JUDY WOODRUFF: A major American offensive expanded in southern Afghanistan today. Four thousand U.S. Marines met little resistance as Operation Strike of the Sword moved into its second day.
Jeffrey Brown has our lead story report.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Marines pushed deeper into Helmand province with the goal of breaking the Taliban’s stranglehold over villages there. The province is a remote area at the center of the country’s illegal opium cultivation, a main source of funding for insurgents.
By day’s end, Marine units had secured control of the district centers of Nawa and Garmsir and negotiated entry into another key town, Khan Neshin.
In Nawa, marines sat in the dirt for a meeting with a group of 20 Afghan men and boys, listening to their concerns about the Taliban.
So far, one Marine has been killed, and there was word that two British soldiers died on Wednesday in a roadside bombing in the region. One was the most senior British officer to die in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe.
And in the eastern part of the country, U.S. forces searched for an American soldier believed captured by the Taliban this week. So far, no insurgent group has claimed responsibility.
And for more on the U.S.-led offensive, we’re joined from Kabul by Nancy Youssef, the Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.
Nancy, how much resistance are the Marines encountering so far? What can you tell us about the level of fighting?
NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: So far it’s been pretty modest resistance, but the districts that they’ve been in have also been, in some cases, areas that are not as Taliban-infiltrated as others, Garmsir in particular.
The U.S. military officials here are reading that modest resistance as either a sign of just early fighting that’s just going to start to pick up or that, perhaps, the Taliban have fled.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I was wondering. You’ve been talking to these officials. In putting together this new strategy, do they expect sustained and serious fighting or do they think there is a chance that the Taliban may have, as you say, fled and will be prepared to return?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, they expected heavy fighting in the beginning, a sharp rise in violence, and that as they move through district by district that that fighting would fall.
But unlike the surge in Iraq, they can’t be everywhere, and so it’s possible that the Taliban have fled. I think there’s some hesitancy to make any final judgment on it because it’s so early into this. U.S. military officials here expect that this operation could last for as long as two months.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we have these reports of Marines sitting down with villagers to talk about their concerns about the Taliban. This goes to the strategy of focusing on the needs and concerns of the locals as much as killing the Taliban, right? Tell us a little bit more about the overall strategy here.
NANCY YOUSSEF: That’s right, Jeff. One of the big things that General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander here, is pushing is communicating to the Afghans that his goal and his forces’ goals are not to kill Taliban, but to assure the Afghans here that they are here to protect them.
And so, to that end, as these Marines move through, they’re making an effort to reach the tribal elders, to reach out to the community, and say, “What can we do for you?” It’s part of this effort to change the image of the coalition presence here.
Another thing that he’s done is — Stanley McChrystal has done is to say to people, we’re going to reduce civilian casualties, because that’s been a real source of tension between the Afghans and the coalition forces and, in fact, it’s become one of the top issues of the presidential campaign here.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as these towns are taken, like those today, is the intention to hold them? And if so, do military officials you talk to think they have enough troops on the ground to do that?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Yes, that’s a great point. It’s, again, modeled in part after the surge strategy in Iraq: shape, clear, hold, and then build. In this case, they want to hold these areas with Afghan police.
But the problem is, the Afghan police have been considered particularly corrupt, and there has been some question about whether there’s enough police to leave behind and whether they can efficiently and effectively hold these areas for a sustained period of time.
So the military here has said that they’re trying to retrain forces, regroup them, and reassure the Afghans here that the police that they see moving into their neighborhoods after the Marines and Afghan army leave will, in fact, be a cleaner force, a more effective force, and one that will do a better job of securing the communities.
But it will be a real test in the days ahead about whether the Afghans have confidence in the Afghan police. I think that this will become a real issue, particularly if the Taliban have, indeed, fled and then try to come back and take on this very nascent Afghan police force.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Nancy Youssef for McClatchy Newspapers in Kabul, thanks very much for talking to us.
NANCY YOUSSEF: My pleasure.