U.S. Plans A Winter War In Afghanistan
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Today, the United States and Britain closed their embassies in Yemen for security reasons. American officials are citing threats from an al-Qaida group. This follows the failed Christmas Day attack on an American airplane by a man trained in Yemen.
And in Afghanistan, the beginning of a new decade is being marked by more deadly conflict. This past week, at least five coalition troops were killed, as well as seven CIA officers and contractors. President Obama's planned troop surge has begun in Afghanistan. At least 1,500 Marines are on the ground. Their focus: southern Afghanistan. It's the Taliban stronghold and base of operations. Normally, winter is not fighting season in Afghanistan. But this winter, U.S. forces are expected to take the fight to the enemy.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us to talk about what's next in Afghanistan. And Tom, you were in Helmand province, in the south, in 2009. What do you expect to happen there now?
TOM BOWMAN: Well, the important thing now, Liane, is to take back the rest of Helmand province. It's a key area, huge Taliban presence there and also it's a source of the opium crop, which is one of their main sources of funding. So, U.S. commanders feel in order to win this war, they really have to bring security back, particularly to southern Afghanistan, and they have to take back -particularly - this area from the Taliban.
HANSEN: So, is that why you expect aggressive military action this winter?
BOWMAN: That's right. And they feel they need to do this as quickly as possible. Remember, President Obama wants to start removing some troops by July 2011. That's going to be coming pretty quickly. So the important thing is to gain these areas back from the Taliban, provide security. And the time pressure is there.
Within Helmand province is an area called Marja, which is a very important area. Right now, there are no U.S. troops in Marja; no Afghan forces, either. It's a nexus for the Taliban and for drug traffickers. So in the coming weeks, look for that area to be taken back by the Marines. Also, next door in Kandahar province - that's really the homeland of the Taliban, particularly Kandahar City - look for some sort of increased operations around Kandahar City in the coming weeks and months.
HANSEN: So, elaborate a little on what's going on in those two provinces now: Kandahar and Helmand.
BOWMAN: Right. Well, the Marines have made some progress in Helmand province and the Helmand River valley. They've taken back some of these towns and districts from the Taliban and put combat outposts there, Marine combat outposts. We were visiting some of these back in October and November of last year. So they made some progress but they still, they say, need a lot more Marines to take some of these other areas, like Marja.
Here's Marine Brigadier General Larry Nicholson talking to NPR just a couple of weeks ago.
Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (U.S. Marines): We have one area that we know the enemy considers sanctuary and has sort of arrived in significant numbers and has built up his defenses. So I think there is an inevitability of a little bit of a collision, if you will, here - probably sometime in the new year. But I think the initial forces will allow us to actually go in there, into the Marja area.
BOWMAN: Also, with General Nicholson, when he went in this past summer, summer 2009, a very large military operation involving 4,000 Marines, he had only 300 Afghan soldiers with him for that operation. So he has said he's very keen on making sure there are a lot of Afghan soldiers for any future operations he does this winter. He's been assured there'll be a lot of Afghan soldiers, but that's something he's very, very concerned about. And here's what General Nicholson had to say.
Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: We want a real Afghan presence. It's amazing to go into some of these areas, like (unintelligible), where the Afghan flag hasn't flown in probably a decade.
BOWMAN: So the question for General Nicholson is: Will he get the Afghan forces he needs? And, again, that's also an issue in Kandahar province. We've been told that with U.S. operations there, there'll be a much larger number of Afghan forces than they've ever had in the past.
HANSEN: So these winter military operations will be what you'll be watching for the first months of the new year.
BOWMAN: Exactly. The first couple of months of the new year, and of the role played by Afghan forces. Again, that's the key here because the only way that U.S. forces can leave Afghanistan is if you have large numbers of competent Afghan soldiers and police to take over.
HANSEN: Not unlike Iraq.
HANSEN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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