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NATO Forces End Major Combat Operations in Marjah

March 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now: the ongoing NATO offensive in Southern Afghanistan.

U.S., British and Afghan forces ended major combat operations in and around Marjah last week. But they still face an entrenched Taliban threat.

Alex Thomson of Independent Television News has been embedded with British troops at a base in Helmand Province.

Here’s the first of two reports.

ALEX THOMSON: Six months ago, the British commander at (INAUDIBLE) says this was the only safe way to get around. Now ground movement here is possible, albeit in heavily armored convoys, passing gangs of local people paid by NATO to keep the road ditches clear.

LT. COL. ROLY WALKER, British army: We hope it keeps them out of trouble. It gives them a job. It gives them work, so they don’t get bored and find other things to do with their time.

MAN: Like planting IEDs.

LT. COL. ROLY WALKER: Like planting IEDs or shooting us, yes.

ALEX THOMSON: Not being stupid on the whole, the Taliban are not shooting. They have faded away from this area, perhaps to bide their time, leaving NATO with the real challenge of Operation Moshtarak, what now, how to hold this ground, not this week or next month, but next year, five years from now.

MAN: The commander made one point this evening of particular note.

ALEX THOMSON: Shawqat Base, the Grenadier Guards’ evening conference, where local bases essentially radio in with the day’s news. But, from the briefings, to life on the road, it’s all about one simple thing. NATO has somehow to convince local people that supporting the new Afghan government and them is better than supporting the Taliban. And that will not be easy.

Rule number one, do not run over the locals’ livestock with armored vehicles. Rule two, watch all the time for IEDs.

So, the Scimitar is parked up on the roadway here. If you go down along the road, roughly 100 yards down the road there, perhaps you can see a dark mark on the road, scorch marks. That’s where they blew up the IED a short time ago. The rest of the patrol parked behind it.

SOLDIER: This is main road from Lashkar Gah to the west. If the insurgents are going to put IEDs on it, it just stops everyone going about their normal business. And people are going to need to get Lashkar Gah. They need to go to work. Police need to get to work. So, it’s very disruptive.

ALEX THOMSON: Disruption crucial to the remaining Taliban elements trying to fight their war on their terms, in their way. Tonight, a Ridgeback armored vehicle dragged back to base. Yesterday, a Warrior armored vehicle was hit by an IED. In both cases, nobody was seriously injured, but two hits on two vehicles in two days. The Taliban are still fighting their war here.