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Afghanistan war: Marines move in to stop Taliban from Pakistan

As part of Obama's Afghanistan war surge, some 9,000 marines are moving into small Afghan towns near the border to stop Taliban soldiers and supplies coming from Pakistan. The view from this new front.

By Staff writer / December 23, 2009

An Afghan boy eats an apple as a US Marine patrols a near-empty market in Khan Neshin in the volatile province of Helmand, southern Afghanistan.

Kevin Frayer/AP

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Khan Neshin, Afghanistan

For Taliban fighters infiltrating Helmand Province from Pakistan, one ratline proved simple. They crossed open desert of pebble, sage, and moon dust toward a lonely mountain ridge, and entered Khan Neshin, a gateway to both the Helmand River Valley and one of the bloodiest corners of the Afghanistan war.

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In July, though, US Marines seized towns along the Helmand River in a bid to shut down a central problem of the war: the cross-border flow of fresh fighters. But their march stopped at Khan Neshin, 70 miles short of the Pakistan border, slowing but not shutting down Taliban traffic. Now, some 9,000 of the new troops surging into the country are heading to Helmand to expand security and finish the march south. The scope of the time and manpower dedicated to the effort underscores just how difficult it is to secure the 1,600-mile frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“We have to get down to the border. We have to establish a legal border crossing point, so that if you try to bypass it, it becomes an illegal activity,” says Lt. Col. Michael Martin, the commanding officer in charge of 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in the Khan Neshin area. “You start to squeeze off the insurgency’s ability to resupply itself.”

But it’s not as simple as dropping troops into new border outposts. Such posts have been tried before, only to have Pashtun towns deep inside Afghanistan begin to fall to the Taliban, cutting off the remote coalition outposts from behind.

This time, the goal is to secure and win over populations all the way from the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, to the isolated southern border, explains Martin. Khan Neshin will become a safe place to refuel and reconnoiter before the final leg to the checkpoint being built 10 miles north of Baram Shah, a Taliban drugs and arms border bazaar.

“So it’s just one of these things that has to happen incrementally – it’s not something where we can just wish it, snap our fingers, and there you go, you’ve got a border-crossing site,” says Martin.

US Marines in 'flyover country'

That’s the logic that has brought some 800 marines and a cadre of civilians to protect and build up this feudal district of some 17,000 people. The town is little more than a crumbling, centuries-old mud castle – now the marines’ headquarters – and an adjacent bazaar. Families live in mud compounds spread several football fields apart as they coax crops from a sage-strewn wasteland with the help of crude irrigation ditches. Forget cars; here, motorcycles and tractors are scarce.

Even the Taliban treated this place as flyover country. “When the Taliban were here, they never disturbed the local people,” says local elder Fathie Mohammad. Often, they barely seemed to have time to sit down to eat with locals. “They just were moving and walking around.”
The Taliban first came five years ago, say the marines, returning from havens in Pakistan after noticing that neither the coalition nor the government kept any presence here. They used it as a staging point – much as the marines hope to do – to reach more critical population centers.

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