Friday, February 19, 2010
JOANNE FARYON (Host): As many as 1,000 troops from Camp Pendleton Marine Base are preparing to leave for Afghanistan as the troop surge there gets underway. The Marines expect to leave in the next six weeks. President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of 30,000 additional troops late last year. In the meantime, the first major military confrontation has already begun in the southern Afghanistan town of Marja. Tony Perry is San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. He is embedded with Camp Pendleton Marines who were deployed to the region months ago. Tony, describe where you are now.
TONY PERRY (Los Angeles Times): Well I'm in Helmand province. That’s southern Afghanistan that’s long been a sanctuary for the Taliban. The Marines from Camp Pendleton moved here in July last year pushed the Taliban out of a number of communities. They took sanctuary in the community of Marja and have ruled it without opposition for some period of time. Now the Marines and the Afghanistan Army have moved into Marja. There's been fighting for the last week, and the goal really is to push the Taliban out of Marja and allow a civilian government from the nation’s capital in Kabul to take over. They're close to achieving that, but they haven’t yet achieved it.
FARYON: In the stories that you’ve been filing, you really emphasize the importance of winning over the Afghan people. Why is this so critical in this offensive?
PERRY: Well this is a counter insurgency. This is a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the populace away from the Taliban. This is not classic warfare, kill Hitler in his bunker and the war is over and that kind of thing. You oppose the enemy, the Taliban, but the real goal is the people – to win their allegiance. And that is what makes it much, much more difficult in many ways. The fighting is actually – the military people will tell you – the easy part. The hard part will be establishing a government and a sense of trust with the people so that they bond with their government and they are not subject to being sympathetic to an insurgency.
FARYON: There have been civilian casualties. What's been the reaction from both the Marines and the local people?
PERRY: Well, the Marines of course were appalled at what happened. A rocket strike was misdirected and it hit a target that was thought to be an enemy stronghold. It turned out to be a family, and 12 were killed. I think there was remorse and disgust everywhere over that. And a lot of the Afghans felt the same way. The Afghan officials have come forward and have said while it was tragic, it doesn’t mar the fact that what the real attempt is to push this insurgency out of Marja and allow a real government to take over.
FARYON: You’ve been covering Camp Pendleton Marines for years. What the mood now in terms of the impending surge and the renewed goals laid out by the President to defeat Al-Qaeda and reverse the Taliban’s momentum?
PERRY: Well I think the attitude in judging morale is always a difficult sort of thing. But I think there are two attitudes. One, a sense of great support from the White House when he has called Afghanistan the epicenter of terrorism. Great support for what it is the young Marines are doing here. On the other hand, there is concern that the White House is putting a timetable, an unrealistic timetable on it. You may remember the President said when he announced the surge in December that he wants combat troops to start coming out in great number in mid-2011. That’s not that far away. And I don’t think there's anyone on the ground here who thinks the entire mission can be accomplished in that short period of time.
FARYON: What are the next steps for the US and Afghan troops once the Marja assault is complete?
PERRY: Well, security will have to be the first order of business – keeping Marja secure from a resurgent Taliban, much as it is in other communities here in Helmand province. And the real work, the work of putting together a government that the people respond to and that the people respect will have to start, and start very, very quickly. And the US is ready to aid in that effort, but it’s really and Afghan effort. They really have to get a government that provides clinics and schools and roads, and all of those things that we think of as a government function. They have to do it, and do it quick or what you're going to get I think is a resurgence of the Taliban and then the sense of the people that, hey, life wasn’t so bad under the Taliban. So that’s the real work of a counter insurgency, winning support from the people.
FARYON: Well thank you, Tony Perry, reporting from southern Afghanistan. And if you're interested in reading more of Tony’s reports you can go to the LAtimes.com/Afghanistan.