Apr 28, 2010

Marines Stablize Marjah

Marines Stabilize Afghan Town Of Marjah

Morning Edition (NPR), 11:00 AM, April 27

RENEE MONTAGNE: And ahead of that Kandahar offensive that Jackie just spoke of, U.S. forces have been focused on southern Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the military drove the Taliban out of their stronghold in the town of Marjah. Twenty thousand U.S. Marines are now trying to make the town and the surrounding areas more stable.

Marine Major General Richard Mills arrived in Afghanistan earlier this month to take over command of all Marines in the country. We reached him in southern Afghanistan to get an update on the Marjah operation.

Major General RICHARD MILLS (United States Marine Corps): If you go to Marjah today, you will find a city that is free of the Taliban, that has schools that are open, a marketplace, a bazaar. I think the other thing that would strike you would be the relative security of the streets. It's certainly not a totally safe place now, but overall, security has improved. So far I think things have gone very well.

MONTAGNE: Well then, what do you say to reporting that some of the people in Marjah say when night falls, many of the streets go back to belonging to the Taliban?

MILLS: There is still a presence in the area. No question about it. And I think when you look at the importance of Marjah to the Taliban; it is the center of, really, their psychological homeland, if you will. They drew a lot of support from the narcotics trade that was there. So I think that some of what you see is a residual effects to the Taliban refusing to give it up. But, I think if you look at the results on the ground, you'd see a different story.

People are more safe and they're really voting with the children, the fact that they're children are free to come to schools, the schools that had been outlawed and closed by the Taliban. The Taliban have been reduced, there, really, to a war of terror. They have really disappeared from the city other than when they come in at night to plant their IEDs and to try to strike fear into the hearts and try to turn the people away. And to date, that everything has not worked.

MONTAGNE: Now, I know you've only been there and taken command in just the last few weeks, but what has been your experience when you've talk to local leaders and both tribal leaders and also elected leaders there in the province?

MILLS: Well, I think from the elected leadership perspective, I think that they are positive about what's happening within the province. They've seen great change. Marjah, of course, the one that everybody hears about, but there are towns like Nilesat, the town that was abandoned by over 30,000 Afghans when the Taliban took over. No one lived there. It was riddled with IEDs and mines. It was a fortified position by the Taliban. We took it back from them. People flocking back. And that's not unusual. I could give you three or our other examples of towns here, within the province, where life has come back. Bazaars are open. You hear music in the streets.

Is the fight over? No, not really. But it's headed in that direction. And I think that as the people feel more secure, they are beginning to change sides.

MONTAGNE: When you speak about changing sides, that was, of course, key to the regions in Iraq that were the heart of the insurgency. And you're a veteran of Anbar province. The key though, there, was a movement known generally as the Awakening movement, that really brought together tribal leaders who turned on insurgents. There's nothing that formal going on in southern Afghanistan, either Kandahar or Helmand. Does that make this just that much more of a challenge for you?

MILLS: Not really. I think that you can try to draw too many lessons from our experiences in Iraq, where you had a very, very homogeneous population, a strong sense of tribal belonging and the sheiks who could decide what the tribes would do. You don't have that same set up here in Afghanistan. Here you have the elders who are a little more - they stand back. They're willing to work with us but it's not the same dynamic as we found in Iraq. There's a different dynamic here that requires a different approach.

MONTAGNE: General, thank you very much.

MILLS: Well, thank you, Renee. Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Major General Richard Mills, speaking to us from Leatherneck in Helmand province. He is the new commander of all U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and we'll be checking in with him over the next year.

Apr 26, 2010

Pepsi awards $ 50,000 to "Wish for our Heros!"

Wish For Our Heroes Awarded $50,000 in Pepsi Refresh Project

Beverage Leader Supports Public’s Favorite Ideas to Refresh the World

(APRIL 26, 2010) – Phoenix-Wish For Our Heroes, a non-profit organization that grants wishes for active military, announced today that it is one of 10 causes to receive $50,000 in the Pepsi Refresh Project. Wish For Our Heroes finished 3rd among nearly 1,100 organizations competing in the $50,000 category.

The Pepsi Refresh Project (www.refresheverything.com) is an online grant program that, in 2010, will award $20 million to projects intended to improve, or “refresh” communities through an online, democratic voting process. In March, Wish For Our Heroes competed to raise funds for granting wishes to active military. Americans voted for their favorite ideas at www.refresheverything.com, and after a competitive month, Wish For Our Heroes achieved their goal of securing $50,000.

“This is the first grant Wish For Our Heroes has received, as contributions to date have been from individuals or small businesses,” explained Jeff Wells, President and Founder of Wish For Our Heroes. “This grant surpasses the total value of wishes we have granted since our inception in November, and this amount of money will help many deserving families of our active-duty military.”

In total, the Pepsi Refresh Project awarded two $250,000, ten $50,000, ten $25,000 and ten $5,000 grants.

“We couldn’t be more appreciative of the efforts Pepsi and its partners have made to better communities. Not only will this grant assist us in helping our U.S. military, it has raised awareness for our foundation, and the many other organizations working hard to make a difference in the world,” explained Wells.

Wish For Our Heroes strives to relieve hardship circumstances not covered by existing military charities. Since November, the foundation has granted 25 wishes with a total value of $45,000.

For more information, visit www.wish4ourheroes.org , or our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Phoenix-Wish-For-Our-Heroes/153138900347?ref=ts

About Phoenix-Wish For Our Heroes

Incorporated in 2009, The Phoenix-Wish For Our Heroes Foundation is a 501(c)(3) foundation dedicated to “Helping Heroes Battle Hardships”, by granting wishes to active-duty military and their families. Our mission is to be the largest source of aid to active-military families, granting one wish for every member of our Armed Forces. www.wish4ourheroes.org .

Apr 23, 2010

Quantico Conference: Afghanistan-the Way Ahead

Building Up Afghan Capacity Seen as Key Challenge
April 22, 2010

QUANTICO, Virginia (Reuters) - When U.S. forces went in to clear the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in February, the hope was that local Afghan government could step in fast, but that has proved tough and underscores a countrywide challenge.
At a conference at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, U.S. and Afghan officials listed dozens of obstacles in building up "Afghan capacity" and boosting credibility of a government seen by many as inefficient and corrupt.
The Afghan government's past inability to deliver services and provide basic security in areas where the Taliban has been pushed out is seen as an important threat to the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy. ''

In many districts, more than half of government jobs were still vacant as officials faced constant security threats and more educated candidates chose safer, more lucrative private sector work, said Jilani Popal, head of the Afghan agency seeking to boost government effectiveness.

"There is an urgent need for an improvement of the human resource situation in the provinces," Popal, director of the Independent Directorate of Local Government in Afghanistan, told Marines and officials at Wednesday's symposium.

In an extreme example, he said, only five out of 75 positions were filled in one district late last year, six provinces still did not have buildings for governors and others had no power.

In addition, Taliban have targeted local officials -- as they did on Tuesday when a deputy mayor in Kandahar was killed after gunmen burst into a mosque while he was praying.

"We have a lot of difficult days ahead of us, especially in terms of the issues of governance," said Brigadier General John Nicholson, head of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon.

Another problem weighing on confidence in local government was the performance of the police force which U.S. and other allies are trying to boost in order to secure areas where the Taliban are being cleared out.
Nicholson said of an estimated 102,000 police in the country's force, only about 30 percent were trained.

"We have a fielded force out there carrying guns that are completely untrained -- the majority of them," he said. "We are just getting out of the starting gates. We are years behind."


Retired Colonel Jeff Haynes, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 and is now doing research and analysis there, said the Afghan Army also needed to step up and be given a stronger leadership role.

He said there was often cronyism and it was hard to punish or reward people in that environment, adding that corrupt officers should be removed.

"These guys are smart, they are clever people, they can do more and they are playing us. We need to stand up to that," Haynes said.
The State Department's top civilian representative in southern Afghanistan, Frank Ruggiero, said the United States was working hard to create a "connection" between the people of Afghanistan and their government.

In the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah, the U.S. government prepared what it dubbed a "government in a box" to extend the reach of central government to the southern town.

However, that has been tough going, and Ruggiero said freedom of movement was difficult to establish in Marjah. The route into the area was still "relatively insecure" and government capacity was slowly being built up.

Asked what lessons had been learned from Marjah before an expected major push in neighbouring Kandahar province this summer, he said there was a need to better prioritize which officials were needed fast and to ensure they were trained in time.
"If you are going to clear the area, you need to work out what the services are you need to provide soon thereafter clearing, so that those people are trained, hired and ready to go," Ruggiero said.

The blame for poor governance could also be shared among allies and donors who had not focussed enough on this during the eight-year war, several speakers at the conference said.

Grant Kippen, who chaired the electoral complaints commission for the flawed election in Afghanistan last year, said there had been a giant lack of voter education from the officials taking part to those who voted.
"I think a huge effort needs to go into educating public servants at all levels," he said.

Apr 12, 2010

1 MEF (Fwd) Takes over in S. Afghanistan


April 12, 2009


CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan –

The transfer of authority from Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan to I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), officially occurred April 12 during a ceremony here.

During the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commanding general of I MEF (Fwd), assumed responsibility for the task force’s area of operations from Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson.

“Helmand province is a different place because of their efforts,” said Maj. Gen. Mills, referring to the Marines of MEB-Afghanistan. “It’s different because of the tactics and success they had on the battlefield. It’s different because of the success they had in the governance and economic area. They have truly changed the lives of the Afghan people and they have done that by paying with blood, sweat and tears required to accomplish a great tough mission.”

The guest speaker at the ceremony was Helmand provincial Governor Gulab Mangal.

“The security situation has been changed,” said Mangal. “People have new hope for a bright future. To bring security, peace in Helmand, Marines tried the best to get the trust and confidence of Afghan people. On behalf of the Afghan government and Helmand people, I would like to pay my condolences to family members in the United States for the sacrifice they suffered so, that Helmand province can have security and peace. MEB-Afghanistan will be remembered in the history of Helmand and Afghanistan.”

Apr 1, 2010

Marines "Female Engagement Team" making a difference!

Female Engagement Team Plays Unique Role For Marines In Afghanistan
American Morning (CNN), 31 Mar 2010

KIRAN CHETRY: Well, there is nothing unusual about women serving in the military now, thousands of them stationed in Afghanistan right now and most of them assigned to bases far from enemy contact. Except for two young Marines who are on a mission deep inside Helmand Province, in a location littered with roadside bombs.

Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence introduces us to America's Female Engagement Team in this "A.M. Original".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Just about everyone told these two Marines, sure you deploy to Afghanistan, but you'll never leave the base.

MARINE LANCE CPL. GIADA WITT: They're like, yes, there's zero percent chance that you'll be leaving the wire ever.

LAWRENCE: But here they are, in a remote, heavily IED part of Helmand Province, on foot in Afghan villages.

WITT: Salaam Alaikum.

LAWRENCE: Lance Corporal Giada Witt and Corporal Christina Arana are part of FET or Female Engagement Team.

The Marines realized they were only reaching half the Afghan people, but Witt and Arana can go where male Marines can't -- into the homes of Afghan women.

MARINE CPL. CHRISTINA ARANA: Since this culture believes that the women can't meet with the men, they have to keep themselves covered.

LAWRENCE: Even our crew has to stop at the gate to avoid offending the man who owns this home.

LAWRENCE: I know they seem to be marginalized, but do you think that Afghan women have a good deal of influence within their family?

WITT: Absolutely. And they're definitely a key player in getting information.

LAWRENCE: In a counterinsurgency fight, if a woman tells the team they need a new wall and the Marines get it built, it improves their acceptance in the village. And the women may know from their husbands who the bad guys are.

Women only make up 6 percent of the U.S. Marine Corps and they're not allowed to join infantry or recon.

ARANA: Or it can always (INAUDIBLE). You have to meet with the people. You have to understand them. (END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: Yes, and to do that, they receive some training before they're deployed here. Some of it is a cultural awareness, specifically about the area of Afghanistan that they're going to.

The other is a more extended refresher course on combat training. In fact, one of them said, one of the drills they had to do was just do a tremendous amount of push-ups, hop up, go in a full sprint, stop and then fire accurately. It's supposed to get them used to firing under pressure, which is something they may have to do here in Helmand.



CHETRY: Intense training, but an intense mission. Is this a permanent program, by the way, a full-time job for them?

LAWRENCE: No, it's not. These teams are kind of thrown together by female Marines who also have other jobs, and that's one of the things that critics say. You know, they're getting pulled back into their own units.

They say, if this is yielding good information, if it's yielding good relations, then it should be more of a permanent full-time thing where they are allowed to spend months and months at a time, you know, cultivating those relationships.

CHETRY: All right. Chris Lawrence giving us a firsthand look.