SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We're approaching the 16th anniversary of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. It's been a little more than a month since President Trump announced a new strategy to send more U.S. troops as advisers to the Afghan military as it tries to train its own soldiers. Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been in and out of Afghanistan for the past decade. He's there again with U.S. Marines checking out how things seem to be going. He joins us now from the Helmand Province. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.
SIMON: What have you noticed in your time with the Afghan troops?
BOWMAN: Well, Scott, I was here last year with the U.S. Army, and they were advising the Afghan army at a higher level. And now with the Marines here, about 300 Marines, they saw the need to help the Afghans down at a lower level, closer to the front lines. And they're actually going out to Afghan bases, something you didn't see the army do. The American soldiers pretty much stayed on their larger base talking with Afghan generals.
SIMON: What do American commanders say about these new troops and their leadership?
BOWMAN: Well, they say they're steadily improving. The soldiers are. We went to a graduation ceremony today of some new troops. But they're not sufficient in number. They're supposed to have 1,800 Afghan troops here. But because of casualties, desertions and so forth, they have only about half that number. They do need more help with resupplying themselves, Scott, in the field of medical evacuation, calling in airstrikes. And most importantly, they need better leadership. The Marines speak highly of the new general here, Major General Ahmadzai. He's from the area, which is important, and he worked closely with the Afghan commandos. They're the best fighters in the country. And the Marines praise him for his aggressiveness and, of course, Marines like those who are aggressive. But the leadership has been a real problem here. When I was here last year, again, with the U.S. Army, they praised the general here, General Moeen, who turned out to be corrupt. He was stealing money set aside for his soldiers' food. He was recently sentenced to nine years in jail. And Scott, his predecessor was also fired for corruption. So the hope is that this current leader, General Ahmadzai, will stick around and do the job.
SIMON: But as you present all that to us, we hear about casualties, desertions, corruption. That sounds like a story we've heard before.
BOWMAN: We have heard that before for years now. But the Marines here are optimistic. But one Marine I spoke with, he admitted it was kind of bittersweet being back here. The Marines lost several hundred comrades here. Thousands were wounded clearing Helmand Province. The Marines left here in 2014. And at the high water mark, there were 20,000 Marines here. But when the Marines left the Taliban rolled back in and took back much of this province. So here they are back again not fighting but training. And again, it's going to take some time. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has a four-year plan. So some of the Marines who are here now advising and training, they could very well be back.
SIMON: Tom, when we spoke five years ago, we were told that Afghans were taking the lead against the Taliban, which clearly has not been the case. Has that changed?
BOWMAN: You know, it has changed a lot, Scott. When you and I spoke five years ago, the Americans said the Afghans were in the lead. I went on a patrol with the soldiers, American soldiers and the Afghans. That was clearly not the case. They all but had to drag the Afghan soldiers out of their base to go even on a patrol. It's like night and day now. The Afghans are doing almost all of the fighting. But again, they need some help with some of the higher level skills here, again, calling in airstrikes, resupplying themselves and so forth. But there's no question that right now the general leading these troops in Helmand is very aggressive. But he has a long way to go. They've cleared some areas of Taliban, but there's a lot left in this province to do. A lot more places are controlled by the Taliban.
SIMON: NPR's Tom Bowman in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan - thanks so much, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Scott.
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