101st, Taliban In Dangerous Game Of Hide-And-Seek

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Outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, troops from the 101st Airborne Division are leading the fight against the Taliban. They are sweeping through a narrow, 10-mile stretch that hugs the Arghandab River. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with the troops and gives host Scott Simon the latest news.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We're going to begin this hour talking about the war in Afghanistan and the toll it takes on U.S. troops.�In a moment, we'll hear from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. He's going to talk to us about the pressure on the military and the growing problem of suicide in the ranks.��

First to Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers are enduring the stress of war. Outside of Kandahar, in the southern part of the country, troops from the 101st Airborne Division are leading the fight against the Taliban. They're sweeping through a narrow 10 mile stretch that hugs the Arghandab River.�

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with the troops. He joins us with the latest.

Tom, what's the mission? Where are you?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Scott, I'm just outside of Kandahar City, just to the west of the city. And the mission here is to push the Taliban out of their safe haven here. And, of course, this area is the birthplace of the Taliban movement. And it's around here that they hide, plan their attacks and also bring their weapons from Pakistan through this rural area and threaten Kandahar City.

There are a lot of dirt roads here, footpaths, dry stream beds where they can easily move guns and bomb making equipment. And they could do that for a long time undetected. That is, until recently when hundreds of U.S. and Afghan forces came in by helicopter and essentially grabbed this entire region. And now they're wrapping up their operation.

SIMON: And can you tell whether or not the troops have been able to accomplish their mission?

BOWMAN: Well, what we know is they're now controlling much of this area and they're holding it with Afghan forces. The problem is the Taliban have largely escaped. There have only been a few skirmishes with the Taliban. And they've essentially gone to ground, melted into the local villages or escaped into Kandahar City.

One general said to me they've essentially put down their rifles and picked up a shovel. And what he also says is that their Taliban is watching and waiting, looking for any weak spots with the Americans so they can, you know, attack them again.

And what he says is in the spring the question is will they put down the shovel and pick up the rifle again and also start planting roadside bombs, which of course are the number one killer of American troops.

SIMON: Well, and how does the U.S. military propose to prevent them from picking up the gun again?

BOWMAN: Well, what they plan to do is spend the winter working with Afghan government leaders to bring in jobs and services, really tie the people to their government while the U.S. continues to hold this territory.

Just the other afternoon, we were out in one of these cleared areas and a local government leader was having a meeting with some three dozen villagers. And it was his first time he visited this area really since the military operation. And he promised to work with the villagers and help improve their lives.

SIMON: And did he get a warm reception?

BOWMAN: Well, no, he didn't. They pretty much just kind of listened. And they appeared wary. Now, many are still intimidated by the Taliban. But others think the Americans will leave. They just don't trust that the Americans are going to stay here and protect them.

But there are others who just don't want the Americans here at all. Last week I spoke with an elderly villager in the presence of American soldiers. And he said, listen, we don't want the Taliban here, but we also don't want the Americans here either.�And, again, the Americans believe they won't know if this operation is a success until sometime next spring, May or June.

SIMON: Now, that seems a little late for the timetable the Obama administration has to reassess strategy in December, doesn't it?

BOWMAN: It does. And there will be a review next month. And I really think General Petraeus, the overall commander here, will look at what's going on in the outskirts of Kandahar. I think - of course this is a one-time Taliban stronghold. And I think he'll say, listen, the Americans and Afghans are holding the ground here. And I think he'll really point to this as a big success.

But, again, the question is will last and can they build on what they've achieved so far, especially creating a better and more responsive Afghan government. And that's really the only way to end the insurgency.

SIMON: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's traveling with the 101st Airborne Division.

Thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Scott.

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