Time for a systems check on Afghanistan strategy

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The United States is reviewing its military strategy in Afghanistan. President Obama will take up the issue at a NATO summit in Lisbon later this week. And the review will continue right through the end of the year, as the White House tries to learn whether the 30,000 troops ordered into combat last year are making a difference.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been assessing the war effort. He spent almost two and a half months in Afghanistan this year. He's there today. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Hi, Liane. How are you?

HANSEN: I am well, sir. You were there in the early summer. You visited some of the same places that you did then on this trip. Have you seen progress?

BOWMAN: Well, there's definitely progress here in Helmand Province. That's in southern Afghanistan. And I was actually here last fall with the Marines and at that point they were still fighting in this area we're in right now. But since then, they've really pushed farther south through the Helmand River Valley. They've opened up more bazaars there. They're training more police.

And the security situation is definitely much better than it was last fall. But there's still, you know, a number of problems here. There are certain areas where there's still a good bit of fighting.

HANSEN: And what is the area that you're in?

BOWMAN: Well, we're just at a Marine base called Leatherneck, but the area we were in was called Gomshair(ph), and there's a big bazaar there, big market. Senator John Kerry actually went through there last year and they've expanded the market there. We went to a bazaar that had thousands of Afghans there. They were buying sheep and cattle and just a huge, huge bazaar there and we never saw anything like that last year.

They're also training more and more Afghan police. And they do definitely look better, the Afghan police, than they did last year.

HANSEN: Are there other areas in Helmand where they're still fighting?

BOWMAN: Yes, an area called Marjah, and people may remember that. That was an area of a big Marine operation earlier this year. They're still fighting in the outskirts of Marjah. The Marines are patrolling in those outskirts, trying to roll up the remaining Taliban, also set up combat outposts.

And there's another area not too far from Marjah called Sangan(ph). It used to be controlled by the British troops until this summer. It was taken over by the Marines and there's still a good amount of fighting up through there, skirmishes with Taliban forces, and also a lot of roadside bombs in that area. So, it's clearly not over year for Helmand Province, the fighting here, and they expect it to continue for a few more months. They said they hoped to pacify Marjah in two, three more months.

HANSEN: In the few seconds we have left, Tom, is President Obama's July 2011 withdrawal date realistic?

BOWMAN: Well, the sense here is they'll pull out some troops here in July 2011 - probably not that many. And now everyone's looking toward a new date, 2014, and that's a date they hope that the Afghan police and army can take over security for their country. That may be a bit optimistic, that 2014 date. There's still a lot of training to do with both the police and army, but that's the date they're looking toward right now.

HANSEN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman in Afghanistan. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: Thank you, Liane.