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As U.S. Troops Mount Offensive in Afghanistan, New Strategy Is Tested

July 2, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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U.S. Marines marked the start of a new offensive in Afghanistan Thursday, as part of the Obama administration's efforts to stabilize the Afghan-Pakistan border region. A Washington Post reporter embedded in the Helmand province provides an update.

JIM LEHRER: Now Judy Woodruff has more on the U.S. Marine offensive in the south. She spoke earlier this evening with Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post. He’s embedded with the U.S. Marines at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv, thank you for talking with us. You were with the Marines as they launched this. How has the first day gone?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, Washington Post: Well, the first day has gone better than the Marines had expected. Some Marine units have engaged in firefights with the Taliban insurgents. Some of them have hit roadside bombs.

But overall, with 4,000 Marines participating in this operation, which is one of the largest in the history of the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, things have gone surprisingly well, commanders here say.

Marine units have been out and about in Afghan villages in the Helmand River valley, walking foot patrols, talking to community members, passing out handbills, talking to people with the help of interpreters, trying to convince them that they’re here to stay and that they’re here for the protection of the people.

What they’re trying to do is essentially engage in a form of counterinsurgency strategy by trying to protect the civilian population, instead of focusing in on kicking down doors and hunting down Taliban insurgents. They figure that, if they can win over the people and start building some more effective local government and security institutions, then the Taliban will be marginalized and that will be a better use of their resources than simply focusing in on offensive operations against the insurgents.

Violence in the southern region

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did they pick this part of Afghanistan to bring such a large force to bear?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the violence here has just been off the charts, Judy. Helmand province is one of the most dangerous and volatile parts of Afghanistan. It's also a place where drug lords connected with the Taliban grow huge amounts of opium-producing poppies. The poppy grown in Helmand province produces more than half of the world's opium supply.

And so this is a part of the country where U.S. commanders feel there desperately needs to be more resources, more military attention. This is a part of the country where the United States had essentially farmed out the security responsibilities to members of NATO. And Helmand was given to the United Kingdom.

But the British simply haven't had enough troops here to restore order and conduct the necessary operations. So that's why the 10,000 Marines that have arrived here and that's why, over the course of the next several months, there will be an almost similar number of U.S. Army soldiers going into other parts of southern Afghanistan.

Shifting tactics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv, why do they think this is the best tactic, when the Taliban are known for their ability to shrink back into the population and wait things out?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: This tactic, it recognizes that Taliban fighters will sort of meld back into the population. So they're saying, "Look, we're not going to focus on trying to just fight these guys. We're going to try to focus in on using our resources to try to improve the government here, trying to create more effective Afghan security forces, and effectively try to marginalize the Taliban."

The belief here among U.S. officials is that most of the rank-and-file Taliban fighters are simply doing it for basic economic reasons, because they get $5 or $10 a day to lay roadside bombs or to participate in ambushes. And they figure, if they can create economic opportunities for these people, if they can create a more effective government administration that might sort of represent the interests of people in the towns and villages across this area, they can peel away that support from the Taliban and then essentially whittle the Taliban down to a smaller group of hard-core fighters, and then they will focus military resources on either trying to apprehend or kill those people.

U.S. Soldier captured

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, in another part of Afghanistan, in the east, a U.S. soldier has been captured, we've learned. What information do you have about that?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, what we're hearing is that the soldier wandered off his base in eastern Afghanistan. The precise motives aren't clear, but he left on his own. The basic security protocols dictate that soldiers are never to leave their bases by themselves.

And what we're hearing is that this soldier was kidnapped, along with some Afghan security forces. His precise location at this point is unknown, as is his condition.

U.S. military officials here are being fairly tight-lipped on the specifics of this case while they try to determine this soldier's condition and whereabouts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, joining us from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, thank you very much.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: A pleasure to talk to you tonight, Judy.