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Tony Perry Gives Update on Local Troops in Afghanistan


What do local Marines on the ground in Afghanistan think about President Obama's troop increase plan? We speak to Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry about the plan to increase troops, and the challenges that local Marines are facing in Afghanistan.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. President Obama's plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has been met with mixed reactions. Now, at least, everyone knows our military commitment to that nation will extend into 2011, if not much, much longer. Many of the troops in Afghanistan and many who will be deployed to Afghanistan are Marines based here in San Diego. LA Times San Diego bureau chief Tony Perry is in Afghanistan. He's been filing stories from that nation's capitol, and getting reaction from Marines to the President's troop buildup plan. Hello, Tony, and thank you so much for joining us today.

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, LA Times): Certainly. My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Where are you right now?

PERRY: I’m in Kabul, the Afghan capitol. I spent a month with the Marines from Camp Pendleton way out in the rural area in Helmand Province. Now I’m in Kabul and in a few days I’ll go to the eastern part of the country, to Hindukush, Jalalabad, and other areas that are near Pakistan where there’s been some fighting, very key areas. I want to see how that’s going there.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, I understand that Afghanistan gets very, very cold. What is it like there now?

PERRY: I’m in Kabul where it is bitterly cold. There’s snow on the mountains. The city is ringed by mountains. It’s cold. The streets are rivers of mud and you have to remember this is a city without a lot of electricity, with not a lot of heat. Day-to-day life for the Afghani people in their nation’s capitol is a struggle, particularly in the winter. You have to be very tough to live in Kabul.

CAVANAUGH: Who are you staying with right now? Are you embedded with Marines?

PERRY: No, at this point I’m not. I’m in a small hotel favored by journalists and some other visitors. I will leave on Sunday, go out, be with some army troops in the eastern area. But I’m taking a break from the military just for a while, holding down the bureau for my very, very good colleague Laura King, the bureau chief who does a terrific job. She’s on a small R&R. She’ll come back and take over and I’ll go out to the eastern part of the country.

CAVANAUGH: I believe, though, Tony, that you did get a chance to speak with some San Diego-based Marines about President Obama’s plan to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. I wonder what their reaction was.

PERRY: They’re very positive on the idea that this president believes in this mission, feels this is the epicenter of terrorism, as he said in his speech to the nation, and they believe in this mission and they’re glad he does. They’re glad he’s sending more troops. If they have a doubt, it is the idea that this surge, if you will, is being limited to 18 months. Once you’re here and you see how daunting the mission of getting the Afghan security forces ready to stand on their own feet, once you see how daunting it is to win over the hearts and minds of the civilian population, the whole idea of 18 months is unsettling to the Marines, unsettling to anyone who’s actually seen how slow and incremental a counterinsurgency like this is.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, General McChrystal this morning said it is not unreasonable to assume it will take the U.S. five years to get the security forces in Afghanistan up to where they need to be. But a headline on one of your stories this week really was stunning. It is: President Karzai says Afghanistan will need U.S. help for 15 to 20 years.

PERRY: There was a press conference at the presidential palace that I went to, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Hamid Karzai, the Afghanistan president. And Karzai did say that financially and technically it could be 15 to 20 years before the Afghan police and army are ready to stand on their own two feet. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean young Marines, young soldiers for another 15 to 20 years but it does mean a commitment by the U.S. financially and with technical advice well into a second decade.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with LA Times San Diego bureau chief Tony Perry. He is in Afghanistan. He’s speaking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan. Tony, I know that you haven’t been in Afghanistan all that long but from your reporting and from what you’ve seen, what would you say are the major challenges the U.S. faces in achieving its goals in Afghanistan?

PERRY: This is a very poor, underdeveloped country. We’re not nation building here, we’re introducing the whole idea of government and a nation. This is a country that has never really known a central government as you and I would think of it. And now to counter the insurgency, the U.S. has taken on the responsibility of creating a government and also creating the expectation among the populous of having a government that will meet their needs so that they turn towards that government and away from the Taliban. Simultaneously, while doing that nation building, the Marines and the soldiers are confronting, searching out, fighting, killing the Taliban. It’s a daunting two-level task. It’s not something that’s going to be done quick. If we have decided this is in our nation’s best interest, we better put both feet on the ground and realize this is going to take awhile.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of impact will sending 30,000 additional troops have in Afghanistan?

PERRY: Well, it could have a great deal of impact in certain areas. The Helmand Province where the Marines from Camp Pendleton – for example, until July the insurgents really controlled a number of villages. They terrorized the people. They executed people, they extorted them. They shut down their schools and their clinics, shut down their bazaars where they sold their goods, and they really controlled those areas. Along came 800 Marines from Camp Pendleton. In July, they landed one hot, steamy night, began a fight. The Taliban moved out of those areas and now schools and clinics and the bazaar and the semblance of a government is beginning. Now you send more Marines, you can spread that out. Now can you spread it out enough in a country that’s the size of Texas, that has 30 million people, that has 500 different political entities called districts, I don’t know. But you send more Marines or soldiers, you can then confront the Taliban sufficiently in certain areas. Is it going to be enough? Time will tell.

CAVANAUGH: How is morale among the U.S. troops in Afghanistan as far as you’ve been able to tell?

PERRY: Well, I was with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton. Morale was very high. They were close to going home. The morale is never higher than when they’re first arriving or when they’re going home. They were going home, some of them are probably already back at Pendleton, others will be arriving within a few days. It’s a staged change. They were being replaced by Marines from Hawaii, and they were going home with a real sense of accomplishment. They rabbited the Taliban from certain villages, they got people to where they could live their lives. Now, the job isn’t over. A lot of the Taliban has fled to a certain area called Marja. They now control Marja. And the Marines have been very, very candid; they’re going to attack and assault Marja much as they did Fallujah in Iraq in ’04. So the Marines are leaving and going home with this real sense of accomplishment but not with a sense that the fight is over. Other Marines from Camp Pendleton, from Camp Lejeune, from Hawaii, from Okinawa, are going to be here, and they’re going to be here for a long time. And there is still very tough fighting yet to go and very tough work to get a local government in place in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold. This is the place where the poppy crop that provides the heroin that funds the insurgency is grown. Lots of challenges still to go in Helmand Province.

CAVANAUGH: You know, as one of our missions seems to be to get the Afghan security force up to where it needs to be, we’ve heard a couple of disturbing stories this year about Afghan soldiers apparently turning on U.S. soldiers and killing them. What are relations like between the U.S. troops and the Afghan troops?

PERRY: Well, there’s a range of relationships. One of the problems is just numbers. There aren’t enough good battalions of the Afghan army to yet take the lead when confronting the Taliban is the mission of the day. I think there will be in some period of time but it’s not going to happen overnight. We found that in Iraq, you may remember. When there was an attempt to grow the Iraqi army overnight, it didn’t work. We had to drop back and take a longer view. Now the Afghan police is a – is a mess, frankly. Long history of corruption, incompetence, questionable loyalties, and building a police department is even more difficult than building an army. And, of course, what’s important about a police department? The police, I don’t care if you’re in San Diego, Los Angeles, or Nawa in Helmand Province, the police are the face of the local government. And if they’re corrupt, if they’re incompetent, you’re not going to win the hearts and minds of that population against the Taliban. That’s a very mixed scene. I saw the police that were sent to Helmand Province after getting some training. A third of them ran away, others seemed to not know how to handle their weapons, others started to steal rice and cooking oil that was meant for the poor. Most charitably, the Afghan police can be called a work in progress and work is going on. The Marines are tutoring them. There’s a nine week training camp and then there’s follow up but the best you can say about the Afghan National Police is they are a work in progress and the progress is slow.

CAVANAUGH: The Marines that you speak with, Tony, and, of course, we know Marines in general tend to be very gung ho, very mission focused but, I’m wondering, since the casualties are mounting in Afghanistan, is there a sense that this mission is becoming more dangerous and will become more dangerous?

PERRY: Oh, I think there’s always been a sense that this is a very dangerous mission. The insurgents use the improvised explosive device, roadside bombs, the weapon of choice, the weapon of the weak against the strong. We’re the strong. They’re the weak. But they bury these bombs at night, and it’s a cat and mouse game. They bury them at night, the Marines are out at night with night vision goggles and sniper rifles trying to catch them. And then the Marines go out during the day with all sorts of technological gizmos and also very, very well trained bomb sniffing dogs to find these roadside bombs. It’s a very, very dangerous duty that – that always needs doing. And also there’s a sense that every movement – every movement is a combat movement because you don’t know that the next step or the next roll of tire on the Humvee you won’t hit a roadside bomb and an explosion. That’s one of the things that is slowing down the progress such as it is, is the sense that every move – It’s like the gravity is ten times what it is on Earth where every footstep takes a lot more effort. And it’s one of the main reasons why progress is quite slow.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, thanks so much for speaking with us and be safe.

PERRY: I will. Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with LA Times San Diego bureau chief Tony Perry. He’s been speaking to us live from Kabul, Afghanistan. And coming up, plans in motion for a new Charger stadium in downtown San Diego. We’ll talk about that and much more as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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