Afghan Operation Update
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now we go to southern Afghanistan for an update on an incident that threatened to undermine America's mission in this country. In March, an American soldier massacred villagers near a remote outpost west of Kandahar. An Army sergeant, Robert Bales, is in custody, accused of that crime.
I reached NPR's Tom Bowman who is in Kandahar now, just back from the area where Sgt. Bales was assigned.
And Tom, I understand you were just a mile or two from where those killings took place.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: That's right, Renee. It's called Zangabad. It's a combat outpost just a short distance from the villages where Sgt. Bales was stationed. He was at a different combat outpost called Belandai. And investigators say he left his outpost - he was with the Green Berets at the time - providing security for them. He left this outpost twice in one night, 17 people were killed, including nine children, and the wounded were taken back to this outpost where we were staying.
MONTAGNE: And is there anything new about the investigation?
BOWMAN: Well, we're also told that they sent Army criminal investigators in. They did find quite a bit. They found shell casings. They found - they dug out bullets from the mud walls. And they interviewed villagers. We're told they interviewed a boy who was in the room when Sgt. Bales allegedly opened fire.
And the other thing, Renee is we're told that all offensive military operations ceased for almost two months after this attack on orders from top American commanders in Kabul and those operations only resumed recently.
MONTAGNE: And what happened before they resumed, when they were stopped, all those operations?
BOWMAN: Well, we're told that the Taliban actually planted a lot more roadside bombs all around those villagers in that area where Sgt. Bales was stationed. And they could actually see them from the Zangabad combat outpost with their camera, surveillance cameras, planting those roadside bombs.
And we're also told that the villagers, most of the remaining villagers actually moved out of that area. Taliban fighters started moving into those abandoned houses.
What they're doing now is they're actually sweeping through the area now that combat operations have resumed. They're finding, of course, more roadside bombs and they're removing them in kind of a novel way. They're actually using bulldozers ahead of American armored personnel carriers, kind of pushing through and actually triggering the bombs or just digging them up.
This whole place, Renee was full of roadside bombs. And soldiers nickname for the combat outpost Zangabad. They call it Zangaboom.
MONTAGNE: Tom, just briefly, what does this say about lasting power of the surge?
BOWMAN: You know, that's really the big question around here. They're going to start to reduce the number surge troops, but they're still going to have an American battalion in this area right through the end of 2014. And the reason they're doing that is it's a very important area. These are the approaches to Kandahar City, the Taliban move fighters and weapons right into the city itself. So they want to make sure that they can Kandahar City.
And the other thing too is Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, grew up in this area, so there's a lot of support for the Taliban. So they're going to keep American soldiers working here right through the end.
MONTAGNE: OK. Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from Kandahar, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He's just back from the area where 17 Afghans were massacred in March. An American soldier is accused in that crime.
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And you're hearing Renee from Afghanistan on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.