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2009-07-09

Obama’s War: Thousands of Marines Battle in Helmand in Major US Offensive

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In Afghanistan, a powerful truck bomb killed at least twenty-five people today, including up to sixteen schoolchildren, in a province just south of Kabul. The latest bloodshed coincided with a major American military offensive in Helmand province in the south. US forces last week launched what’s being described as the largest Marine offensive since the Vietnam War. Some 4,000 Marines and hundreds of Afghan troops are targeting areas in the Helmand River Valley to wrest it from Taliban control. We go to Kabul to speak with Wall Street Journal journalist Anand Gopal. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Afghanistan, a powerful truck bomb killed least twenty-five people today, including up to sixteen schoolchildren, in a province just south of Kabul. The truck, which was loaded with firewood, ran off the road at night and overturned. When police and civilians arrived to turn the vehicle over, it exploded. Afghan authorities speculate the vehicle might have been intended for use in an attack in the capital.

The latest bloodshed coincided with a major American military offensive in Helmand province in the south. US forces last week launched what’s being described as the largest Marine offensive since the Vietnam War. Some 4,000 Marines and hundreds of Afghan troops are targeting areas in the Helmand River Valley to wrest it from Taliban control.

On Wednesday, a top US Marine commander said there was an urgent need for more Afghan security forces, as well as civilian experts, to back up the offensive. Brigadier General Larry Nicholson told reporters, quote, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. The fact of the matter is we don’t have enough Afghan forces, and I’d like to have more."

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, seven US troops were killed in four separate attacks that marked the deadliest day for US forces in Afghanistan in nearly a year. The numbers of Afghan dead, meanwhile, go unreported. There are an estimated 57,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan — the number expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of the year, as part of President Obama’s escalation of the war.

We go now to Kabul to speak with Anand Gopal, a journalist based in Afghanistan.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Anand. Tell us what is happening there.

ANAND GOPAL: Well, as you mentioned, there’s a major military push by the Americans into Helmand province in the south. And right now, this is on a scale that we haven’t seen in the last few years, about 4,000 Marines. And initially, there hasn’t been a lot of fighting. The Taliban have sort of just melted away. And the Americans then moved into towns and areas which were previously controlled by the Taliban.

And at the same time, across the country, there’s been escalating levels of violence. There’s record levels in pretty much most of the southern provinces. There’s been twenty-one soldiers killed in the first seven days of this month, which is outpacing three months previous to this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the British forces have also lost, I think, as many as seven soldiers in recent days. Are they also involved in this offensive, or is this just attacks on their positions?

ANAND GOPAL: No, they are involved, but the province that this offensive is happening, Helmand province, has been under the purview of the British for the last few years. So, British forces have been active here for quite some time. And as this offensive is targeting certain districts, certain areas in the province, the British forces are involved in sort of shoring up the positions in the other parts of the province. And in those areas, they’re hitting roadside bombs and being killed at a high rate.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, the statement of the — of General Mullen, talking about Afghanistan, also the Pentagon awarding war contractors DynCorp and Fluor five-year deals at seven-and-a-half billion dollars, companies providing, quote, “support and logistics” at US military bases?

ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, this is an issue that’s been very divisive here, because the contractors have been the ones who have been really doing a lot of the things that traditionally have been done by the US military.

Dyncorp, for example, is largely responsible for training Afghan police forces and Afghan security forces. The offensive in Helmand has about 4,000 Marines, but it only has a few hundred Afghan security forces. And one of the reasons why is because the training of these forces is not up to par. And a lot of the — especially the police are deemed to be not ready to take this sort of offensive. And Dyncorp has been involved in that training for the last few years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Anand Gopal, what about the civilian population in the area of the offensive? In previous parts of the country, air strikes by American forces have taken a huge civilian toll. What’s happening with the civilian population?

ANAND GOPAL: Well, there’s a lot of fear on the part of the civilian population, because the population there has suffered from air strikes for quite a few years. In fact, large numbers of the population in Helmand have actually left the province over the last three years and have gone to IDP camps, displaced persons camps, in various cities, such as Kandahar and Kabul. And so, they’re very wary of the offensive. Thus far, we haven’t seen any major civilian casualties, because the fighting hasn’t been that intense. There’s only been one major air strike that’s been called in the last couple of days.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand, I want to turn to a recent interview I did with the Afghan lawmaker and gynecologist, Dr. Roshanak Wardak. She represents over a million people in Wardak province in Afghanistan. She was visiting the US last month and spoke at a congressional briefing organized by A Brave New Foundation. I asked Dr. Wardak how the US drone attacks and air strikes have impacted the people of Afghanistan.

    DR. ROSHANAK WARDAK: You know, now this air strike creates some suspicion about the people. Most of the people say that they came here to do some experiences, and they made Afghanistan the lab for experiments of their — to test their weapons. As they say that, we know — everybody knows that if there is one terrorist, or two, or maybe five terrorists, it’s not the procedure to make an air strike for eliminating these two, three, five terrorists. There are another procedures, which is common all over the world.

    And the police should follow, should discover, should capture those terrorists. And now we have enough police. Eighty-two thousand police is very much a large number of police for our very much poor country and small country, with 25 million population. So it’s better to use police force for capturing terrorists, not to do air strikes for eliminating or for finishing these five terrorists. And everybody knows, even them, they know better that in air strike, we will have much civilian casualties, those innocent people, which they don’t know anything about this strike and about the politics in their countries. They are losing their lives.

    AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that anti-American sentiment has increased or decreased over these years of the US occupation?

    DR. ROSHANAK WARDAK: Increased, increased. And, you know, in spite of spending billion of dollars in Afghanistan, their popularity has decreased very much, especially after these air strikes. Before, in 2002, 2003, their popularity was much better than now. Unfortunately, now, this is the main cause that they’re — and also, the people are against sending troops to Afghanistan from administration of Obama.

    And continuously, they tell us to — they tell to us that we are — there are representative in the parliament, that you should raise this issue in the parliament. Always we are raising this. Before my coming to America, one week ago, we raised this issue in the parliament that, first of all, we should make America government that when they are sending troops, they should inform parliament, they should discuss with us, and they should take permission from us that they are sending troops. And when they are sending troops, their location should be clear where they should put their troops.

    For example, they made base in Wardak. There is nothing in Wardak. Why they put this? Terrorists are coming from our neighbor countries. Why they don’t want to go to the border? And why they don’t want to make military bases there to seal the border and to prevent the coming of the terrorists, of going to the terrorists to Pakistan?

    And also, when they are present in Afghanistan — I’m sorry to say this as a parliamentarian to you; I am a parliamentarian — I don’t know by which contract they came to our country, who asked this, who asked them to come to our country, and since how long they will stay in our country. This is those questions which always my constituents, they always ask me. And I say to them, “I don’t know.” But about NATO forces, everybody knows what’s the situation, why they came, under which contract they came.

    So I hope one day we find the answer from American side and we know ’til what time they will stay. I mean that they should clarify their position in Afghanistan, and also they should legalize their presence in Afghanistan, because it’s our great concern about our independence also. We sacrificed for our independence almost two-and-a-half million people at the time of invasion of Russia. We don’t want to repeat that again.

AMY GOODMAN: Afghan lawmaker Dr. Roshanak Wardak, she represents over a million people in Wardak province in the Afghan parliament, visiting US last month.

Anand Gopal, journalist today with the Wall Street Journal, just left the Christian Science Monitor, you’re on the ground in Kabul. How typical is Dr. Wardak’s response? Is she representing a typical response in Afghanistan right now?

ANAND GOPAL: It’s a fairly typical response. There’s a growing movement amongst Afghan lawmakers to push for a sort of status of forces agreement or some sort of framework in which the troops that are here are here under the say of the Afghan government. And right now that’s not the case. And a lot of lawmakers would like to have that say and would like to have input on where the troops are placed to what their operations are.

And the issue of civilian casualties is probably the single — been the biggest cause for the growing resentment across the country. Afghans have very large families. A typical Afghan has about seventy cousins. So, everybody’s affected by this. If there’s a bomb in one village, villages all around the area are affected by this, and it turns people’s attitudes against the Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: And Brigadier General Larry Nicholson saying, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. The fact of the matter is we don’t have enough Afghan forces, and I’d like more”? And General Mullen saying that this is going to be a long occupation in Afghanistan?

ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, this — well, I think a lot of people are starting to feel that this is — they’re in there for the long haul, because the Afghan security forces are the ones that they would like to actually hold the areas in which the, for example, the Marines come and clear out the Taliban. But right now, those forces just don’t exist. And so, either the Marines stay there and enter a protracted guerrilla fight with the insurgents, or they leave, and the insurgents just reenter the town or village that the Marines had taken.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anand Gopal, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist working in Afghanistan, today for the Wall Street Journal, yesterday it was the Christian Science Monitor. Congratulations on your new job, and be safe.

ANAND GOPAL: Thank you.

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