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U.S. Troops Move Deeper Into Afghanistan's Helmand Province; One Marine Killed

U.S. Marines launched a pre-dawn mission in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province in an effort to wrest control of the area from Taliban insurgents.
[Afghanistan Map]

The experience in Khan Neshin, a hardscrabble riverfront town that sits north of a vast desert stretching into Pakistan, suggests that Taliban fighters there, and elsewhere in the Helmand River valley, may be lying low to observe the Marines before trying to retaliate with roadside bombs and suicide attacks. But the Marine presence may also lead some of the fighters to move to other parts of the country or seek other infiltration paths from Pakistan.

Either way, U.S. military and civilian officials say they have an opportunity to impede the Taliban's ability to operate with impunity by building local government institutions and reconstituting police units. In Khan Neshin, there is no district governor, and although the Afghan government has 59 police officers on the payroll for the area, none show up for work.

Marine officers and representatives from a British-U.S. reconstruction team in Helmand have held meetings in the provincial capital with elders from Khan Neshin in recent weeks. The elders have urged the Marines to move into the area, which has become a key transit point for Taliban fighters coming from Pakistan, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Although most fighters have crossed into Afghanistan through the eastern provinces that abut Pakistan, increasing patrols in that area and the relative strength of the Taliban in the south have led increasing numbers of Pakistani fighters to infiltrate into Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province, according to U.S. officials.

"There's no doubt that the community doesn't want the Taliban there," said Rory Donohoe, a U.S. Agency for International Development officer who will serve on a reconstruction team for Khan Neshin. It will be the first U.S. district-level stabilization program in the south.

But getting residents to engage with the Americans could prove challenging at first. Marine commanders had hoped the officers with the Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion that moved into the town would convene a meeting with community leaders Thursday. But no such gathering occurred.

It was not immediately clear why. Although Marines walked through the town soon after they arrived, most residents stayed indoors. "We first have to figure out what they want," Donohoe said. "Our goal is to work in partnership with them."

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