Feb 24, 2010

ANA Fighting Well

Afghan Military Gains Strength

Marjah offensive offers chance to demonstrate its fighting abilities

By Jim Michaels, USA Today
Feb 24, 2010

CAMP SHORABAK, Afghanistan — Lt. Hafizullah, an Afghan commando, had just returned to this garrison in southern Afghanistan after several days of close-quarters fighting with Taliban jihadists in Marjah.

His assessment: "This is a big victory for the Afghan security forces."

The battle for Marjah, now in its 11th day, is the first major test for Afghanistan's new army. Prior to Marjah, the Afghans have been dealing largely with skirmishes and protecting villages.

In Marjah, the biggest Taliban stronghold in the country, the Afghan soldiers are out in greater numbers and are more closely partnered with allied forces than any previous operation, the Pentagon says. They appear willing to fight and are competent at basic infantry skills, according to U.S. military members who are watching.

"These guys are good fighters," said Maj. Gen. David Hogg, deputy commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

NATO did not report any significant fighting in Marjah on Tuesday. The Pentagon said this week that ending the threat of the Taliban and its explosive devices might take a month or more.

The U.S. Marine command maintains authority over airstrikes and artillery support, which require careful coordination and planning. Most Afghan troops are ferried into battle aboard U.S. aircraft.

The Americans have sustained a disproportionate number of casualties in Marjah, suggesting that the Marines are taking the initiative in pursuing the enemy.

Since the operation began, 13 coalition and two Afghan soldiers have been killed in action. About 2,100 Afghan soldiers and 4,000 coalition servicemembers are participating in the offensive to clear the Taliban's largest remaining bastion in southern Afghanistan.

Forces get shot of confidence

When U.S. Marines launched a series of operations in southern Helmand province last summer the ratio of coalition to Afghan troops was 10-to-1. Since then, the Afghan government has flooded forces into Helmand province.

Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the U.S. commander directing the Marjah offensive, said the relationship between the Marines and Afghan soldiers is an authentic partnership and not "cosmetic."

Hafizullah, a 28-year-old platoon leader in a commando battalion, said his unit encountered small teams of Taliban fighters that usually broke and ran rather than sustain a firefight with his unit. "They cannot last long in a fight with us," said Hafizullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

Even if Afghan forces are junior partners in the fight, the battle has given Afghan troops a shot of confidence. "Now we know the Afghan army has power against the Taliban," said Lt. Col. Janbaz Junbish, 52.

Earned residents' trust

Hamid Hamza, 18, who lay on a dirt berm on a position north of the city, said he hasn't taken off his boots in a month.

"We have engaged directly with the enemy," he said, looking down the barrel of his M-16. "We have faced their ambushes."

The performance of the Afghan forces has also boosted their image in the eyes of the nation. Local television has repeatedly broadcast an image of an Afghan soldier climbing a crane in the village of Showal in Helmand province to replace a white Taliban flag with the Afghan national flag.

"People have confidence in us," said Afghan Lt. Col. Ghullam Dastagir, a battalion commander who briefed Nicholson last week at his command post on the outskirts of Marjah.

Before they arrived, the Taliban had told residents that the Afghan army would brutalize the population, Dastagir said.

Junbish, who is based at this garrison and not involved in the Marjah offensive, said that when Afghan forces enter a village now, residents ask them to stay.

Marines at this Afghan military base were organizing a convoy of several hundred national police officers to go into Marjah last week. The police will provide security in areas that have already been cleared by the army, freeing up soldiers to clear the city.

The Afghan national police were piled into pickups, waiting to go. Marine vehicles were interspersed with the convoy to help provide security in the event they were attacked on the road to Marjah. "We're going to make sure they have what they need to get into the fight," said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jose Canseno, 42, of Houston.

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