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March 14, 2010

Winning In Afghanistan...The US Marine Way

Aside from its ridiculous headline ("At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?") the Washington Post has an interesting article on the how Marines like to do things, well, their own way.

While General McChrystal wants to focus on population centers, the Marines have a somewhat different take on what that means.

Some senior officials at the White House, at the Pentagon and in McChrystal's headquarters would rather have many of the 20,000 Marines who will be in Afghanistan by summer deploy around Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, to assist in a U.S. campaign to wrest the area from Taliban control instead of concentrating in neighboring Helmand province and points west. According to an analysis conducted by the National Security Council, fewer than 1 percent of the country's population lives in the Marine area of operations.

They question whether a large operation that began last month to flush the Taliban out of Marja, a poor farming community in central Helmand, is the best use of Marine resources. Although it has unfolded with fewer than expected casualties and helped to generate a perception of momentum in the U.S.-led military campaign, the mission probably will tie up two Marine battalions and hundreds of Afghan security forces until the summer.

,,,Marine commanders note that they did not choose to go to Helmand -- they were asked to go there by McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, because British forces in the area were unable to contain the intensifying insurgency. But once they arrived, they became determined to show they could rescue the place, in much the same way they helped to turn around Anbar province in Iraq.

They also became believers in Helmand's strategic importance. "You cannot fix Kandahar without fixing Helmand," (The Marine commander in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Lawrence) Nicholson said. "The insurgency there draws support from the insurgency here."

As always, the Marines have a plan and are willing to experiment with new tactics such as female teams to interact with local women, operating their own police training academy and most interestingly reaching out to local mullahs.

The Marines haven't been ignoring populations, they just have a little different idea what that means.

In December, columns of Marine armored vehicles punched into the city of Now Zad in northern Helmand. Once the second-largest town in the province, it had been almost completely emptied of its residents over the past four years as insurgents mined the roads and buildings with hundreds of homemade bombs. Successive units of British and U.S. troops had been largely confined to a Fort Apache-like base in the town. Every time they ventured out, they'd be shot at or bombed.

To Nicholson and his commanders, reclaiming the town, which the Marines accomplished within a few weeks, has been a crucial step in demonstrating to Helmand residents that U.S. forces are committed to getting rid of the Taliban. To other military officials in Afghanistan, however, the mission seemed contrary to McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy.

"If our focus is supposed to be protecting the population, why are we focusing on a ghost town?" said a senior officer at the NATO regional headquarters in Kandahar.

Nicholson notes that Helmand's governor supported the operation, as did many local tribal leaders. Hundreds of residents have returned in recent weeks, and at least 65 shops have reopened, according to Marine officers stationed in Now Zad.

"Protecting the population means allowing people to return to their homes," he said. "We've taken a grim, tough place, a place where there was no hope, and we've given it a future."

It's a fairly lengthy article but well worth your time.

While unity of command and purpose are pretty basic concepts, there's something to be said for experimentation as well. Afghanistan is a big enough challenge that there's room for more than one way to deal with it.

The Marines may not be the team players a lot of the sources, who clearly have their own agendas, in the article would wish, it's not as if the Marines don't have a track record of success in these types of operations.

Gen, Nicholson seems to be a pretty realistic political analyst. He is quoted as saying they don't have a lot of time as the draw down in troops begins next year. The Marines know they are on the clock and if they are going to succeed, they are going to have to do it their way.

I've been pretty pessimistic about the ability of the military to transform Afghanistan to any great degree but I would never bet against the United States Marine Corps.


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posted by DrewM. at 02:42 PM

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