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DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

U.S. Marines who have been arriving by the thousands in Southern Afghanistan took the fight to the Taliban this morning. In a major offensive dubbed Operation Strike of the Sword, the Marines are moving into the towns and villages in the Helmand River Valley. It's an area that grows the poppy that produces much of the world's opium, which in turn helps fund the Taliban, who are mostly in control there. The man who is commanding the Marines is Brigadier General Larry Nicholson. He's a veteran of Iraq who was seriously wounded there five years ago.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spent two weeks with the Marines last month and has this profile of the commander.

TOM BOWMAN: General Nicholson has one of those lived-in faces - creased and craggy, like a boxer's or a veteran beat cop, and the scars of a Marine who survived. He remembers the day clearly, September 14th, 2004 in Iraq, Anbar province. The war was not going well. That evening in his office, he was having trouble with his computer. He asked an aide to come look at the problem, and Nicholson stepped off to the side. And then the room exploded.

Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (Commander, Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Afghanistan): A rocket came into my office, killed Major Kevin Shea, who was my communications officer in there with me, and wounded me.

BOWMAN: Pieces of the rocket tore into Nicholson's back.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: I got hit in the back shoulder, and you feel it right there.

BOWMAN: Right there, just under his left shoulder, an empty space that buckles through his uniform, large enough to swallow a fist.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: I lost most of my lats, my scapula was shattered. So I had a pretty good hole in my shoulder and back there.

(Soundbite of zipper, rustling)

BOWMAN: When we caught up with the general a few weeks ago, he was pulling his armored vest over his shoulder, getting ready to head into the field. In a single afternoon, we got a sense of the wide range of roles a commander at his level must play. First stop, the village of Golestan, tucked between saw-toothed mountains. It's part of the region General Nicholson must protect, an area the size of New Jersey. Nicholson strolled down the main street, a rutted dirt road bordered by mud huts and the stalls. He greeted an Afghan policeman, a thin man holding an AK-47.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: It's an honor to meet you.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: Adults peered from windows. Chickens darted about. The general met a shopkeeper who said through an interpreter that the Taliban take food and money, then vanish into the mountains.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: What can we do, what can the Marines do, and what can the police do to make it even better?

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: The man complained the Taliban are constantly on the move.

Unidentified Man #2: The enemy is not staying on one place.

BOWMAN: That's Nicholson's challenge, fighting an elusive enemy that attacks, intimidates, then melts away. Even 10,000 Marines aren't enough.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: We're never going to have, even in our wildest dreams, we're never going to have enough Marines and soldiers to be everywhere. But that's why having the locals take more responsibility of their own - hey, this is my neighborhood. You know, I'm going to defend this neighborhood.

BOWMAN: Nicholson knows that neighborhood defense won't happen anytime soon. The ranks of the Afghan police are thinned by intimidation and fear.

(Soundbite of helicopter engine)

BOWMAN: Later that afternoon, Nicholson hopped aboard his helicopter and banked south toward the Marine's base, Camp Leatherneck. Done being Afghan mayor for the day, he got down to other business: planning a major sweep into the Taliban heartland involving thousands of Marines. He sweats every detail.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: Just do - do we have everything ready? Do we have the right gear? Are we going to the right places? I think the one leader's lament that I don't want to have is as we're on those helos and we're flying into the zone, is going, man. I wish I'd just - I wish I'd done one more thing, or I wish I'd taken time to look at that.

BOWMAN: You know you're going to lose people here.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: Yeah, I know. This is a tough business, and I think you can't be overly naive about casualties. And I take each one of them personally, and I anguish over each and every one.

BOWMAN: At the end of the day we spent with him, General Nicholson assembled one battalion of his Marines. Some stood, some sat on a patch of dirt outside their tents at Camp Leatherneck as the general grabbed the microphone.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: Our job is to go in there and make contact with the enemy - find the enemy, and then we'll hold on. This is an enemy that's used to having small-scale attacks and having the coalition pull back. There is no pullback. We will stay on him, and we will ride him until he's either dead or surrenders.

BOWMAN: With his Marines on the ground hunting the enemy, General Larry Nicholson will circle the battlefield in his helicopter, watching his plan unfold.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: To read more of what the general had to say to the troops, go to npr.org.

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