ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Helmand Province in Afghanistan's south is one of the most dangerous parts of the country. Most of the U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan's war over the last decade died in Helmand. It's home to the district of Marjah, where Taliban fighters overlap with drug traffickers. NPR was there in 2010 during the fight to retake Marjah.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Form it up. Form it up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Form up.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When NPR's Tom Bowman returned two years later, Marjah with American presence was peaceful. He saw a busy marketplace and lots of children outside.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).
SIEGEL: With the American military largely gone now, Marjah and other parts of Helmand again face threats by the Taliban.
SHAPIRO: Last month a Taliban ambush killed NPR's David Gilkey and interpreter and Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. They were riding in an Afghan military convoy. Zabihullah's voice is in the report we are about to hear. It comes from Tom Bowman and was produced by NPR's Monika Evstatieva. They were in the same convoy but not injured.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The road to Marjah is clogged with traffic - cars and trucks, donkey carts, motorcycles. And it's not long before the road opens up to vast fields on either side. Then come the tell-tale signs of war.
All these destroyed trucks along the road - we just passed two of them. And we see these big pits in the road created by roadside bombs.
Driving along with us to the government center is an Afghan brigadier general. He told us his troops cleared the road of Taliban fighters just three days ago - suddenly a gunshot.
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BOWMAN: Small arms fire hits our Humvee - a Taliban ambush from the left side of the road somewhere in the mud compounds in the hazy distance - heavy machine gun fire, mortars, RPGs. The Afghans return fire, including the gunner standing in the turret of our vehicle with his .50 caliber machine gun. The Afghan general barks orders.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: The driver yells into his radio.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: The driver wheels a Humvee around back toward his headquarters. In 10 minutes, there are at least several wounded and dead, including our photographer David Gilkey and NPR's fixer, Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. The ambush shows that the Afghan military is a long way from pacifying Helmand Province.
COLONEL JOHN KLINE: When I got here, success was holding Helmand. It was don't let Helmand fall. The first few weeks, it was rough.
BOWMAN: That's Colonel John Kline, the top American trainer in Helmand, the latest in a long line. He came here last fall with hundreds of soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, serving as security personnel and trainers. Their aim - rebuild the Afghan army unit that lost ground to the Taliban starting last year.
KLINE: But I tell you, last November, December, I said, Man, I don't know if the Taliban realize how easy they could have it right now. If they were to do this, it would be a cakewalk.
BOWMAN: The combat power of the Afghan unit here fell to about 35 percent. There were casualties, deserters. So during the winter months, American drones, F-16s, Apache helicopters had to drop dozens of bombs and missiles, a desperate effort just to push back the Taliban.
In the meantime, the Afghan government replaced the top general in Helmand, accusing him of corruption involving government funds. Others were simply incompetent, lacked the will to fight. Again, Colonel Kline.
KLINE: We started taking out a lot of leaders. And when new leaders came in, they knew that the previous guy just got fired, and they needed to prove themselves. And it started making a big difference then.
BOWMAN: Since that time, those Americans have focused on training the Afghans, training that includes everything from clearing buildings to firing mortars. And there's some equipment that no other Afghan units have courtesy of the Americans - attack helicopters, night vision goggles, a small drone. And a new Afghan officer arrived to oversee all this - Lieutenant General Moeen Faqir. He's been keeping close track of his time down here.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MOEEN FAQIR: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: "Seven months, five days from today," he says. He's a burly man with slicked down hair who likes to grow rows of flowers outside his headquarters. When he arrived from Kabul where he worked as a senior staff officer, he saw a 215th Corps in shambles.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) The more our soldiers were weakened, they were pulling back in several part of the province. And enemies were getting the ground with high morale. Then finally we stop the enemies.
BOWMAN: Stop the Taliban along the major highways, the general says, then began taking back the larger cities and towns. And he acknowledges that a lot of help came from the elite Afghan soldiers not part of his unit, the Commandos. They've been used all over Afghanistan when local forces are simply not up to the task.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) They are very fast. I love them. I like them. By conducting day and night operations, the Afghan Commandos has demoralized the enemies, so now they cannot stay in groups.
BOWMAN: Still questions remain about the general's 215th Corps. Can his unit with all its new training and equipment push out the Taliban during the fighting season that stretches into October without the aggressive Afghan Commandos, without, once again, the continued help of American combat power?
Colonel Kline, the top American trainer, says the situation so far in the fighting season looks a lot brighter. On one day, the Americans helped Afghan troops learn how to assemble their weapons and to search for landmines.
BOWMAN: One Afghan soldier digs for a simulated mine using a single finger, carefully tracing for the outline of the mine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: On his last mission, he says he found 13 real mines this way in the field.
KLINE: I think we're in a pretty good position right now in Afghanistan to sustain or at least achieve a level of success. I think the model, actually, is pretty good.
BOWMAN: A model that includes small numbers of American trainers, he says, not the old model that numbered more than 100,000 American troops. Another optimist is a Helmand provincial governor Hayatullah Hayat. He's in his 30s, went to George Mason University in Virginia and eagerly chats about his plans.
HAYATULLAH HAYAT: Marjah will be cleared, and we want to stabilize Marjah and then step to the other areas which is insecure.
BOWMAN: Take back those areas, he says, then bring in government services. He has $2 million from Kabul as a start.
HAYAT: The clearance operations will be taken in a systematic way that will actually facilitate the way for people to live normally, the schools to be open, the clinic to be open and also all the basic things about living.
BOWMAN: Not everyone is so optimistic. One local official said the surge in Taliban attacks on police checkpoints means the provincial capital itself, Lashkar Gah, could fall. General Moeen just brushes him aside.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) So this is his personal opinion that we have expression in Afghanistan. Listening is not equal seeing something.
BOWMAN: So the general offers his visitors a ride to Marjah.
FAQIR: (Through interpreter) From Lashkar Gar to Marjah, the road's open, so you can drive no problem. Of course I hope you go there and you find the realities and then reflect it.
BOWMAN: The reality came the following day on the road to Marjah when the Taliban mounted that deadly attack. Tom Bowman, NPR News.
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