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U.S. Military Launches 'Strike Of The Sword'

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The U.S. Marines this morning launched a major operation in Afghanistan, traveling by helicopter and armored vehicles into some of the most dangerous parts of the country. The operation is centered in the volatile Helmand River Valley in southern Afghanistan; that's the heart of the country's opium-growing region. It's also one of the main strongholds of the Taliban. For more on the ground, we reached NPR's Graham Smith, who is traveling with Marines in the valley.

And for starters, we're talking about thousands of Marines here.

GRAHAM SMITH: Yeah, that's right, Renee. This was basically D-day for them. They rolled in on the ground and also on waves of helicopters. I came in on a copter with Fox Company of the 2-8 Marines out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. If it had been a fight they'd be ready to go but instead it's been pretty quiet today. The biggest fight has been negotiating for a place to create a new compound, a place to work out of for the next few months.

MONTAGNE: Now, they went into Helmand Province because, as I said, it's a stronghold of the Taliban. What are they expecting to do there?

SMITH: Well, I'll tell you the truth. I think they are expecting somewhat of a fight. There are known to be Taliban just north of this village where I am, which is called Sorhudez(ph). British rolled through here last week. They were fired on and they regularly get fired on any time they come through this stretch of territory, but they've never tried to actually stay in one place and create a real presence, and that's what the Marines are determined to do.

MONTAGNE: Well, that is the new strategy there, of course - that is, stay and hold is what they call it, but that would involve what - that would involve -as in Iraq being part of the life of civilians?

SMITH: Yeah, yeah, they've got a compound here, big mud walled house. They are right on the outside of a small village and their intention is to stay here, to live here, to try and create enough security that people can have a school here and try to create some more connection with the government, particularly in anticipation of the elections that are coming up next month.

MONTAGNE: And will they be having small outposts? That is, we're protecting you now, villagers.

SMITH: Well, right now this is a pretty small outpost, 120 Marines, and they are going to be patrolling, using this as a patrol base, essentially, to go out from here. There's more Marines to the north and others to the south and there's some other coalition forces to the east and west. The idea is, Helmand here has been essentially - not a no-go zone but it's been a place where there hasn't been any real coalition presence, no lasting presence. So what they're trying to do is basically go in all at once and create a big presence and wrest control from the Taliban over this entire area.

MONTAGNE: And how long is this expected to last, since it's not just a fight but actually a commitment, it sounds like, to that area?

SMITH: Well, they say that's going to last for their whole deployment, which is to say until about the end of the year, these Marines hope to be home for Christmas. There may be different phases to it, but they are basically going to be here this whole time and they'll turn it over to other Marines at the other end of things and be working with Afghan forces the whole time. We haven't seen any Afghan forces here so far, and in fact the local people say that the Afghan police who they have occasion to deal with are pretty corrupt. They in fact told me, people I talk to, that the police are a bigger problem here than the Taliban are for them.

MONTAGNE: What are the Marines expecting long-term from the Taliban in terms of trying to fight the American efforts there?

SMITH: Well, you know, shortly after we arrived, the Marines that were supposed to come up and join us, having come up the road - but they came across an IED, it was homemade explosives with some wires coming out of it and we heard a big boom at one point. It was them doing controlled detonation. And I think that that's probably how it's going to go for a while. I think they are expecting to have some furtive action as the Taliban sort of feel them out. And with such a huge Marine presence, I don't think they really expect the Taliban to stand out and fight in any traditional sense. I think they expect that to be fighting a guerrilla war dealing with insurgents who are blending in with the population.

MONTAGNE: Graham, thanks very much. Take care of yourself.

SMITH: Thanks very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Graham Smith speaking from the village of Sorhudez in southern Afghanistan, where U.S. Marines have begun a major operation this morning.

One more note from Afghanistan. A U.S. military spokeswoman says insurgents in eastern Afghanistan have captured an American soldier. The soldier has been missing since Tuesday. He was not taking part in the military operation in the southern part of the country. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Graham Smith
Graham Smith co-hosts NPR's serialized podcast Taking Cover, an investigation into a friendly fire incident from early in the Iraq war that was buried for political reasons. He is a Senior Producer on NPR's Investigations team and winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.