LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
A Taliban leader offered a strange expression of Afghanistan's famous hospitality. The insurgent spokesman says Americans are welcome to attack. He even seemed a little impatient that they haven't started their latest offensive. We'll hear that spokesman in a moment. He's been talking with our own Renee Montagne, and so has a man who's been traveling with U.S. troops.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
NPR's David Gilkey just arrived to this area with an artillery unit from the 101st Airborne Division, and we've reached him on satellite phone here.
DAVID GILKEY: Hey, Renee. How are you?
MONTAGNE: Pretty good. And, David, Im standing on a rooftop in the middle of Kandahar, looking at a jagged mountain at the city's edge. And I know you're just on the other side of that mountain, just a few miles away. Very different place, tell us what it's like over there.
GILKEY: Yeah, it's kind of funny because I am sitting on a Army outpost with the 320th Artillery Unit, looking at exactly that same mountain. Yeah, it's really different. I am in a lush, lush area - the Arghandab River Valley - a very different scene out here.
MONTAGNE: Now, this valley is key to Kandahar City, strategically - if you want to think in military terms. Tell us a little about that.
GILKEY: Well, it's traditionally been a place where arms, drugs and the profits from those have been moved in and out of this city and points north, points south and points out of the country. So it's one of the gateways, from the desert, and certainly from the rural outlying areas around Kandahar City, into the city itself.
MONTAGNE: And tell us what you know of the mission of that artillery unit and what it intends to do there in Arghandab.
GILKEY: They're conducting all the same counterinsurgency stuff that, you know, regular sort of infantry units would. It's extremely dangerous work. It's an area thats absolutely riddled with homemade bombs and mines. So I think people are very familiar with seeing a terrain from here that, you know, resembles a desert. And this is nothing like that. I mean it's just lush, lush, lush, intermittent farms, and rows and rows and rows of pomegranates - which they're harvesting right now.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. And that is of course lots of places for insurgents to hide.
GILKEY: Yeah. And thats absolutely the problem. I mean - and it's a lot of places to hide homemade explosives, mines. And not only that, but you sort of never have more visibility than whats directly in front of you. Every time you go out, you are not walking on the trails because those are potentially mines. So you're walking through the bush and it's a bushwhack; you are walking through creeks and pushing your way through the brush, and then underneath the pomegranate groves.
MONTAGNE: David, one thing we've just heard that the locals there had been told, just a week ago by Afghan forces, that there had been an area that was cleared of Taliban and then the Taliban had poured back in. This clearing and re-clearing has been going on for years in Arghandab and also other villages encircling Kandahar.
Why would this time be any different?
GILKEY: Well, I mean the force structure is totally different this time. I mean the 101st has brought in enough people that they're confident that they can actually do the clearing operations, and then hold it.
Now, does that mean that some places shift and go back and forth in the hands of both sides: Absolutely.
MONTAGNE: You know, just finally, David. There is a difference this time, and thats the Afghan National Army and its soldiers, these guys are stronger and better trained now. Do you expect that to make a difference in the fighting there and the final result?
GILKEY: Well, absolutely. I mean the motto of ISAF forces and the American forces here is, you know, Shoulder-to-Shoulder. So the fact that every operation they do has the Afghans with them, I mean, is an amazing step forward.
You have remember that it was, you know, not even a couple of years that was unthinkable. So seeing, you know, the Americans working side-by-side, with equal numbers right now, of Afghan forces is a huge difference.
And in almost all cases during an operation, it's the Afghans taking the lead on the way in. So it's a very, very different landscape, as far as how the military is working down here.
MONTAGNE: NPR photographer David Gilkey. He's in the Arghandab Valley, just a few miles from where I am here in Kandahar City.
And, David, you take care.
GILKEY: Okay, Renee. Thank you.
MONTAGNE: The Taliban do have deep roots in Arghandab and they've long said they will never give it up. As David pointed out, insurgents can slip in and out of what people in Arghandab call their gardens, putting up a fight then disappearing.
To get a view from the other side, we reached the spokesman for the Taliban here in the south of Afghanistan. Qari Yousuf Ahmadi speaks by cell phone and never reveals his location. Through an interpreter, I asked him about recent successes claimed by Afghan and NATO forces in operations on the edge of Kandahar City, where they say the Taliban have been driven out.
Mr. QARI YOUSUF AHMADI (Spokesman, Taliban): (Through translator) They have been claiming that they have been having operations and (unintelligible) but which does not have any reality. The Taliban have not been removed. What do they mean by Taliban? They are all Taliban. Everybody's (uinitelligible).
MONTAGNE: During the election, the Taliban threatened all kinds of violence but they did not manage to do much of anything spectacular. Does that not show that they're weak?
Mr. AHMADI: (Through translator) Well, as a matter of fact, we were not going to hurt the civilians. Our aim was to disrupt elections and that's what we have achieved - our goal, the election was failed in Kandahar City. Even I have not seen, in a single review of media, that they have shown a big line of workers who are waiting for work and getting to the polling center. This did not happen, and that was our goal, which we have achieved already.
MONTAGNE: When the new offensive begins in Arghandab over the next few days, how are the Taliban going to fight the Afghan national and international forces?
Mr. AHMADI: (Through translator) These operations do not have any reality because most of the time they are saying that we are going to have an operations and operations become delayed. And I don't know what their problem. But as far as Talibans are concerned, we are already waiting for them to comment. We are well prepared, we are well equipped, we are very ready for any kind of offensive. I do not know their strategies. We are ready for any kind of fight for any kind of war. So, they are welcome.
MONTAGNE: One last question: What would it take for the Taliban to sit down to peace talks?
Mr. AHMADI: (Through translator) The very important thing is this that they should come and apologize those victims, those families. They kill so many people, and the only solution for us to talk for peace is when they were the foreigners leave Afghanistan, we will come and sit and we will talk about the peace. And another thing, (unintelligible) is a sort of message for the locals of America, for local Americans, we will try to burn Americans, to kill Americans, and will try to kill America as well.
MONTAGNE: That was Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, who is the voice of the Taliban here in southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the insurgency. He was speaking to us through an interpreter.
INSKEEP: MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne in Afghanistan. You can follow MORNING EDITION through Facebook and Twitter. You'll find us on Twitter @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. This morning, you'll find a link to the photos of NPR's David Gilkey in Afghanistan.
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