Marines Have Turned Helmand Fight Over To Afghans

The Taliban conducted a series of deadly attacks across Afghanistan this week, killing civilians, Afghan forces and several NATO service members. But they are targeting far fewer NATO troops these days, because those troops are focused on training and advising the Afghan army. NPR's Sean Carberry spent five days with U.S. Marines in one of Afghanistan's chronic hot spots and speaks with host Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Taliban conducted a series of deadly attacks across Afghanistan this week. They've killed dozens of people including civilians, Afghan forces and several native service members. But they seem to be targeting far fewer NATO troops these days because those troops are increasingly focused on training and advising the Afghan army.

NPR's Sean Carberry spent a few days with marines in the Helmand Province who are advising the Afghan army. He joins us now from Camp Leatherneck. Sean, thanks for being with us.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Thanks Scott.

SIMON: And tell us please, where were you in Helmand?

CARBERRY: So I was in the Sangin District in the north of Helmand, which has been historically one of the most deadly places in the country. There are about 20,000 marines here at one point conducting a variety of major operations. They did clear out a good number of Taliban, but Sangin is a strategic place for them. There are a lot of transit routes. It's important for their poppy harvest and the drug money that they rely on.

And both U.S. and Afghan forces say that the Taliban are not about to be pushed out of the Sangin District and are pretty deeply dug in. And the Taliban are able to move around easily, they hang out in civilian houses and Afghan forces have a very difficult time trying to clear them out of that district.

SIMON: I have to ask, Sean, are the Taliban popular?

CARBERRY: They are not popular, but what happens with people there is if they're not sure that the Afghan forces can clean them out and that the government is going to be able to come in and provide security, they will tolerate the Taliban.

SIMON: What was going on when you were there?

CARBERRY: Basically, Taliban and other militants throughout the day will wander around, fire off shots at them. If the Afghans can see them they will fire back, sometimes with larger weapons or mortars, but it's kind of a cat and mouse game that tends to go on really most of the day and night.

SIMON: And what do the U.S. Marines do during these, I almost called them occasions, but during these episodes?

CARBERRY: Honestly a lot of them are drinking coffee, working out or otherwise going about their business. I was expecting them to either put on their gear and start running out to the edges of the bays to fight or tell me to get into a bunker or something, but they basically ignored it and they said this is the reality now. It's not their fight. They are not doing combat operations. They're doing training and advising.

They said, you know, the Afghans are taking care of security at this point.

SIMON: Sean, what kind of estimates did hear about how the Afghan army is faring?

CARBERRY: Well, both marines and some of the Afghan officers that I spoke with were pretty candid about that. They say fighting wise, they're better than the insurgents that they're fighting. They still have a lot of room for improvement there, but the real issues again in these combat support services, whether it's logistics, supplies, getting fuel, planning missions, intelligence, things like that that are critical to being a self-sustaining army that go beyond just simply fighting.

And those are the things where they all say it's going to continue to take years to develop those things and, you know, some of them, air support, Medevac, things like that, they're going to be lacking for any number of years to come.

SIMON: NPR's Sean Carberry who's at Camp Leatherneck in Southern Afghanistan. Sean, thanks so much for being with us.

CARBERRY: You're welcome, Scott.

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