RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
NATO commanders in Afghanistan have announced the capture of a Taliban leader who sought to evade a security operation in the southern province of Kandahar dressed as a woman in a burqa.
He is described as an expert bomb maker and his arrest came as NATO launched its biggest ever offensive in Afghanistan, sending in 4,500 troops to the neighboring province of Helmand. To learn more about this offensive, we have called Gregory Warner. He's an International Reporting Project fellow through the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Hello.
GREGORY WARNER: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now tell us of the several provinces in Afghanistan that has seen more Taliban flowing in this past year, why is Helmand the focus of this huge offensive?
WARNER: Well, a couple of reasons. First, this is a very Taliban sympathetic area. Taliban are in the homes, in the villages. People feel comfortable with the Taliban, whereas they feel very uncomfortable with foreign presence. And because of this fighting, a lot of refugees are streaming into the provincial capital. They're living with relatives, living in refugee camps. They're very angry.
The other crucial detail of it, Helmand, which is in the south, is the biggest poppy growing region in the world. And poppy eradications made a lot of people very angry. They blame the government and the foreign forces for taking away their livelihood. So while the Taliban comes in they say they support poppy commerce.
MONTAGNE: That is to say they gave money to the fighters and want the Taliban to keep the place in disarray.
WARNER: Well, absolutely. Poppy farming and in drug barons are active in the region. They certainly don't want the government involved in that. There's a crucial battle right now. Most of the fighting's over the Kajaki Dam project, that's a hydroelectric facility funded by U.S. aid. British troops have already been fighting there for weeks to secure the area and allow repairs to take place.
Now if that project gets finished, it would provide about 1.7 million families in the southern region with electricity, which is huge, because right now most people don't have electricity and they blame the government for that. So coalition forces hope they can secure the area, allow the repairs to continue and bring electricity to the region and, you know, go a long way toward winning hearts and minds.
MONTAGNE: You say that there are a lot of people sympathetic to the Taliban but there also have been village elders and people asking for NATO to come in to free them from the Taliban control in certain areas.
WARNER: Absolutely. That's what NATO says is their strategy here. They're drinking a lot of green tea, meeting with elders and they say they're in for the long haul. There's no end date on this operation. They say in August they'll still be here. And they say that's a little different than U.S. forces which were previously active in the region did.
On the other hand, there's 1,000 Afghan soldiers involved in this mission, which is the first time the Afghan National Army has been involved in nearly as many numbers. I think the crucial detail, though, is that in this region the people see the Afghan government is at best ineffective, at worst predatory and totally corrupt. And that resentment has been building up for years. So if NATO troops seem like they're shoring up the Afghan government, which is absolutely their mission, that's a hard public relations sell.
MONTAGNE: And what is the casualty report from this operation so far?
WARNER: The latest I've got from the spokesman is that there are two casualties. On Tuesday a British soldier was killed and a Canadian soldier died yesterday. I should also mention that yesterday an Italian journalist was kidnapped, allegedly by high-ranking Taliban in the region. He was working for La Repubblica. There's no news today about his condition or the fate of his two Afghan colleagues, his translator and his driver.
MONTAGNE: Gregory Warner is an international reporting project fellow through the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thanks very much for joining us.
WARNER: Thanks, Renee.
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