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As Troops Continue Afghan Offensive, Focus Turns to Civilian Outreach

July 9, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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U.S. Marines pushed further into the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan this week, as word came of a truck bombing in a village south of Kabul that killed at least two dozen people. A Washington Post reporter gives an update on the military efforts and the bombing.

JIM LEHRER: Now an update from Afghanistan and the U.S. Marine offensive in the south. We get that from Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post in Kabul. Judy Woodruff talked with him earlier this evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv, it’s good to see you again. First of all, what can you tell us about today’s truck bomb near a school in Logar province, which I gather is not far from Kabul?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, Washington Post: This was a particularly horrific act of violence here today. A total of 25 people were killed, 15 of them young children, in the worst bombing in more than a year here in Afghanistan.

What appears to have been the case was that there were explosives that were secreted underneath some lumber in a truck that was heading toward Kabul. That truck overturned late last night. This morning, as police went to investigate and a bunch of children gathered around, those explosives detonated, leaving just a horrific trail of devastation.

What’s particularly disturbing here is that there’s a belief that these explosives might have been on their way to Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Logar province is one of the areas that has seen a significant increase in the number of U.S. troops over the past year. And to see an act of violence like this over there certainly raises some disturbing questions about the sorts of security condition just on the very outskirts of the capital here, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you just came back from southern Afghanistan, which is the site of the main U.S. Marine offensive. Tell us what you observed there.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it was a massive operation that I saw over there, but one that was far less focused on acts of overt military power, on firefights and nighttime raids. The real focus there has been on trying to win over the local population.

It’s a very unique position these thousands of U.S. Marines are being put in. They’re out there walking around, trying to engage with the local population, trying to convince them that they’re here more for the safety of Afghan people than they are to go after and pursue the Taliban.

But the hope among commanders out there is that, by trying to win over the local population, they’ll effectively create a wedge between the people and the Taliban.

Taliban fighters flee to regroup

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying there really has not been much heavy fighting?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: There really hasn't been, surprisingly. You know, I went down there expecting to see, you know, an awful lot of firefights, of raids, you know, the stuff that U.S. Marines do best. Instead, it's been fairly quiet.

It appears that the Taliban fighters in the area -- and there were quite a few fighters there just a few weeks ago, according to intelligence estimates and according to conversations I've had with local people -- a lot of those fighters seem to have packed up and left on orders of senior commanders just because there have been so many Marines that have flooded into that area.

Now, nobody expects those people just to sort of drop out of the fight. I think they're in a sort of regrouping mode trying to assess just what the Marines are doing. And there is an expectation among Marine commanders that they will start to see a resumption of attacks in the coming weeks and months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is the military leadership concerned that this is the response? We know that they expected that something like this might happen. But how concerned are they?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, that's a very good question. And I put that question to a number of commanders I spoke to on the ground, saying, you know, why aren't you chasing after these guys? Or, you know, aren't you worried that the bad guys are just getting away?

And they profess not to be concerned. They say, their strategy here is really very different from the way the U.S. military has gone about combating the Taliban over the past seven years.

They're really trying to focus on civilian outreach, on reconstruction, on trying to build up the local police force and the local municipal governments, and they feel that, if they can do that and they can build a degree of stability, they'll be able to peel off members of the Taliban and sort of bring them back within the fold.

They believe that many of the Taliban fighters are simply day-laborers who take $5 or $10 a day to lay roadside bombs or to participate in ambushes. And so they feel that, if they can kind of create a zone of development and at least progress, that they can sort of reduce the size of the Taliban force they're fighting and then at some point in the future target their operations toward a small group of extremist holdouts.

But it's a big gamble whether they can -- you know, whether all this will actually work. It involves convincing the Afghan people that the U.S. military is actually here to stay, that they're here to help them out. It's no sure bet.

And as I walked on many patrols with the Marines in parts of Helmand province, there was a degree of skepticism among the local population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are military officials, are Marine officials, Rajiv, telling you that they're pretty satisfied with where things are one week in?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, they're pretty optimistic at this point. They certainly have been surprised by the lack of Taliban activity, but they do remain concerned going forward on a couple of different levels.

They're very concerned that they don't have enough Afghan security forces to partner with them, not enough Afghan soldiers or police officers to go on patrols with them to conduct checkpoints, and they're also concerned that the other half of the great American effort here, the civilian side of the reconstruction effort, has been a little slow to get off the ground.

Officials I've talked to at the U.S. embassy here say that civilian reconstruction personnel are coming in the next weeks and months, but right now, on the ground, there are a lot of Marine officers who are having to do some of that basic outreach by themselves, and they're trying to improvise as they go along.

Complicated tribal dynamics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv, you've covered Marines in combat, both in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. What would you say is different about this approach?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, in many ways, there's a striking similarity here in that Helmand province and Anbar province are both largely deserts with a river running through them, sites of great violence and cross-border infiltration.

But a key difference here is that the Marines likely will not be able to replicate the single biggest tool of their success in Anbar, which was engagement with local tribal leaders to create a militia force that essentially stood up to the foreign fighters in Iraq.

The Marines would love to do something like that in Helmand province, but the tribal dynamics are so much more complicated that it may prove to be impossible. And there's a great degree of skepticism from Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul, as well as from NATO military commanders, of such a venture.

So it seems unlikely that the Marines are going to be able to duplicate what was their greatest tool of success in Iraq. And they're going to be forced to work through the existing institutions for security here in Afghanistan. And that, of course, causes them great concern, because they simply don't have enough soldiers to work with them at this moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing, and that is the casualty count for U.S. troops all across Afghanistan. What are military officials saying about that?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it's been a particularly bloody week here. There have been a number of U.S. casualties, as well as a number of casualties from forces from other countries here.

And what appears to be case here is that the Taliban are demonstrating their ability to strike back in other parts of the country, in eastern Afghanistan, in other parts of the south where the Marines aren't, and most alarmingly in northern parts of the country.

There was a bombing just a few days ago that killed four U.S. soldiers near the northern city of Kunduz, which had been a relatively quiescent place. And that, of course, causes great concern that the insurgency here may be metastasizing beyond the south and the east, the areas that have been the greatest concern, and moving to parts of the country that have long been regarded as relatively stable, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv Chandrasekaran joining us from Kabul, Afghanistan, Rajiv, thank you.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: It's a pleasure to talk to you tonight, Judy.