LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
In Afghanistan, there are continued skirmishes between U.S. Marines and Taliban fighters in some areas of Helmand province. Some 4,000 Marines and several hundred Afghan forces swarmed into the southern province earlier this week in an effort to break the Taliban's grip on the region.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Camp Leatherneck, the sprawling Marine base in Helmand province.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Military officials don't want to get too far ahead of themselves, but they say the Helmand operation four days on, has exceeded their own their optimistic expectations. In particular, the speed with which the Marines were able to move into the vast Helmand River valley region and clear areas of Taliban and other Islamist insurgents without widespread civilian casualties.
But there have been pockets of fighting and stubborn resistance as the Marines and Afghan security forces move further south in the fertile valley region. This is the prime opium growing region. The money from that industry has been a cash cow for the Taliban and it's not likely an area the Islamist group will easily give up without a fight.
Marine commanders here at Camp Leatherneck say it appears the insurgents went into hiding in the first couple of days, trying to gage what the U.S. forces were doing. They say it's likely the Taliban expected the Marines to leave shortly after the initial onslaught and that they foresee an increase in fighting once the insurgents realize the Marines aren't leaving.
Instead, they're setting up small outposts throughout the southern Helmand province and are staying to help secure the region. That is the longer, much harder to define process of winning the hearts and minds of the local population.
Every Marine company has been ordered to organize a shura, or town meeting, within 24 hours of moving into a small village, sit down with the local leaders and start building relationships. So far, that's had mixed results. In some areas, there's been an overflow of people under the shura tent. In other towns, none of the villagers have shown up. This is no great surprise. Military officials recognize a wariness among the local people, who either don't know or trust that the U.S. Marines are going to stay for a protracted period, and so are not automatically switching sides and pledging allegiance to the American fighters or Afghan security forces.
Still, military commanders insist this is the way to go, to slowly build a trust with the people, help build the local economy and government, while at the same time hunting down Taliban and other insurgents who could undermine progress. Military commanders say there's no question this requires intensive manpower and that the Marines will be in southern Helmand province for a long time.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province.
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