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Marines Seek To Tame Afghan 'Snake's Head'

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Marines Seek To Tame Afghan 'Snake's Head'

Marines Seek To Tame Afghan 'Snake's Head'

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, its ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

For the past four months, thousands of Marines have been fanning out across Afghanistans southern province of Helmand. Their task is to fight the Taliban and to win over the local population. Thats a critical test for the American military at a critical time in Afghanistan. Can the U.S. win the war by winning hearts and minds?

NPRs Tom Bowman has been with the Marines in Helmand province.

TOM BOWMAN: The marketplace of Garmsir here in Helmand province is bustling. Theres a long line of shops, piles of pomegranates, oranges and okra -consumer goods trucked in from Pakistan: toys, motorcycle spare parts

(Soundbite of music)

BOWMAN:and DVDs. Just a few months ago, American and Taliban forces battled in the streets here. But just a couple of weeks ago, it was safe enough for a visitor from the United States to stroll about without a helmet or body armor.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): How is business?

Unidentified Man #1: Good.

BOWMAN: Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts shook hands and chatted with vendors at the stalls, like he was campaigning back in Bostons Faneuil Hall Marketplace. So, what brought about this change? About 4,000 infantry Marines. They swept in by helicopter in early July, pushing out the Taliban. And Marines built heavily-fortified outposts, like the one that squats just outside this marketplace. Thats where we found the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss sending in front of a large map of Helmand province. Hes responsible for an area called the snakes head. On the map, the green cultivated areas create what appear to be a bulbous head, attached to a long thin body that stretches south along the lush Helmand River valley.

Lieutenant Colonel CHRISTIAN CABANISS (Commander, 2/8 Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps): The northern half of the snakes head is transitioning from hold to build, and thats what were trying to continue further south.

BOWMAN: Hold to build, thats counterinsurgency talk for helping the Afghan government bring back a sense of normal life, like that marketplace at Garmsir. But theres a long way to go. Thats according to Major General Michael Flynn. Hes the top intelligence officer for the United States in Afghanistan.

Major General MICHAEL FLYNN (Director of Intelligence, U.S. Central Command): Of the top 20 districts that we rate right now as the most dangerous, nine of those are in the - remain in Helmand.

BOWMAN: And some dangerous areas are along the snakes body you can see on the map. And thats why you went with the Marines from head into the belly. They pushed down into the snakes neck, just six miles south of the Garmsir market and there was a very different sound.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man #2: You hear that shrapnel flying?

BOWMAN: When Marines first came here back in July, they got involved in running gun battles just outside the gate at this patrol base. Now theres another problem, says Sergeant Richard Lacey.

Sergeant RICHARD LACEY (U.S. Marine Corps): The IEDs are there, its just not all them talking. Youre not going to see them until you get on them unless you know what to look for. Since weve been here, weve kind of learned what to look for, where to stay away.

BOWMAN: The Marines continue to move south, fighting to set up more patrol bases. Once they do, they make the first tentative efforts to reach out to the local population. Again, Colonel Cabaniss.

Lt. Col. CABANISS: This is one very isolated area. You dont just come in from the outside and then start talking to people in the community. So, the more and more theyre comfortable and they feel that were going to stay and that the government is going to deliver, the more likely they are to tell us things. And when they start telling us, the Taliban has no sea to swim in. Theyre going to have to leave.

BOWMAN: Thats the theory, anyway. Sergeant Lacey knows it doesnt happen overnight.

Sgt. LACEY: I think from the time we got here to now has actually kind of improved on them trusting us and telling us where stuff is and well go out and blow it up.

BOWMAN: So, theres progress, but slow progress?

Sgt. LACEY: Yes, very slow.

BOWMAN: They quiz farmers and village elders for any information on the insurgents. They promise local projects- schools, roads, bridges. Its a tough sell - tougher still a few more miles down the snakes body. Its near another marketplace in a town called Lakhari. Two months ago, the Marines pushed the Taliban out of this marketplace and rather than just leave, the Marines set up an outpost here. Now, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson is touring it. The Marines tell him that Afghan families are finally starting to move back into the area.

Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (Commander, Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Afghanistan): Whats up fellows? How are we doing?

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, all right.

Bdr. Gen. NICHOLSON: So what do you guys think of this new cop?

BOWMAN: Nicholson is pleased by the news. He asked about road projects that could help build relationships with locals. When you hear about things like the militarys counterinsurgency strategy, thats what the generals have in mind. But it raises a different issue: Wheres the Afghan government? The Marines fight and build. There are only 800 Afghan soldiers here compared to those 4,000 Marines. And Nicholson admits that many Afghan police are corrupt and incompetent.

Bdr. Gen. NICHOLSON: We are vetting our police. And my assessment is that probably three to four out of every 10 we have probably need to really probably go home.

BOWMAN: The Afghan government has some presence in the snakes head, but Nicholson says its nowhere to be seen in these rural areas. Nicholson and other officers know they have a tenuous hold on Helmand.

You need more Marines to take that fight to the Taliban.

Bdr. Gen. NICHOLSON: Absolutely. And again, there are areas, frankly, that with more Marines, there are more areas we could get to and do the kinds of things weve done in Helmand. Theres no question about that.

BOWMAN: Like where?

Bdr. Gen. NICHOLSON: Well, like Marja is one of them. And thats a tough area.

BOWMAN: A very tough area. Marja sits just west of the snakes head. Its a sprawling district of markets and towns and about 200,000 people. Its a nexus for drug traffickers and the Taliban. If more American troops are sent to Afghanistan, this is where they might end up. Back in May, U.S. forces raided the area, seizing tons of opium and bomb-making equipment. There are no American troops there now, no Afghan army or even police. But Marja isnt the only problem for the Americans in Helmand province.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Its dusk. The Marines are on patrol in the snakes neck. Theyre bringing a State Department adviser named Carter Malkasian to meet a local Afghan leader. The Afghan is named Mullah Aminullah(ph). The Marines call him Joe Pesci. Hes short, strident and the Marines are wary of him. The mullah and the diplomat sit cross-legged in a plowed cornfield. The mullah starts off with a list of grievances.

Mr. MULLAH AMINULLAH (Afghan Leader): (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: He says even though we cannot go near the river right here because you the Marines goes (unintelligible) that you are Taliban or if you go another way, the Taliban - we also scare of the Taliban, we also scare of you guys.

Mr. CARTER MALKASIAN (Department of State): Please dont be scared of the Marines. They want to protect people. Sometimes they have to stop and check people. But theyre not going to do anyone any harm. Theyre not going to hurt you. Theyre not going to put you in prison. Theyre just trying to make theyre just trying to check everyone, to make sure that no one is doing anything dangerous.

BOWMAN: The mullah is more afraid the Taliban will see him with the Americans.

Mr. AMINULLAH: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: He says that now Im speaking with you guys, Im scaring because during the night, maybe the Taliban will come and kill us. He says that, in other villages its happened many times.

(Soundbite of explosion)

BOWMAN: That wasnt the enemy.

(Soundbite of explosion)

BOWMAN: It was the Marines. They found two roadside bombs and detonated them. They found them in the road next to a mud house, a few hundred feet from where the mullah lives. And yet, he told the Marines he had no idea who planted the bombs. And with that, he stood up and said it was time for prayers, and stumbled across the field toward his mosque.

Mr. AMINULLAH: (Foreign Language Spoken)

BOWMAN: So for all the Marine patrols in Helmand, all the outposts theyve set up, all the efforts to set up markets like the one in Garmsir, the work has only just begun.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

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