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In southern Afghanistan, NATO commanders are sharing credit for the success of last month's offensive in Marjah. They say the Afghans contributed experienced troops and fighting spirit to the operation which regained control of an area that had been dominated by the Taliban.
But as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Helmand Province, questions remain about the Afghan's battlefield tactics and their ability to coordinate with foreign troops.
COREY FLINTOFF: The combined force that captured this poppy-growing region included 1,250 Afghan army troops, or ANA, and about 600 national police. They fought alongside nearly 5,000 Marines and soldiers from an Army Stryker brigade.
Colonel Randy Newman, commander of the 6th Marine Regiment, says that on the whole, the ANA performed very well.
Colonel RANDY NEWMAN (Commander, 6th Marine Regiment): I've been impressed with what they've offered us. And some people will point out some individual actions, some small actions in areas where they've done things that we wouldn't prefer. I don't dispute those.
FLINTOFF: But Newman says the problem soldiers represent only a very small portion of the number of Afghans involved in the fight.
One reason the Afghans performed well, officers say, is that their ranks included many solders with fighting experience in other parts of the country.
Colonel FAROUQ TARAKHIL (Afghan Army): (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: That's Afghan army Colonel Farouq Tarakhil, who says this wasn't the first battle for his unit. They've been tested, he says, by fighting the Taliban in Khost Province and other parts of the country.
Colonel Newman says there is no question of the Afghans' courage in battle.
Col. NEWMAN: As often as I've heard stories of them perhaps being mean to the people or something, I've heard equal stories of them being more than eager to enter into the fray.
FLINTOFF: But that eagerness was a problem last month for Marines in a combat situation where Afghan soldiers pushed ahead without coordinating with their partners. NPR correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was with a Marine patrol on the third day of the Marjah offensive when that lack of coordination delayed an airstrike against Taliban fighters and created a danger of friendly fire.
The Marines were under fire, taking cover behind a wall, and their captain was trying to call an airstrike on the source of the shooting. Captain Joshua Condo(ph) was frustrated because Afghan soldiers, the ANA, had run ahead without telling him, putting themselves too close to an area where he wanted to direct the airstrike.
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, I know. And we're taking fire.
Unidentified Man #2: Well, tell them to push back so I can get the aircraft in.
Unidentified Man #1: Hey, push back. Push back.
FLINTOFF: Condo also complained that the ANA seemed to be firing in an undisciplined way.
Captain JOSHUA CONDO: (Unintelligible) that fire that was on the north side of the canal was ANA. There are jackasses who fired over our heads.
FLINTOFF: The Marines had reports of Taliban fighters with a machine gun, moving to set up an ambush. Condo yelled to the Marine who was the liaison with the ANA.
Capt. CONDO: That commander has got to get them under control, dude. Now they're over the battlefield and I can't do anything. There is a guy out there with RPG machine gun, and I can't do (bleep) because they're (bleep) jackasses.
FLINTOFF: The captain and his platoon leader, First Lieutenant Justin Gray, moved to set up the airstrike while trying to let the ANA know what they were doing.
Capt. CONDO: (Unintelligible) do a couple lines of sequential attack with the hellfire. You capable to get the hellfire on board?
Unidentified Man #3: Affirmative.
Unidentified Man #4: Commander.
Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)
Capt. CONDO: Tell him that planes are about to shoot over there.
Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of a whistle)
FLINTOFF: When asked why he had led his men ahead without telling the Marines, the Afghan captain, Mohammad Gharib, said his men had spotted a teenage boy in the area and wanted to check him out.
The Marjah offensive was designed to test putting the ANA in the lead, so technically they weren't required to follow the Marines' orders, but Marine officers say they needed to be reined in.
Now that the shooting has stopped, Afghan soldiers are showing a strong presence in the Marjah area, and Colonel Tarakhil says that's a role that brings out their biggest strength.
Col. TARAKHIL: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He says his men know the language and the local culture, and they're better equipped to solve local problems and bring peace to the region.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
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