On Debate Over Pulling Troops: The View From Some On The Ground

Originally published on June 13, 2011 10:56 am

Later this month, President Obama is expected to announce just how many combat troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan starting in July.

NPR's Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman has been talking to Marines in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province. He reports from there that, "most Marines say they don't think it's a good idea to pull combat troops out of the area. Maybe some support troops such as, maybe, construction battalions. But not what they'd call trigger-pullers. The Marines say they've made gains against the Taliban with the so-called surge in troops over the past year. And they're still on the hunt for pockets of Taliban around here."

Tom talked with host Melissa Block on tonight's edition of All Things Considered.

He spoke about asking Sgt. John Moulder "can [the U.S.] pull [combat] troops out around here" next month? "No, not at all," Moulder said. "Like, if anything we need more troops."

"The Marines I talk with," Tom added, "say 'listen, we finally have the right number of troops here. With the troop surge ... we're making progress.' And you keep talking with them, saying 'well, listen, you know, we've been here 10 years now. People at home are sick of this.' And they keep saying, 'we need more time.' "

Another issue, said Tom, is that the handoff to the Afghan military is complicated, because the Afghan units need more training.

Tom said he had been on patrol with the Marines in the area. He asked Moulder how the Afghan troops were doing.

"Just to be honest," Moulder replied, "if you've seen some of them in firefights, some of them just 'spray and pray.' So it's like, if we really want these guys to be successful and don't want ... civil uprisings and all this ridiculous stuff happen after we leave ... and have to come right back and help them out. I would say we need to start training them."

Tom saw some of those troops on patrol last fall. Some are OK, he reports. But it will be a while before they can take over security for their country. "Overall," he says, the Afghan troops "need more time."

To listen to Melissa's full interview with Tom, tune into All Things Considered on your local NPR member station. We'll post the as-aired version of the interview a little later today.

[Correction at 1:25 p.m. ET, June 9: Our earlier editing of what NPR's Tom Bowman reported and what Sgt. John Moulder said in this report didn't accurately characterize all that was said. So, we've written through this post to make clear that the Marines who NPR's Tom Bowman spoke with were talking about the situation in the area where they are now working — Afghanistan's Helmand Province. They were not talking about the situation in Afghanistan in general or about the general issue of how many combat troops are needed in that country.]

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been talking about this with combat troops in Afghanistan. He's embedded with Marines in Helmand Province; that's the scene of some of the toughest fighting. And Tom, you have been asking the Marines there if they think it makes sense to start bringing troops home. What are you hearing?

TOM BOWMAN: As you know, they're going to start pulling troops out next month in Afghanistan. Nobody really knows the number yet.

NORRIS: Yeah, I've heard that rumor.

BOWMAN: Do you think they can pull - can they pull troops out around here, you think?

NORRIS: No. No, not at all. Like if anything, we need more troops.

BOWMAN: So that's Sergeant John Maulder, who - clearly - doesn't think they can cut troop levels. Now, his Marines are setting up small outposts throughout this area and heading out on patrols.

BLOCK: And describe those patrols, Tom. What are the Marines trying to accomplish there?

BOWMAN: A lot of people here, Melissa, are still on the fence. We talked to one farmer who said, people are watching me. He talked to the Marines for a little bit, but he didn't want to spend too much time with them. He wanted to go back into his compound. So like a lot of people around here, you know, he's still very much afraid.

BLOCK: Very much afraid. Tom, I'm curious if you hear from Marines - when they think about the Taliban presence in Afghanistan, think about the number of their fellow Marines who've died - that they think look, this is a losing battle and it is time to come home.

BOWMAN: You know, the Marines I talk with say listen, we finally have the right number of troops here. With the troop surge, we're making progress. And you keep talking with them saying well, listen - you know - we've been here 10 years now. People at home are sick of this. And they keep saying, we need more time.

BLOCK: What about the Afghan side, the Afghan troops' ability to maintain security? What are you hearing about that?

BOWMAN: And again, while on patrol with Gulf Company, I was speaking with the same sergeant, John Maulder. And I asked about how Afghan troops were doing, and here's what he said.

NORRIS: Just to be honest, if you've seen some of them in firefights, some of them just spray and pray. So it's like, if we really want these guys to be successful and don't want to hand it over, then civil uprisings and all this ridiculous stuff happen after we leave and have to come right back and help them out, then I would say we need to start training them.

BOWMAN: And I heard the same thing when I was here last fall, Melissa, that some of the Afghan troops are OK. But overall, again, it's a mixed bag. And it's going to be quite a long time before they'll be able to take over security for their country.

BLOCK: OK. Tom, thanks very much. Stay safe.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, speaking with us from Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where he's been embedded with the Marines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.