Anderson Cooper | BIO
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.
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