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U.S. Expands Offensive in Southern Afghanistan

July 3, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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On the second day of a major U.S. offensive in Southern Afghanistan, journalist Nancy Youssef discusses how the Marine-led mission is proceeding.
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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.