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Marines Face New Challenges In Marja Assault

Audio

Aired 2/16/10

How are U.S. and Afghan forces faring in their assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marja? We speak to Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry live from Afghanistan.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The challenges of mounting a major assault against the Taliban in Afghanistan are evident in the offensive underway in the town of Marja. U.S. Marines, including those from Camp Pendleton, have joined with British and Afghan forces to capture the town, a major Taliban stronghold in Southern Afghanistan. This battle is a test of both the competence of Afghan forces and the viability of the Marines' counterinsurgency rules of engagement during times of active combat. Joining us to report the latest on the Marja offensive is my guest Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. He’s joining us live from Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Tony, welcome.

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Thank you. It’s good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now we have a little bit of a delay on our line. I just wanted to let everyone know. How is the assault on Marja going, Tony, for U.S. and Afghan forces? It sounds like the progress has been slow.

PERRY: It’s been going slower than the commanding general would have liked. He wanted all the major objectives accomplished by nightfall on Saturday. That has not occurred. They will be achieved probably in the next day, two, maybe three days. But the Marines and the Afghan forces are still facing sporadic sniper fire and what they call ‘spray and pray,’ where an insurgent fires his AK-47 in a burst and then runs away. That is slowing the offensive. Also the roadside bombs, the improvised explosive devices are taking their toll, and that is also slowing the offensive. Slowing but not stopping. Again, the end result isn’t really in doubt. It’s just a matter of when. What time this week it’s really achieved.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tony, you’ve been reporting inside and outside of Marja. Now, Helmand Province, you’re reporting from. Tell us a little bit about the area, the terrain, what the town looks like.

PERRY: Well, this is an agricultural area, of course. Think Imperial County, if you will, flat with crops everywhere and with a lot of canals, irrigation canals, built by the American taxpayer in the fifties and sixties, crisscrossing Marja. Marja, a community of about 85,000. That has made it difficult for the Marines to move in. It’s made for good hiding spots for the insurgents to pop up out of a canal and take a few shots and then run away. But it’s not the sort of thing that can stop, but it can slow. Marja is like a lot of Afghanistan towns, sort of tumbledown, sort of a gray-colored, nothing that you’d ever want to put on a poster but it’s a major community here, and it’s been a sanctuary for the Taliban. The Marines, particularly the Marines from Camp Pendleton, descended on Helmand Province last July, pushed the Taliban out of a number of communities, and they fled to Marja. And only now have the Marines thought that they had the Afghan partners with the Afghan army necessary to mount the offense and, if again, as you know, early Saturday morning, last.

CAVANAUGH: How are the tactics of this offensive different from past assaults that the military has done in Afghanistan and Iraq?

PERRY: Sure, this is warfare in the context of counterinsurgency where the goal is not necessarily to kill the enemy but rather to win the sympathy of the populace, and you don’t do that if you incur civilian casualties, a major priority on avoiding civilian casualties. However, avoiding them entirely has not been possible, probably is never going to be possible. And there was at least one terrible incident where a rocket attack killed 11 or 12 civilians. Initially, the U.S. military said the rocket went awry, some mechanical fault or something, 300 to 600 yards, but now they’ve had to admit that, no, they were targeting that spot where there were civilians. They didn’t know it. They were sort of lured into trying to hit that spot, possibly by the Taliban. It is said the Taliban wants civilian casualties because that’ll be a great propaganda coup. It could turn a tactical victory for the U.S. and the Afghan forces into a strategic defeat if, indeed, the reaction from the populace is sufficiently negative. Counterinsurgency is not what you would call classic warfare. It isn’t a matter of killing Hitler in his bunker and the war is over. It’s a matter of pushing the Taliban, the insurgents out of control and then winning the sympathy of the populace by helping to establish a legitimate government. That second step, the legitimate government, is the very, very hard work that is yet ahead.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Tony Perry. He’s San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. He’s joining us live from Helmand Province in Afghanistan. And, Tony, the operation of the Afghan army in this assault is being looked at as crucial, so that perhaps the Afghan army is getting to the point where they may be able to provide security for their own nation. Tell us about that hope and also how the Afghan troops have worked so far.

PERRY: It’s early yet to determine just exactly how well or how badly the Afghans have done. The indication I have is that it’s sort of in the gray area, some of them have done well, some of them have not, some sort of in the middle. It’s really a U.S.-British show in terms of the real fighting. We’ll see later when the sort of smoke clears, if you will, and people start to really analyze how well the Afghan did, Afghan forces did. This is their country after all. They have to be able to take on the Taliban, to push them out of town, to push them out of control. And so far, until this battle, they really hadn’t shown much. When the Marines from Pendleton and other places descended in July in this province, the Afghan army was pretty minimal and not at all impressive, and so this assault had to wait until they were ready. We will only know later, in the sort of post-game analysis, if you will, whether, indeed, they are ready to take over. Remember, the President of the United States would like to start withdrawing U.S. forces in mid-2011. That’s just a little over a year from now. And the question whether the Afghan army and the Afghan police can take over the responsibility for security in their own nation has yet to be answered.

CAVANAUGH: The big headline this morning was the news that the Taliban’s number two commander was captured by joint U.S.-Pakistan forces in Pakistan—it’s actually CIA forces—and Pakistani forces. And I’m wondering what the reaction there has been to the news that this – of this huge capture.

PERRY: Well, a good reaction, of course, because the Taliban is the enemy. But I wouldn’t put too much stock in the idea that if you capture their leaders, the whole movement will go away. It’s a horizontal structure rather than a vertical one. That is to say, there are freelancers and freelance units lightly aligned with some overarching sense of ideology and control. So, again, it isn’t a matter of killing Hitler in his bunker and the war is over. It’s better to capture these folks than not and disrupt their organizational structure but don’t count on winning this situation by capturing, killing, whatever, the leadership. It still comes down to the people. The people of Afghanistan have to subscribe to the idea that their future is better handled by the government in Kabul than the Taliban, and winning their allegiance, particularly in an area like this which has really not known government, in which Kabul, the nation’s capital, is hundreds of miles away, thousands of miles away psychically, is the real difficult chore that lies ahead.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, I want to talk a little bit more about that counterinsurgency, that hope to winning over the population to what the U.S., the British and the Afghan security forces are trying to do and wean them away from the Taliban. I know the Marines conducted an effort to warn Afghan civilians in Marja that the assault was coming but now some say that that allowed the Taliban to escape and perhaps has made the assault more difficult.

PERRY: I think that’s probably true. I can see that. Everything comes with a price and the price of warning the populace to stay in their homes and be careful may have been that some of the Taliban, maybe most of the Taliban, for all we know, were able to kind of sneak away and blend in, hoping sometime to resume their fight in a different circumstance. On the first day of the assault, I noticed a small stream—I won’t call it a flood—but a stream of cars coming out of Marja. In many of those cars were what we would refer to as military-age males, 15 to 30. What were they doing leaving Marja? Were they just peaceful tradesmen and farmers wanting to get out of the way? Or were they people who were really Taliban sympathizers or absolute fighters running away to Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital or somewhere else? Again, only time will tell that. But the real goal here, again, is to push them out of control, to take control of the city to an establishment of government, and then try to win the hearts and minds of the people. If they fade away, that’s a success. Now, later, if they can then be convinced to put down their arms and join the rest of the society and take up regular work, for example, that would be a true success.

CAVANAUGH: Despite the efforts to minimize civilian deaths or perhaps because of it, but in spite of them, 15 people, civilians, have died in this assault, and I’m wondering, what you’ve heard from Marines about how these new counterinsurgency tactics are working during combat.

PERRY: Well, you’ll hear some grumbling from young enlisteds saying we ought to be able to fire more readily, we shouldn’t have to ask permission, we ought to be able to storm into buildings, etcetera, etcetera. But I think a lot of people, certainly officers, and enlisted understand the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is counterinsurgency—it is not classic warfare—and that means restraint. And the bottom line is that means Marines have to take a risk. They have to engage their brain more than they might otherwise before they engage their weapon. It’s a risk. It is a risky, risky business, counterinsurgency, and that risk is borne by young men with short haircuts from Camp Pendleton and Camp Lejeune and other places.

CAVANAUGH: You say, Tony, the result, the end of this assault is inevitable, inevitable victory for the U.S., British and Afghan forces, what’s expected to happen over the next week or so?

PERRY: Well, I would presume that the achievement of the initial military objectives will be at hand in a few days. Then the question is, how quickly can the Afghan government send in a governor, send in a city council, send in people who will work on water and sewage and schools and clinics and clearing those irrigation canals and putting a justice system in place. They’ve got people ready to go but that isn’t an easy turn of events. It won’t be as seamless as they want, I’m sure, but it’s what has to happen because at some point if people say, gee, things were better under the Taliban, we at least had some sense of justice, rough and brutal though it was, then the whole thing will be for naught. So, again, the real work begins—and even the military will tell you this—the real work begins when the shooting stops.

CAVANAUGH: I suppose it’s up to the Afghan forces to keep the peace after the U.S. leaves the area so how will the U.S.-British forces know that that’s happening? Are there earmarks that they’re looking for?

PERRY: Sure, and they’re not leaving right away. The U.S. is building a base, really, right at one of the major points of entry into Marja, so that they can control who goes in and who comes out to a large degree. That’s, of course, a very successful formula that was used in Iraq and in hotspots like Ramadi and Fallujah. So the Marines aren’t going away when the shooting stops. They’re going to be right there. But they are going to put forth the Afghan police—and a thousand of them are said to be involved in this offensive—to begin to serve and protect, as they say on the side of the police cars in the U.S. And it’ll be pretty obvious if, indeed, there is crime, if, indeed, there is violence, if, indeed, there is a sense of a city out of control. It’ll be pretty obvious. But the hope is these Afghan police, who’ve been trained through a U.S.-funded agency, will be ready to stand on their own two feet and to control the city and make it a livable place again.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, thanks so much for talking with us again.

PERRY: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the LA Times. He joined us live from Helmand Province. If you have a comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays, and post it. And coming up, ideas about the future of downtown San Diego. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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