Update On Camp Pendleton-Based Marines In Afghanistan
GLORIA PENNER (Host): Camp Pendleton-based Marines are deploying to Afghanistan this month, to take over command of marine forces in Helmand, Province. They will be among 19,000 marines expected to be there this summer. Tony Perry is San Diego Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles Times. He spent the last six weeks embedded with Pendleton-based Marines in Helmand Province and joins us now to give the latest on the offensive led by coalition forces and Afghan soldiers in the region. Welcome home Tony, it’s good to see you.
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): It’s awfully good to be home.
PENNER: I bet it is. What is this mission of the troops in Marja in the Helmand Province?
PERRY: Marja was a sanctuary for the Taliban. When the Marines from Pendleton went in last July to smaller communities and pushed them out they fled to Marja, a community of about 85,000. It had been a no-go zone for all of these months until the Marines and the Afghan army stormed Marja on the night of the 12th and engaged in pretty severe fighting for several days and pushed them out and now civil government, a government that is connected to the Afghan government Kabul, will set itself up in Marja.
PENNER: In your estimation what’s the biggest threat facing U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan right now?
PERRY: Well, it’s the improvised explosive devices, it’s the roadside bomb, it’s the killer. You sit in a Humvee and they call a certain seat the amputee seat. Because when an IED goes off underneath the Humvee, you’re gonna lose your legs potentially. So that’s a threat. Although during Marja, a lot of small arms fire, some sniper fire and the Taliban say it like it is fought and fought very tenaciously. They didn’t stand a chance long run against the Marines. On the third day of the battle there were 36 sustained firefights between Marines and Afghan soldiers in the Taliban. Thirty-six in a community about the size of Encinitas, where I live, imagine that, what that was like. It was pretty intense.
PENNER: You talk about the Afghan soldiers, but what about the Afghan people? What’s the interaction between the Afghan people and coalition forces?
PERRY: Well in Marja they’re a grumpy bunch. They’ve seen it before, they’ve had promises that we’ll protect you from the Taliban and have seen those promises fade away. They need to be won over; their hearts and mind are not easily swayed. It’s going to be a very difficult task to rebuild their community; clinics and schools and roads and all that. But also rebuild some trust between them and their government, so that they don’t get seduced by the Taliban. Why the Taliban? The Taliban says grow me some opium poppy that can turn into heroine that can turn into profits. That’s why Marja was important. It’s the center of the opium poppy crop.
PENNER: So you say that winning them over is going to be rough?
PERRY: Very, very difficult.
PENNER: Are we going to do it through building infrastructures like schools and roads and that kind of thing…is that the plan?
PERRY: That’s part of it. Part of it is asking them what they want, and they want schools and they want clinics. Part of it is protecting them, security. The Marines are going to be there for a while. The Afghan forces are going to be there for a while. The test of Marja, which was the first big push since the surge of troops was authorized by President Obama. But the real test of Marja was, how good is the Afghan army? When will they be ready to take on this role of securing their population themselves? Answer: They’re getting better. It’s going to be a long while before they’re ready to stand on their own two feet.
PENNER: Well, we at KPBS have been keeping up with your reports from Afghanistan, and you reported on a female engagement team. Who are they? What are they doing?
PERRY: Well the Marines, in this case the Marines from Camp Pendleton, men and woman are trying a very difficult cultural task. They’re trying to outreach to women, that unseen half of the Afghan population. I was there for seven weeks and I probably didn’t see a half a dozen Afghan women without the Burka on. But the Marines, women and men, are trying to outreach to them. What’s on their mind, what can we do to help you? Child maternal health for example, that kind of thing. Sewing, small things, what about the widows? What can we do for them? It’s very difficult, you have to work through the men, and a lot of the men are not ready to have their woman contacted by these foreigners, these foreign women, wearing uniforms and carrying M16’s.
PENNER: Yea, that’s kind of a rough cultural gap to cross I would think.
PERRY: Very rough cultural gap, but there are physical needs. They tend to have serial babies, one after another, after another, which tends to low weight babies, which is all sorts of health problems. Then you get sickly babies, then you get tired out mothers. There is a health aspect to this that the female engagement team, particularly in a place called Nowshak, where I was, from Camp Pendleton. It’s a thing that they are trying to interact with; it’s not going to be easy.
PENNER: You have I assume, seen some signs of success in the towns that you visited?
PERRY: Absolutely, schools are reopening, schools for girls are reopening. Can you imagine that? This is a red flag to the Taliban. They don’t like girls going to school. In Nowzad for example, where 25,000 Afghans fled four years ago from the Taliban, the Marines from Pendleton and Twentynine Palms moved in, in December, fought the Taliban out of town. Now a school has reopened there, and people are moving back into this onetime ghost town. The school takes boys, and girls. That seems so small to us and so obvious to us, but that is a very daring thing to have happen in Afghanistan.
PENNER: Finally Tony, what are the latest plans to send additional troops from Pendleton to Helmand Province?
PERRY: The Pendleton troops are on their way…Infantry troops. If there is fighting in the next few months, it will be Camp Pendleton troops. David Petraeus, the General says, “We’re looking at 18 to 24 months of hard fighting, both in Helmand, Kandahar and elsewhere.” If there is hard fighting in those areas, the Camp Pendleton troops will be right in the middle of it.
PENNER: Well it’s good to have you back once again, Tony Perry and thank you very much.
PERRY: My pleasure.