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In Afghanistan, Forces Face Tough Task of Extracting Taliban From Marjah

February 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Several NATO deaths have been reported as the fight in the Taliban in stronghold of Marjah wraps up its first week. Judy Woodruff gets an update on progress in the region from a marine reserves staff sergeant who served in Afghanistan and a military journalist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the battle in Marjah, we turn to Todd Bowers, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He served in Afghanistan from April until December of last year. He’s now deputy policy director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And James Kitfield, who covers military affairs at The National Journal.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

And, James Kitfield, to you first, seven days in, do we know, how far along is this offensive, this operation?

JAMES KITFIELD, The National Journal: Well, they are saying it’s going to take them probably 25 to 35 days to clear Marjah. So, we are just at the front end of this.

What is interesting to me is, you can tell that this is — it reminds me of Iraq’s — the Bush surge in the winter and spring of 2007, where they finally had the surge troops in hand and they started to do the clear, hold, and build strategy.

It’s why everyone is looking at this to see if that same template works in Afghanistan. There are some more challenges there, a greater illiteracy rate. The security forces aren’t nearly as large as the Iraqis’ were. So, a lot is riding on this, but it is going by the sort of counterinsurgency playbook, if you will, right from the start.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, based on what you know, this is going pretty much as the Pentagon expected it to go?

JAMES KITFIELD: Well, I think there’s has been some surprises. I think that they — you know, they have been saying for a year the Taliban is getting better. They are watching what we do. They are adapting.

It’s a — they are better-trained. They have been training in these training camps in — in Pakistan. The — actually, one of the bunkers they found today, apparently saw graduation diplomas from one of the training camps in Baluchistan.

So, the Taliban have been getting better. All the commanders on the ground have spoken to this. They have been getting better. And so they are finding some pockets of strong resistance. I don’t think over the long term, though, that there’s any chance the Taliban will hold out here. They don’t have the conventional firepower to really make a stand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Staff Sergeant Todd Bowers, you just came back from Afghanistan in December.

The obstacles that they are running into, typical for this kind of an operation?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve: The civilian populace, I mean, ultimately, that is the advantage that these fighters have, is that they can integrate themselves with the locals who are there, where, ultimately, the Marines and Afghan forces, our main purpose is to protect the locals.

So, it is very difficult, because they literally have living camouflage that they are able to blend in with. It makes it extremely difficult for the troops on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, how do the troops counter that?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: The hardest part is going to be to identify who the local leaders are, to really be able to weed out and say, these are the individuals that don’t belong here.

Ultimately, those will probably be the insurgent fighters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in an operation like this, James Kitfield, do they have time to do that? How do they do that?

JAMES KITFIELD: Well, it takes time. Obviously, if you see pockets of people where there’s — fire is coming from there, you know, OK, those are bad guys.

But then you have got to decide, OK, are they around civilians? Can I call in airpower? And they are being very stingy with airpower, because the civilian casualties in the last few years have really started to alienate the Afghan populace.

But that puts a greater burden on the Marines, because they have to take greater risks up close and personal in firefights to figure out who the bad guys are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard in Ray’s report, Todd Bowers, about the snipers, about Marines being dropped behind the Taliban lines to look for snipers. How big a threat are they?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: I think that seeing an increased sniper threat is going to pose very difficult for the people moving on the ground.

As we start to engage the local populace, we know that counterinsurgency efforts are always hindered by snipers. Their ultimate goal is to harass. They are not necessarily there to target specific individuals, but to instill fear in the locals for interacting with the Marines that are on the ground.

And this also highlights that we are bringing in a higher- and more well-trained insurgent force into the area, which really raises a lot of red flags.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, searching for snipers, give us a sense of how tough that is, what is involved.

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: It is extremely difficult. Ultimately, there’s ways that we can do it using technological advances.

But, ultimately, the snipers that are there with the Marine Corps, and the Army and the Afghan forces are the best-trained individuals in the world. They are going to be the ones that need to be on the ground looking for these folks to really identify them and make sure that it’s not a passive measure to combat these folks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I think you were telling our reporter that when — sometimes, when this fire — firefight — or when fire breaks out, somebody is being shot at, you can’t always tell where it is coming from.

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: It is extremely difficult. And you need those well-trained individuals to be able to identify where that bullet is coming from.

Afghanistan is a very difficult area. We have been trained in urban combat. We have been trained in open warfare. Afghanistan is a lot of densely populated areas with mud huts. It is extremely easy to blend in with the environment and ultimately provide a tremendous amount of cover for the bad guys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: James Kitfield, how well-prepared are the U.S. troops, the U.S. soldiers and Marines, to deal with what Sergeant Bowers is describing?

JAMES KITFIELD: I think they are well-prepared. You know, we have been at war in this sort of counterinsurgency environment for eight years now. So, most of the troops have seen combat, or at least a lot of them have. And almost all the leaders have seen combat.

It is a very difficult kind of combat, so this is not easy. It’s not going to be something that happens very quickly. But they know how to do this. They know how to clear these places. They will — they will eventually clear them.

You know, the sniper thing, really, the best plan in counterinsurgency is to find some Afghan who knows where those guys are and have him point it out to you. And that is why it is so important to sort of win over the local populace, to sort of do the advance work with the loya jirga, which they did here. They got the elders involved, who can point out to them, you know, local leaders, who can then point out the bad guys for you. That is really the most effective way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bottom line, biggest threat that these troops face?

JAMES KITFIELD: Well, I think — well, IEDs and snipers.

And, to me, the IEDs are things that are really scary, because it’s just indiscriminate blast fire that can kill multiple people at once. And you — and they have had a long time. McChrystal, General McChrystal, sort of telegraphed a punch here, saying, we’re coming in, but hoping that a lot of them would just leave. That’s fine in a counterinsurgency campaign, but it also gave them some time to lay a lot of IEDs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Would you agree with that?

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: I would agree with that.

The IEDs, the seven months that I was there last year, were the main problem that we saw in these valleys. They are very simple. They don’t cost a lot of money. And they are also something that the Afghan insurgents can utilize to push and say, listen, locals, you need to make sure these IEDs are left here, or we are going to come in and do very terrible things to your family.

It gives them a lot of leverage to be able to pull themselves out of the fight and integrate the local populace into the fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is something that U.S. troops face everywhere they’re headed.

STAFF SGT. TODD BOWERS: It is. It is very difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Staff Sergeant Todd Bowers, James Kitfield, gentlemen, thank you both.