ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A year ago, as President Obama's Afghanistan buildup got underway, we were anticipating a crucial assault on a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, the agricultural district of Marjah. Marine Brigadier General Larry Nicholson spoke with us from Afghanistan about the challenges that operation posed.
Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (U.S. Marines): This will be the most formidable IED belts, and the Brits call it the IED crust. And I think it's a very appropriate term for, we're going to have to break through that crust.
SIEGEL: In February, our reporter, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, was imbedded with Marines as they encountered surprisingly stiff resistance.
(Soundbite of radio)
Unidentified Man #1: ...still out in the open heading south...
(Soundbite of gunfire)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: They fire at the patrol with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, then disappear.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey, suppress. Suppress that (beep) building.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
BOWMAN: So, what does the situation in Marjah today tell us about success or frustration in Afghanistan? Well, reporter Michael Buchanan of the BBC was there earlier this month and joins us now. And, first, the objective of clearing out the Taliban. How safe is Marjah today?
Mr. MICHAEL BUCHANAN (Reporter, BBC): Well, certainly the U.S. meetings that I was speaking to and that accompanied me for the three days that I was there say that the central districts are now fairly safe. On the northern - on the southern outskirts there are contacts in which fighting is still taking place. But what they are saying is that through a combination of military might and, also, it has to be remembered that the winter season is traditionally the time when the senior Taliban leadership may be able to retreat a little bit back, they are saying that in the central areas of Marjah, that security has indeed improved over the past two or three months.
SIEGEL: Although, just today, NATO is investigating an incident in which an Afghan civilian was accidentally killed. Two children were wounded when aircraft conducted close air support of Afghan and coalition forces in Marjah. It sounds like the Taliban are still fighting at this point.
Mr. BUCHANAN: Well, the Taliban still are fighting. And, in fact, one of the projects that I was taken to, which is a school that was opened in southern Marjah just a couple of days before the actual formal school opening, an IED had been found approximately a kilometer from the school. The day I actually arrived in Marjah, a member of the Afghan national army had been killed when an IED had exploded near to where they were cutting out some operations in the north of Marjah as well. So there's definitely pocket of conflict between the insurgents and the international on the Afghan forces.
SIEGEL: At the very school event you mentioned, in your reporting you describe how American officers who were quite responsible for the school and everything that was worth anything in it, were conspicuously offstage. And they were deferring to local Afghans. Is that the power relationship that Afghans in Marjah believe? Or do they see that as appearances?
Mr. BUCHANAN: I think that they are fully aware that the Americans are providing everything - the security and the reconstruction. The bottom line is that the reach of the government in Kabul, the Afghan government, barely extends as far as Marjah. There is almost no significant civilian Afghan presence in Marjah. There are some Afghan police officers, as we've mentioned. There are some Afghan National Army forces as well. But in terms of civilian effort, it is simply not there.
SIEGEL: Well, try and solve this equation for us then. Is the security situation around Marjah good enough that the Marines, who were responsible for security, along with some Afghans, can be reduced in numbers sufficiently and so that somebody else can provide an effective administration for the area?
Mr. BUCHANAN: The short answer or the answer in the immediate near term would be no. In some districts in Afghanistan we know that the Afghan forces are taking the lead and perhaps being provided with some support by the foreign forces to a greater or lesser degree. In Marjah, as I saw at the beginning of December, it was still very much a case that the U.S. Marines were leading the fight, admittedly, with a lot of support from the Afghan National Army. But the majority of the security is being provided by the U.S. Marines.
SIEGEL: Well, Michael Buchanan of the BBC, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BUCHANAN: Pleasure.
SIEGEL: Reporter Michael Buchanan discussing what he saw and heard earlier this month in Marjah, Afghanistan.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.