September 8th, 2009
11:17 PM ET

A race against time in Helmand province

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/08/ac.afghan.map.jpg]

Anderson Cooper | BIO
AC360° Anchor

We're at a remote outpost in Helmand province. Remote is a mild term to describe it. If you think U.S. Marines are living on huge bases with all the comforts of home here in Helmand province, you'd be surprised to see the conditions they are facing in these small outposts.

A thick layer of dust covers everything. After a while you stop trying to fight it and you just let it be. There's nothing you can do about it anyway. There are no dining halls out here, just meals-ready-to eat, and bottles of hot water.

This is a critical time for the U.S. fight in Afghanistan. I know it sounds like a cliché. How many times have we been told that over the last eight years? It's true though. There continue to be serious questions about vote fraud in the wake of this past election – an election which was supposed to help stabilize things here.

The Taliban has been growing in strength, improving their capabilities. IED's (Improved Explosive Devices) – which were once rare here, are now the biggest threat to U.S. forces. The Taliban have been able to move beyond their traditional stronghold in the south and are causing trouble in the north and west as well.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff admits the conflict is "deteriorating" and "time is not on our side." He estimates the U.S. has a 12 to 18 month window to turn the security situation around.

Here in Helmand, thousands of Marines have arrived in the last several months, part of the contingent of 21,000 new troops President Obama sent here. The marines will tell you the war here hasn't been going on for eight years, it's been going on for some 65 days.

This is the first time the U.S. has sent a significant number of troops to Helmand. Now the strategy can be summed up in three words: "clear, hold, build." They only move into Taliban areas where they can remain and help build an infrastructure for Afghan governance.

Increasingly, the U.S. forces are integrating into communities - living and working out of small patrol bases, like the one we are at right now. This way they interact with the local population, and local officials, and help in small development projects.

Last night I joined Lt. Col Bill McCullough and his men as they ate rice and goat with the local police chief. So far, many agree the strategy appears to be gaining traction in this part of Helmand, but it requires a commitment of troops and the U.S. still doesn't have enough forces to hold all the Taliban areas. The U.S. has killed many Taliban but many have simply moved elsewhere or are lying low to see if the U.S. is really going to stick around this time.

Many Marines will tell you only about 20 percent of the Taliban are hardcore ideologues, the rest may be amenable to being bought off or co-opted in some way. It worked with some Sunni insurgents in Iraq; the hope is it can work here as well. Besides more troops, the U.S. strategy requires time. Time to build the Afghan army and police, and time to convince people that the Taliban is gone for good. With a growing number of Americans now opposing this war, time may not be on the Marines’ side.

Filed under: Afghanistan • Anderson Cooper
soundoff (159 Responses)
  1. Bebeto

    since 8 years we have a war in Afghanistan you know our troops are make some progress to building of road to build of schools for young girl but a war with of invisible is very difficult the citizen you give the hand with a road of laughter after they go you to betray the majority of country quits it's time for President Afghan to take the relief and not forget the world is in recession it's better of invest in economy for people

    September 9, 2009 at 2:19 pm |
  2. Gala Hogan

    Thank you for going out there with our troops....my son is there now. LCPL Brandon Gamble, we are so proud of him. Brandon has told us many stories while there and for you to be there and bring it to us live is awesome. God bless you and our troops!

    September 9, 2009 at 1:37 pm |
  3. Teresa Gunn

    Thank you Anderson for your incredible journalism and for risking so much to report from Helmand Province. Thank you for the best reporting on television! I watch you each and every evening and love your show. Thank you also for reminding America what is going on in Afghanistan. It is so important. My husband is with the MEB @ Camp Leatherneck. Tell him hey for me. Be safe and thanks again for doing what you do.

    September 9, 2009 at 12:41 pm |
  4. Paul


    You should get hold of the book (if you can find it) "The Betrayal" by Col. Carslon. It is an account of the success of the US Marine CAP program in Vientam (Combined Action Patrols). Much of what you descibed in your article sounds like a CAP operation. It should be a working bible for our ground forces. Had the government paid more head to this Marine Colonel maybe things would have gone differently in SE Asia.

    September 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  5. jane mcgehee

    Relative to Iraq, news from Afghanistan about the welfare of our loved ones is virtually nonexistent. Is this a planned blanket over the news, or just the result of the remoteness of it all? It is nerve-wracking for us at home, that's for sure.
    If you hook up with the Marine 2/3, my son is First Sergeant Dylan Goldman.
    Keep you head down!

    September 9, 2009 at 11:18 am |
  6. Marinesis

    Copper, Thank you soo much for bringing this into the light. My brother is there with you. He is 1/5 A. Co. 2nd M.E.B. I have been glued to your stories begging to catch a look at him. We haven't heard from him in nearly a month, and am sooo thankful you fell in with his brigade. It is about time someone goes to the ground and really shows what these guys are doing and going through. How dare people turn their backs on what they are fighting for. Keep up the great work and please, please show more pictures, I am hoping to catch one of my brother. We miss him and support him 110%, so thank you again for helping me sleep a little better at night.

    September 9, 2009 at 11:12 am |
  7. Donna Wood

    You've really brought the war home Anderson! Great job! Can I ask about the dog I saw in one clip, though? Was it actually wearing a flac vest? I take it the dog probably has a job there? And IED patrols? Whoa! Does the dog do those too? I'm sorry, I can't get the dog out of my mind! You are all doing such a wonderful job but please be careful and be safe.

    Donna Wood
    Lexington, Tennessee

    September 9, 2009 at 11:09 am |
  8. JuleS

    How absurd is this?! Four people, including a child, are killed saving ONE journalist who was probably somewhere he shouldn't have been when he was captured.

    The stupidity of war, and those running it, never ceases to amaze me. I'm a cheerleader of the press and free journalism but if journalists are going to put their lives at risk to cover a story, they'd better be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions and not expect someone else to save their necks when they get caught.

    No one is forcing journalists to get in harm's way - unfortunately, all too many do it for the glory while proclaiming it to be in the name of free speech and the world's "right to know."

    We DO know. But no one in charge cares what we think, what their constituents want, nor what the consequences of their decisions will be.

    It's one thing to cover Darfur and let us know and see the atrocities going on there; it's quite another to take the billionth picture of battling insurgents and US or UN or whatever country's armed forces are under fire today.

    I do not say this to detract IN ANY WAY from a single member of the world's armed forces. My point is that journalists are unnecessarily multiplying the madness of war by creating more opportunities for people to die.

    How about turning the cameras and reporter's notebooks to the human suffering going on in the rest of the world?

    If enough people, the right people, become aware of such, perhaps they'll help do something about it, instead of simply watching more battlescenes and knowing they're helpless to do anything to stop it, as long as politicians - President Obama included - continue making bad decisions.

    September 9, 2009 at 10:44 am |
  9. Filipiak

    Many thanks to the CNN crew for showcasing the bravery of the USMC. As a parent of a Marine with 1/5 Charlie, I would like to request that you show a few more faces of our heroes in Afghanistan. The military forces are not just "resources". They are our sons, fathers, brothers. Stay strong CPL Mark.

    September 9, 2009 at 10:33 am |
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