Coalition forces are tightening their grip on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
Officials there say most of Marjah is now under government control, but the 15,000 Afghan and NATO forces are said to be facing, “scattered resistance.” Mines, as well as IEDs left by Taliban fighters, are still a major concern.
To discuss this largest offensive since the war began, our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joined us Monday on CNN's "American Morning." Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
John Roberts: This is also a big test of the new “clear, hold, and build” strategy; the new surge strategy the United States has implemented.
Barbara Starr: You know, John, it really is. This is the test of President Obama's strategy. The key, of course, is putting more U.S. troops in to be able to throw the Taliban out and then bring the Afghans in and make them do the “hold” phase of this. Make them insert their own government. This is the big test if that will really work. A lot of people say the Afghans just aren't ready and it's going to be very tough going in the weeks ahead.
Roberts: A lot of troops involved in this: U.S., NATO forces as well, troops from Canada, other countries. But a large contingent of Afghan forces as well, and the U.S. military really making a point of the number of Afghan forces involved here. Why?
Starr: Well, again, because they want to show to the American people that there is, first and foremost, a way home for U.S. troops. And the way home for U.S. troops is for Afghan troops to be able to handle their own security situation. And also, to demonstrate to the Afghan people that it is their own government and their own security forces that are really in the lead here. Nobody wants to see it look like a U.S. occupation.
Roberts: So, there's really a trust issue here as well as a military operation?
Starr: Oh, absolutely. The first and foremost, if you want to toss out the Taliban, you have to make the Afghan citizens believe that their own government is going to look after them and, right now, many Afghan citizens simply don't have the confidence in their government. They believe it's corrupt. They believe it is riddled with drug-influenced corruption and even with Taliban sympathizers.
Roberts: You mentioned this idea that this could be a way out for U.S. forces. Is that the way that the military is looking at this, that if they can have success in Marjah, this may be the first step out the door?
Starr: This may be. It is a big maybe. This is the idea. This is the strategy. This is what the commanders say they want. But is Marjah really a turning point? Probably not just yet. Maybe a nice little bend in the road. But around that bend lies the city of Kandahar to the east and that is really the heartland of the Taliban, the heartland of the drug trade. And until they do something about Kandahar, it's not over.
Roberts: This idea of Marjah being a potential turning point – Taliban, thus far, has kind of thrown its lot in with who they think is winning. And they think the Taliban commanders are winning because they certainly had U.S. and NATO forces back on their heels, I guess you could say, particularly in that part of Afghanistan. If this turns things around in Marjah, could it have a ripple effect across the country that Taliban fighters might say, “Whoa, I'm not on the winning side, maybe I'll take the U.S. and NATO up on this offer of switching sides, getting paid not to fight against American and coalition forces.
Starr: Right. That, again, is the U.S. goal here. But will the Taliban really go for that? Because, as you say, and as General McChrystal has said, the perception is that the Taliban have the momentum. And as long as that perception holds, nobody is about to switch sides. Again, it's the Afghan people – they're looking at who has the momentum. If they believe the Taliban has, it's going to be very hard for them to say, “Okay, now I support my own government.” They need to see that the Afghan government and Afghan forces have the clear momentum.
Roberts: If this continues to go well, and by most accounts, the battle is going well. How long will U.S. forces be tied up in this area?
Starr: Well, you know, they went into Helmand originally, this overall southern area of Afghanistan, a year ago and they're still there.