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Update On Local Marines In Afghanistan

Audio

Aired 8/19/10

How are U.S. combat operations continuing to evolve in Afghanistan? Tony Perry, from the Los Angeles Times, joins us live from Helmand Province, Afghanistan to talk about the latest challenges facing local Marines stationed in that area.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The last combat brigade in Iraq began crossing the border into Kuwait this morning. About 6,000 U.S. combat troops are still in Iraq. They’ll be gone as Operation Iraqi Freedom comes to an official end September 1st. U.S. support troops will remain in Iraq until next year. The war in Iraq lasted more than seven years and cost more than 4,400 American lives. But the longest combat operation in the region continues. The war in Afghanistan is approaching its 9th anniversary and is not winding down. In fact, with General David Petraeus at the helm, officials say they are still in the early stages of counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. LA Times reporter Tony Perry is back in Afghanistan, the latest in his frequent trips in the area, and he joins us now. Good morning, Tony.

TONY PERRY (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: What is it like in Helmand Province now that you’re back?

PERRY: It’s hot. It’s very hot in Helmand Province. It’s also very, very active. The Marines have moved out into all sorts of locations that they weren’t in just in March when I was here. But it’s hot, it’s active, and a lot of things are going on.

CAVANAUGH: Why have so many resources been concentrated, committed, to the Helmand Province area of Afghanistan?

PERRY: Well, Helmand Province and the neighboring Kandahar are, of course, the ancestral home, if you will, of the Taliban. This is their center of strength. And the theory is that if the populous here can be weaned away from them and also the leadership either having their minds changed or having other things happen to them, if it can happen here, it can happen all over the country. 20,000 Marines are here in Helmand Province, about half of them, about 10,000 of them, Marines and sailors from Camp Pendleton. They have just begun many of their missions. I don’t know that it’s the beginning of the end but it does look like the end of the beginning. But the rest of it is going to take some time and while you hear a lot of talk about the July 2001 (sic) deadline that the President of the United States would like to set to begin a drawdown, I wouldn’t look for that to happen here. There’s just too many problems, too many things going on, and the progress is slow. I talked to a young Marine corporal, a woman with two small children back home, and I said, how are things going? She says, they’re going well but slowly. The general says the same thing in a little more articulate fashion. This is a very long process. Counterinsurgency, by nature, is a long process. Winning people away from the insurgency is a long process. This is a tough, relentless enemy. He may be being resupplied out of two neighboring countries. This is a Rubik’s Cube of problems. It’s going to take awhile.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tony, you tell us that there is lots going on in Helmand Province right now. Let’s break that down a little bit. Are there a lot of combat operations? Anti-insurgent operations with the military involved?

PERRY: Oh, absolutely. Out in the western region, which is close to the Iranian border, there is combat almost every day. Other areas, there are IEDs, the improvised explosive devices every day. There was a Marine killed just 48 hours ago, for example. There are a lot of things going on that involve combat. I was in one base out in the middle of the desert that wasn’t there 10 days ago, now its there. I talked to some technicians who are putting in some very interesting electronic gear that can help the Marines all over Helmand Province. They’ve just arrived. A lot of things are just now being set up. And then, of course, you’ve got the governance aspect of things, getting the government in Kabul to come down and serve the people, giving the provincial government in Lashkar Gar, getting them down here. This is not an area that has known much decent governance ever. So you talk about nation building, you have to start by teaching people that, yes, a government can help you with your education needs and your medical needs. And there are signs of progress. I was in a place called Nawa today where I spent a month last November. Now the schools are open, a health clinic is open. They have the semblance of a government. They’re not finding as many IEDs. The people seem to be coming over, providing intelligence, the bazaar is flourishing. There are very good signs. Marja, of course, where we were in February with the very heavy combat, is still a problem child. Some improvement, some backsliding. Taliban’s still trying to push their way in there with intimidation, with assassinations, with all sorts of bad things like that. Government rather slow to move anything in there. So it’s a sixes and sevens. There’s plus here and minus there. It’s going to take a long while to really sense a tipping balance. One of the generals here says this is like Iraq in 2005. You may remember in 2005, even 2006, we – the cliché was Anbar and Iraq are lost. Well, they weren’t lost. It took another year to 18 months, 24 months before it tipped the balance, before Al Anbar, where the Marines from Pendleton were, went from lost cause to shining example of how it can work. The general asserts you’re seeing something like that here but it’s going to take, frankly, a couple of years if this is the foreign policy the American people want, and, of course, the polls suggest that is not the case, but if it’s the foreign policy the American people want through their elected officials, hitch up your pants, it’s going to take awhile, it’s going to cost money and, to be candid, it’s going to cost lives.

CAVANAUGH: LA Times – I’m speaking with LA Times reporter Tony Perry who’s calling us from Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Tony, the New York Times reported Monday that the Taliban ordered its first execution by stoning since it lost power 9 years ago. A young couple was killed for eloping and transgressing against Shiria law. What’s been the reaction to that story in Afghanistan?

PERRY: Well, it depends on who you talk to, I think. I was with some tribal sheiks just this afternoon. I think there was horror at a sort of backward-looking, backward-moving thing like that. But you’re going to have cases like that. This is a large country with certain areas not under control of either the government or the coalition forces, and you’re going to have horrible incidents like that. I don’t think they represent a wave or a trend, although, look, that’s the future if, indeed, this country went back to Taliban rule. And we know historically what that meant particularly in terms of women’s rights and women’s equality. There were no schools for girls. Girls were covered up and shunted aside. There was no divorce, there was arrange marriage. You name the social issue and women were treated very brutally. I don’t think there’s any question that that’s what we would return to. Now, is that enough for Americans to stay here and be heavily involved? That’s another – that’s a political issue. Remember the great Time magazine photo of the young, attractive woman who had her nose chopped off because of some transgression by the Taliban, in their eyes. So that’s really where we would be headed. Now is that enough to keep us here? I don’t know but it’s – I don’t think there’s any question that’s where this country would be headed.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, do you sense any change in emphasis or style of command since General Petraeus replaced General McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan?

PERRY: You know, I think that’s one of those things that makes good newspaper stories and the boys in the press room in Kabul worry about that kind of thing, and politicians back home, but, you know, I think when it gets down to the young Marine, young sailor, young soldier on the ground, he still has all the authority he needs to protect himself. There’s a lot of talk, loose talk I think, that the rules of engagement are too restrictive. I don’t get the sense that that’s what the grunts, as they call them, feel. They get frustrated sometimes that they can’t pursue. They get frustrated sometimes that they feel the bad guys are hiding behind women and children, hiding in schools, that kind of thing. But the bottom line is I don’t think that’s been a major issue here, nor do I think the switch between one general and another, from McChrystal to Petraeus, is going to mean a lot on the level of the actual young Marines and soldiers who are out doing the job every day.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, how many times have you visited Afghanistan since the war started?

PERRY: This is my sixth trip to Afghanistan.

CAVANAUGH: And what is it…

PERRY: I was here in 2001 when the Marines from Pendleton were the first conventional combat troops in. Took down Kandahar where the Taliban was seeking to flee to regroup and to see if they couldn’t push their way into power. That didn’t turn out to be the case.

CAVANAUGH: Do you sense a change in the way Marines are feeling about this combat operation? In the whole texture of the way this is going in Afghanistan since you’ve been there, since so early on?

PERRY: Well, I’ll give you some statistics. Reenlistments are up. These young men and women are reenlisting to stay in uniform and they know doggone well it means they’re going to come back here. They’re going to come back here two and three times if this is the foreign policy we stick with. So while the American people may have lost faith in this mission, it is not my belief—and I’m not a sociologist—but it’s not my belief that the people in uniform have lost faith in it. They have, however, learned how devilishly difficult it is. And from that, they have realized if this is going to get done, it’s going to take a while. I had a colonel tell me today you can lose quickly but to win, it’s going to take awhile, and we’re going to try and do this thing right.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, can you give me an example of that devilish difficulty you’re talking about. What do Marines face on a day-to-day basis that is so difficult?

PERRY: Well, they face the problem of foot patrols and stepping on a bomb that blows them up. And they face the problem of people who they thought they could trust telling them that they’re – oh, that street is fine. And suddenly the street isn’t fine. The Afghan tends to change his allegiances rather quickly in some ways and that can be very, very difficult. Trust takes a long, long time to develop and we’re impatient Americans. We have watches, as they say, and the Afghans have all the time in the world. That is very difficult. And then the living conditions are very Spartan. It is hot, much of the food is not what one would find in a La Jolla restaurant. It’s a difficult, arduous and, in many ways, rather mind-numbing job and in other ways very, very dangerous job.

CAVANAUGH: This time, who did you deploy to Helmand Province with? What group of Marines from Camp Pendleton?

PERRY: Well, I got lucky and I tagged over with some generals who were coming over…

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

PERRY: …to kind of look-see and also to give a morale boost for these young men and women. And that has certain advantages. What it means is, you can hop around on a helicopter and see all sorts of people very, very quickly and you can maybe sit in on some discussions that’ll give you a good overview. It’s not the same as I did in November where I spent a whole month with one group and got to know the guys real well but it’s another kind of reporting that does give you a pretty nice overview, particularly if you already have some sense. For example, I was at a very important place this afternoon that I’ve been trying to get to for months, the Kajaki Dam. That’s a project that the American taxpayer is pumping tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, into to improve the hydroelectric power for Helmand and Kandahar. That can be very, very important. The Taliban is determined that it will not happen and there’s been a lot of combat and now Marines have been inserted to force the Taliban away from the dam so that that construction – But even at that, they can’t get the equipment needed to fix the dam through the roads. The roads aren’t decent, and there’s a Chinese company that’s got the contract to build the dam, their number 3 turbine, and they won’t go over these roads until they’re improved. So there you go, there’s your Rubik’s Cube. There’s the Taliban attacking, there are bad roads, the American people are trying to finance this thing, Taliban is trying to stop it from happening. And around and around we go.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, you visited, I know, you went to Iraq on a number of occasions. I want to give you a chance to react to the fact that combat troops are leaving. There was a big pullout yesterday in the evening, and at dawn the last combat battalion is pulling out into Kuwait. What’s your reaction to that?

PERRY: Well, we had, at one time, 26,000 Marines in Iraq, at the height. There are now fewer than a couple of dozen and even those are going to be pulled out. Iraq has a chance now. It is still what you see in a lot of the world, it’s a shaky third world government bedeviled by problems of violence and corruption and incompetence but it has a fighting chance. And that’s the policy of the United States, to give them that chance and to keep it from being a nesting ground, if you will, for insurgency or attacking their neighbors. You may remember under the late Saddam Hussein, he attacked all of his neighbors. He was trying, at various times, to have nuclear weapons. He would’ve loved to have biological weapons. He had them a number of times. As we assaulted Baghdad in 1903 – or in 2003, excuse me, I remember the SEALs from Camp Pendleton and the SEALs from Coronado going in early and finding high levels of sarin gas in the Euphrates River. That was an example of the Saddam Hussein regime. A lot different now. They’ve got a chance. It’ll be shaky for some period of time. And now the government there has to step up, has to govern itself, has to develop a stronger security force. It has to thwart any attempt to destabilize the government and to once again sort of send the populous into a frenzy that leads to having no government and only the strongest thugs surviving.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, earlier in our conversation you drew a comparison between U.S. military operations in Iraq and U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. My final question to you is what are the differences between those two operations?

PERRY: Well, the enormous difference is that the country is different, the geography is different, the presence of Pakistan in an ungovernable area is different. Also the people themselves are different. Illiteracy here is the norm where it was not the norm in Iraq. In Iraq there was, at one time, an educated middle class that had that country at least stabilized in some regard. That is not the case here. Also, you don’t have the same social structure. In Iraq, you had a very strong tribal structure. So that in Al Anbar Province, where the Marines from Camp Pendleton were, one of the tipping points was a deal cut between the Americans and the Sunni sheiks. The deal took a long time to seal but was very influential in turning that area from a lawless area into one that is really the leading example of ‘it can be done.’ That is not the case here. You don’t have a few Sunni sheiks that can bring their people along. It’s every sheik for himself. I mean, you have almost every block, if they had blocks, would have a sheik, and it’s hard to cut a deal that encompasses more than a small little area. In fact, it is so difficult that the emphasis now isn’t really on cutting deals with local power brokers, although that still goes on and that’s still an effort, but the greater emphasis and the greater energy is getting your low level Taliban, not maybe your jihadist who thinks his God is telling him to kill Americans but the low level guy, the guy who’s just trying to feed his wife and six children and, therefore, is falling in line with Taliban, helping them plant IEDs, roadside bombs and so many other things, convince him that that’s not a good career move. Convince him to move on over. Maybe try and get him a job, get him to renounce violence. That is seen as our way out more than trying to cut deals with a thousand and one sheiks and mullahs and other folks like that.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, I want to thank you so much and, as always, stay safe. Okay?

PERRY: I will. Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with LA Times reporter Tony Perry from Afghanistan. And if you would like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, reforms may make it easier for women to choose to breastfeed. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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