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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The debate has begun over how many troops to pull out of Afghanistan. President Obama has pledged to wind down the war beginning next month. The immediate debate will center not only how many troops to bring home, but also what kind of troops - support forces or also combat forces.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been talking about this with combat troops in Afghanistan. He's embedded with Marines in Helmand Province; that's the scene of some of the toughest fighting. And Tom, you have been asking the Marines there if they think it makes sense to start bringing troops home. What are you hearing?

TOM BOWMAN: Melissa, most Marines say they don't think it's a good idea to pull combat troops out of the area. Maybe some support troops, such as maybe construction battalions, but not what they call trigger pullers. The Marines say they've made gains against the Taliban with the so-called surge in troops over the past year, and they're still on the hunt for pockets of Taliban around here.

I was on patrol with Gulf Company in Northern Marjah. Marjah, of course, was the scene of some heavy fighting last year. And I talked with Sergeant John Maulder about troop levels, and here's the exchange.

As you know, they're going to start pulling troops out next month in Afghanistan. Nobody really knows the number yet.

Sergeant JOHN MAULDER (Marines): Yeah, I've heard that rumor.

BOWMAN: Do you think they can pull can they pull troops out around here, you think?

Sergeant MAULDER: No. No, not at all. Like if anything, we need more troops.

BOWMAN: So that's Sergeant John Maulder, who - clearly - doesn't think they can cut troop levels. Now, his Marines are setting up small outposts throughout this area and heading out on patrols.

BLOCK: And describe those patrols, Tom. What are the Marines trying to accomplish there?

BOWMAN: Well, the one we went on lasted some four hours, and covered several miles. It was away from Marjah Proper, in a rural area. Now, the center of Marjah has been turned over to Afghan police. So the Marines are in the outskirts, reaching out to the villagers where there's still a lot of intimidation by the Taliban.

A lot of people here, Melissa, are still on the fence. We talked to one farmer who said, people are watching me. He talked to the Marines for a little bit, but he didn't want to spend too much time with them. He wanted to go back into his compound. So like a lot of people around here, you know, he's still very much afraid.

BLOCK: Very much afraid. Tom, I'm curious if you hear from Marines - when they think about the Taliban presence in Afghanistan, think about the number of their fellow Marines who've died - that they think look, this is a losing battle and it is time to come home.

BOWMAN: You know, the Marines I talk with say listen, we finally have the right number of troops here. With the troop surge, we're making progress. And you keep talking with them saying well, listen - you know - we've been here 10 years now. People at home are sick of this. And they keep saying, we need more time.

BLOCK: What about the Afghan side, the Afghan troops' ability to maintain security? What are you hearing about that?

BOWMAN: We keep hearing that the Afghans are going to need more time. They're going to need more time before their competence level can increase, more time to increase their numbers. That's going to have to happen before large numbers of Americans can leave.

And again, while on patrol with Gulf Company, I was speaking with the same sergeant, John Maulder. And I asked about how Afghan troops were doing, and here's what he said.

Sergeant MAULDER: Just to be honest, if you've seen some of them in firefights, some of them just spray and pray. So it's like, if we really want these guys to be successful and don't want to hand it over, then civil uprisings and all this ridiculous stuff happen after we leave and have to come right back and help them out, then I would say we need to start training them.

BOWMAN: And I heard the same thing when I was here last fall, Melissa, that some of the Afghan troops are OK. But overall, again, it's a mixed bag. And it's going to be quite a long time before they'll be able to take over security for their country.

BLOCK: OK. Tom, thanks very much. Stay safe.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, speaking with us from Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where he's been embedded with the Marines.

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