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Marines Forge Ahead as Taliban Offensive Narrows

February 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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For a third day, American and British forces continued their push on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Afghanistan. Ray Suarez speaks to Rod Nordland of The New York Times who has been covering the story from Kabul.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Afghanistan, enemy sniper teams attacked U.S. Marines and Afghan troops across the Taliban haven of Marjah, as several gun battles erupted Monday in the midst of a major offensive to seize the extremists’ southern heartland.

Ray Suarez is in charge.

RAY SUAREZ: As the battle for Marjah stretched into its third day, snipers fired on NATO forces and gun battles erupted in the streets, bogging down progress.

Since Saturday, 15,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops have been deployed here in the biggest joint operation of the war. Two have been killed so far, one American and one Briton. Dubbed Operation Moshtarak, or “Together” in the Dari language, the mission is to take Marjah and its surrounding villages out of insurgent control.

SOLDIER: Tell the Taliban that they are not welcome in this area anymore.

RAY SUAREZ: Marjah is the biggest town in Helmand province still under Taliban rule. It’s also a major way station for the heroin poppy trade that funds the insurgency.

NATO publicized its plans to take the town for weeks, and many Taliban were thought to have fled in advance of the attack. But at a news conference today, Afghanistan’s defense minister said fighters remained, and he urged them to put down their weapons.

GENERAL ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK, Afghanistan defense minister (through translator): I would like to give this message to our enemies. We will not leave the area. We will stay there, at all costs, to bring peace. So, it is better for them to join us in serving their country.

RAY SUAREZ: The goal, though, isn’t just to push the Taliban out. It’s to win over the town’s 80,000 residents. The plan is to establish Afghan governance and Afghan security.

MOHAMMAD EBRAHIM, Afghanistan (through translator): Until now, there was security. But now, after everything is fine, we want them to build us schools and roads. So far, they haven’t done anything for us. Now it is time to work, and they have promised to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Efforts to win over the people were complicated yesterday, after two U.S. rockets demolished a house, killing civilians. Initial reports said 12 civilians were dead, including six children. Today, though, the Afghan interior minister said insurgents may have been among the dead.

HANIF ATMAR, Afghan interior minister (through translator): Unfortunately, our forces didn’t know that civilians were living in that house. And, as a result of this incident, nine civilians were killed. And our preliminary investigations show that two or three fighters were killed.

RAY SUAREZ: The top allied commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, apologized for what he called this tragic loss of life, but said his troops were working to minimize civilian casualties.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. commander in Afghanistan: The first thing I would say is, when President Karzai approved the conduct of this operation, he gave us some very specific guidance. And that guidance was to continue to protect the people of Afghanistan. And, so, this operation has been done with that in mind.

RAY SUAREZ: Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned civilian deaths could jeopardize the mission. He has called for a full investigation into the accidental strike.

And, in a separate development, a NATO airstrike in neighboring Kandahar province killed five civilians.

Earlier this evening, I talked with Rod Nordland of The New York Times. He’s been covering the Marjah story from Kabul.

What kind of resistance are the allied forces meeting in their assault in Helmand?

ROD NORDLAND, The New York Times: Well, you know, there are wildly varying accounts, from they a bunch of foreign jihadis dug in, in the bazaar, and willing to fight to the death, to snipers all over the city, to some accounts that have only as few as 20 Taliban left.

What everyone seems to agree on, though, is that there is a huge number of booby traps, buried IEDs, mines, and — and so forth that are going to be very time-consuming and painstaking to remove.

RAY SUAREZ: In these battles that U.S. and other forces have been getting into, how would we describe the Taliban militarily? Are they well-armed? Are they well-equipped. Are they able to fight back effectively?

ROD NORDLAND: I don’t think you can really describe them militarily. It seems like a few guys taking potshots at them, and — and — and not terribly effectively, with some exceptions.

I mean, they do — they have, in some cases, shown an ability to maneuver and all. But I think what they done best is to get out of Dodge before — before the cowboys came. And that’s what most of them have done, large numbers of them.

I mean, there were — there were accounts of — credible accounts that there were more than 1,000 Taliban in Marjah before this started. And nobody thinks there is more than in the low 100s when they came in, and probably much less now.

RAY SUAREZ: Why was this place chosen? Why is Marjah an important objective?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, Marjah is the last — the last place in Afghanistan where they have a large population under their control. It’s a city of 80,000 people, and a small city.

But that’s — that is much larger than most paces in Afghanistan. It was also very important to them financially because they had heroin factories there that converted opium into finished heroin for smuggling. So, it had a big effect on their finances.

And it’s also just symbolically important. We took — we took it back from them last May. We took it back from them a couple years ago. And they were able to infiltrate. And now the — the Americans and the Afghans want to show that their new population-centered strategy can succeed in holding — holding Marjah long enough to rebuild it and to provide real government services that will hopefully discourage people from going back to the Taliban.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned this area has been cleared before. How does this approach differ from earlier attempts to control Helmand? How is the Obama era approach a departure from more than seven years of fighting under President Bush?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, you know, I think the most dramatic example of that difference was when — when the military and General McChrystal announced yesterday that they had, by — in error, killed 12 civilians, that a rocket had gone astray and hit the wrong building and killed 12 innocent civilians.

They were so quick to announce that, in fact, that it turns out they exaggerated, apparently, the number of civilians they killed. It turned out it was actually only nine, and there were also three Taliban in the house who were shooting from the house, and thereby, at least arguably, making it a legitimate target.

If you contrast that to, say, the — the wedding, one of several, actually, that was bombed a year or two ago, during the Bush administration, you know, they just — it took them months to ever admit they had even done anything wrong.

RAY SUAREZ: Beforehand, had there been attempts to get civilians out of the line of fire entirely, to get them to go somewhere else outside of Marjah?

ROD NORDLAND: No, I think the — I think the whole tactic was to — to warn them that they were coming, and to warn the Taliban that they were coming. It gave the Taliban plenty of time to leave, and to — you know, to seek — seek lodging elsewhere.

But it also meant that they didn’t have to have such a bloody campaign coming in to subdue it.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. military has made an effort to call attention to the Afghans who are fighting in this assault. What is the ratio of Afghan to alliance forces, and how are they doing?

ROD NORDLAND: Yes, they — they have been repeatedly saying, the Afghans are in the lead, the majority of the forces are Afghan and so forth.

But the real fighting is being done by the American Marines, and backed up by the Brits and the other — the other foreign forces.

RAY SUAREZ: Rod Nordland, thanks a lot for talk.ing to us.

ROD NORDLAND: OK. Pleasure. Bye