Marines Battles Taliban In Helmand Valley
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Thousands of marines have descended on the Helmand River valley in Afghanistan. It's a Taliban stronghold. The troops say they are staying there, starting to work with the local population to create security and clear the way for economic development. It's one of the first concrete examples of the Obama administration's new strategy for Afghanistan. In a moment we'll talk with the president's national security advisor, James Jones. First, to what's happening on the round.
SIEGEL: Joining us now from Afghanistan is NPR producer Graham Smith, who is with the Marines in the village of Sorhodez. Graham, I gather you went out on the first patrol with the Marines since this operation began. What happened?
GRAHAM SMITH: It was a pretty quiet patrol. The morning started out very unclear what was going to happen. We got onto helicopters. We took off in several waves. This was the largest air insertion the Marines have done since the Vietnam War. When we got to the ground, it was a tense situation for a while. But eventually the Marines went up to a couple at the compounds, started talking to people. They were not, I would say, entirely happy to see the Marines here, but cautiously, perhaps optimistic.
SIEGEL: Has there been any combat so far?
SMITH: Well, the Fox Company has not seen any combat so far. Some of the guys had been making bets that they wouldn't see any during daylight - that maybe it would come at night and they maybe still expect something in the morning, because there certainly are Taliban around here. The British have run into contact with Taliban every time they've come down into this district. Some of the other groups, though, from the 2/8 have seen some contact, other parts of the river valley further south.
SIEGEL: You said that the local populous was not overjoyed by the arrival of the U.S. Marines. But are they assisting, are they being helpful to the Marines?
SMITH: Yeah, people had smiles. After a little bit of talking, they were okay. They said things, like, we hope you're going to help us with real help, not with bullets. I think they fear that the Taliban and the Americans are going to be fighting here. In fact, the man who owns the compound where we're staying, it's basically a high mud-walled building with quite high ceilings. It's packed with 150 Marines all around here tonight. But he initially took a small amount of money for the displacement of his family from the house. And then he returned it. And he said that he couldn't take the money because he was afraid that when the Taliban learned he had taken money, that they would kill him.
SIEGEL: Huh. Now, Helmand province, where you are, is the center of poppy growing in Afghanistan. What evidence do you see of that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: Well, Robert, I have to say, when we asked the people out on the streets what kinds of things they grow around here, they said corn, which we've seen in the fields, and wheat. I asked him whether they grow poppy and they said no. And once we got inside this compound, in the corner of the compound, there's a pile of poppy stalks and dried bulbs that's about 15 feet long and 7 feet high, which appears to be this man's seed crop for next year.
The Marines are trying to figure out whether they should destroy it or not because the current strategy is not to go after the local farmer, but to try to go after the middlemen further down the line. And specifically they're trying to go after the poppies that are ending up in the flow that funds the Taliban.
SIEGEL: Is this village, Sorhodez, is this the place where Fox Company will now be based and fan out from there? Or is it merely a way station to a further destination? What are the Marines going to do there?
SMITH: No, that's the thing. This really was an insertion. This is an area where there hasn't been any coalition presence for a very long time. The British would roll through and then they would leave. Nobody's ever really stayed here. The Marines intend to stay here throughout the duration of their deployment. They'll be leaving in late December. And at that point they'll turn it over to other Marines. And eventually they want the Afghan government and its forces to be completely in control of this area, which has only been Taliban turf up till now.
SIEGEL: Graham, thanks a lot.
SMITH: Certainly, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Graham Smith. He's with 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He spoke to us from the village of Sorhodez. And the Marine Corps says one Marine has been killed in action in another part of the Helmand River valley, several others have been wounded.
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