of other countries, actually.

FLINTOFF: Military officials at the session said later that the gunfire appeared to have started with a few insurgent potshots at Holbrooke's plane as it sat on the ground. That provoked a heavy-duty response from Afghan army soldiers who were guarding the area.

Holbrooke also heard a briefing from military officials and attended a meeting with local tribal leaders. Afterward, he said he wanted to see Marjah for himself, because so much media and congressional attention has been focused on the region.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: We came to Marjah because this is the front test of the strategy. I wanted to get a firsthand report. Journalists are reporting various things. People who are working here are reporting various things. There's a lot of different points of view. And I wanted to draw some conclusions from personal observation.

FLINTOFF: What journalists have been reporting is that the U.S. and NATO forces had been facing daily clashes with the Taliban and taking casualties as a result. U.S. military officials say the clashes are what they expect from an insurgency that's losing an important staging point and a source of drug money revenue. They say it's a matter of holding on until the Afghan government has a strong enough presence to take over.

As if to point up the dangers of that effort, an explosion burst out minutes after Holbrooke and his party left to return to their planes, sending out an echoing boom and a tall plume of dust. Afghan national police later said that the blast was apparently a premature detonation by three suicide bombers who were intending to strike the district governor.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Marjah, Afghanistan.

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