Jul 7, 2009
State Dept Fails again
July 6, 2009
New Offensive In Afghanistan Hampered By Shortages
By David Wood
Deep in the sweltering green fields of waist-high poppies and across the blast-furnace desert of southern Afghanistan, a reinforced battalion of Marines was struggling just a year ago to find the right strategy and resources to defeat the Taliban. They failed.
Now the Marines are trying again, in a much larger operation that was launched last week. But they're still hampered by some of the same shortages of help and resources.
They're operating where the sluggish Helmand River snakes across the baked earth, watering a mile-wide belt of green on either side and offering a precarious grip on life for the handful of medieval towns and settlements sprinkled along its way.
Powerful roadside bombs and ambushes are common here.
Local Taliban fighters dug in here years ago, virtually ignored after the U.S. military chased the Taliban leadership out of Kabul in 2001. While the Americans got bogged down in Iraq, the Taliban essentially built a nation in southern Afghanistan, running arms and other goods up from the Pakistan border, setting up town councils and courts to enforce their brutal version of Sharia law – and paying for it all with handsome drug profits.
The men of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment fought valiantly here last year and took casualties. But they never found the right mix of killing bad guys, providing security for local Afghans and jump-starting local development.
There just weren't enough Marines to hold the ground they took. Hardly any Afghan soldiers and police showed up to serve alongside them. When the Marines left last fall, they left a vacuum. The Taliban moved back in and, according to U.S. officials, killed the locals who had worked with the Marines.
Last week, four times as many Marines suddenly arrived, assaulting by helicopter and ground along the Helmand River valley. The Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan brings almost 4,000 Marines and sailors (mostly medics) along with a slew of aircraft, armored vehicles, artillery and other heavy weapons.
But it's not the weapons that are key to this kind of counterinsurgency operation, according to the doctrine laid down by Gen. David Petraeus and the new Afghan commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and endorsed by President Obama.
The key is to hold territory after the insurgents have been killed or chased away, and then to bring in economic development and Afghan government.
Here's the way Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who commands the Marines in Afghanistan, put it as the operation kicked off this week:
"What makes Operation Kanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert [onto the battlefield] and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay we will hold, build, and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces.''
Especially critical is to put an "Afghan face'' on the operation so that local Afghans can see their own army and police protecting them, said Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commander of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, who oversees the Marines in Afghanistan.
Hejlik said the Marines in Afghanistan would operate on the Korean War model. "What happened then, for every Marine you had in a foxhole, in a fighting hole, you had a Korean in there" as well.
"He's going to do the same thing," Hejlik said, referring to Nicholson. "Once he gets the forces down there to operate with.''
Disappointingly, though, only about 600 Afghan soldiers and police are on hand to help out the 4,000 Marines. That's not nearly enough to put an "Afghan face'' on the operation, let alone to pair up an Afghan and a Marine in every fighting hole (Marines don't use the term "foxhole" any longer).
Nor have enough civilian development and government experts shown up to help, at least so far.
That's not a surprise. U.S. battle commanders in Afghanistan have been complaining for years about Washington's failure to send civilian development experts to help.
So far, the State Department has managed to send two extra civilians to help out the 4,000 Marines, TheWashington Post reported.