As drawdown approaches, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan reluctant to leave

This farming district along the Helmand River, once one of the most Taliban-saturated corners of southern Afghanistan, has turned so quiet over the past three months that some U.S. Marines here quietly wish for a gunfight. “Just to get off a few rounds,” said one, “so we can feel like Marines.”

Since the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment arrived in Garmser in mid-April, they have struck fewer than 10 roadside bombs, none of which have proved fatal. Just one grenade and “no more bullets than you could fit in your front pocket” have been fired their way, said the battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Sean Riordan.

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Almost two-thirds of the 33,000 U.S. “surge” troops authorized by President Obama have been sent to southern Afghanistan. Commanders face a tradeoff as they fulfill President Obama’s order to withdraw those forces by the end of next summer.
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Almost two-thirds of the 33,000 U.S. “surge” troops authorized by President Obama have been sent to southern Afghanistan. Commanders face a tradeoff as they fulfill President Obama’s order to withdraw those forces by the end of next summer.

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Two summers ago gunshots and bomb blasts echoed across the cornfields, and medical evacuation helicopters swooped from the sky almost every day to collect the Marines’ dead and wounded.

The relative tranquillity that has been achieved seems the necessary prerequisite for Americans to leave and hand over responsibility for security to a feisty local police chief who has surprised U.S. officers with his grit and resourcefulness.

But the Marines do not want to depart anytime soon.

To cement hard-fought gains and prevent Taliban holdouts from wresting back the district, Marine officers want to maintain their current force level of about 1,000 troops until the end of the year. At that point, they estimate, they should be able to get by with half as many, assuming the area receives additional Afghan security forces.

“Transition needs to proceed in a careful, well-planned way,” Riordan said. “We don’t want people to think we’ve abandoned them.”

Garmser illuminates the trade-off facing top U.S. commanders as they struggle to fulfill President Obama’s recent order to remove 10,000 troops by the end of the year, and an additional 23,000 by the end of next summer, while also diverting more of the remaining 68,000 forces to eastern Afghanistan to confront a growing insurgency there. In doing so, they do not want to jeopardize the security gains that have been achieved in the south.

Every battalion and brigade commander, it seems, has a reason for why his area should be exempted from major cuts. In Garmser, it is proximity to Pakistan. In other parts of Helmand province, it is the worry of resurgent poppy production. In Zhari district to the west of Kandahar city, it is symbolic importance to the Taliban. The group’s reclusive leader, Mohammad Omar, was born there, and it has long served as a command-and-control hub for insurgents seeking to regain control of Kandahar.

A 4,500-soldier brigade from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division has pushed into once-impenetrable Taliban redoubts in Zhari this summer, encountering dozens of homemade mines as they have sought to clear villages of insurgents. The operations have increased security, but the Afghan government’s presence still is fledgling, and the Afghan army unit there remains incapable of substantial independent operations, leading American officers in the area to recommend only minimal reductions over at least the next 12 months.

Senior officers believe that keeping large numbers of troops in the south for another year or two could help maintain public confidence as the conflict shifts to a new phase that involves more targeted killings. The recent assassination of top Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai’s brother and the mayor of Kandahar, and dozens of lesser-known people across the south who have worked with the government, have deeply unnerved the population.

Military culture also leads commanders to want to hold onto as many troops as they can, lest they be seen to have left too soon.

Top generals are sticking with their resource-intensive nation-building strategy, despite the hope of some administration officials, including Vice President Biden, that the drawdown plan would start to force a narrower mission aimed at killing al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

The commanders are betting that they can achieve their original goals — pummeling the Taliban, building up the Afghan government and security forces, and persuading low-level fighters to switch sides — before they have to send away large numbers of troops.

But they also are embracing initiatives that would have been scoffed at a year ago in an attempt to improve security quickly. They are shifting resources from mentoring the Afghan army to the police. They are expanding a program to train villagers as armed guards beyond the rural areas for which it was originally envisioned. And they are replacing sand-filled barriers with concrete walls at hundreds of small patrol bases, hoping that permanent structures will mollify residents’ fears of abandonment.

The final decision on how forces are allocated rests with Marine Gen. John Allen, who recently took over from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus as the supreme allied commander in Afghanistan. Although Allen has indicated to subordinates that he does not foresee fundamental changes to the overall U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, he will have to address competing demands in the south and the east.

Allen, said one senior military official in the country, “faces a very difficult task ahead. He has to find a way to put out new fires, while trying to ensure the fires that his guys think they’re getting under control don’t flare back up.”

Battleground to backwater

The U.S. effort to evict the Taliban from Garmser began with the arrival of a battalion of Marines in the summer of 2008 to replace a much smaller contingent of British soldiers. Back then, the insurgents controlled almost all of the district. The front lines — the British had trenches that evoked World War I battles — began less than a mile south of their base in Garmser’s main town.

The first wave of Marines seized several square miles of territory from the Taliban, and four successive battalions continued the effort, suffering dozens of casualties as they pushed south along the Helmand River valley and struck improvised bombs buried in roads, farmland and mud walls. The effort culminated earlier this year with the clearance of the last insurgent pocket in the far southern reaches of the district.

There is now only one Taliban cell operating in the area, and it appears focused on intimidating and attacking Afghans who are cooperating with the government, according to Marine officers. The holdouts do not appear to have links to al-Qaeda or other international terrorist groups; almost all of the fighters and commanders who have been captured over the past few years have families in the area.

“This is an amateur backwater for the insurgency now,” said Riordan, who sports a shaved head and bulging muscles.

What has occurred in Garmser has taken significantly longer than the 18 to 24 months that top military officials promised Obama it would require. The counterinsurgency effort in this district of about 150,000 people has already stretched for three years and cost the United States about $3 billion.

“Anyone who said you can go from full-on combat to transition in two years wasn’t being realistic,” said a field-grade military officer in Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his assessment contradicts those of his superiors. “The lesson is that these things are going to take a lot of time and a lot of treasure.”

Embracing the police

The most influential figure in shaping the pace of transition in Garmser is not Riordan, nor the district governor, nor even the top Afghan army officer in the area. It is police chief Omar Jan.

In recent weeks, his men have captured the Taliban shadow governors responsible for Garmser and neighboring Nawa district, and they have found a cache of bomb-making equipment that Riordan estimates would have sustained the insurgents all summer.

Although the Afghan police have long been written off as incompetent and corrupt — the U.S.-led effort to train security forces has devoted far more resources to the army — Garmser suggests what is possible when an energetic leader is willing to work with international forces and tribal leaders, and combine modern law enforcement tactics with traditional ways of doing business.

A few months ago, the Marines used their helicopters to transport police officers, and their motorcycles, to the vicinity of a Taliban hideout; the police then closed in on their bikes, surprising the suspected insurgents. In mid-July, some of the officers switched into civilian clothes and rode tractors up to a house where they captured seven suspects.

In many other districts, police chiefs are Soviet-era holdovers who believe their job is to run checkpoints, or they lack local knowledge. Omar Jan is a creature of Helmand, where he is known by his two names.

U.S. officers remain concerned that his proclivity for graft could ultimately turn people against him — excesses by the police are among the reasons the Taliban was welcomed back by the population in parts of southern Afghanistan — but for now, the Americans are thrilled to have an Afghan who wants to lead instead of simply following foreign forces. And his efforts seem to be welcomed by residents desperate for security.

Despite high hopes for the Afghan army, most soldiers assigned to units in the south are not from the area, and many are not ethnic Pashtun, making them relative strangers. Most army units in the south still do not conduct independent operations, preferring instead to patrol next to Americans.

As a consequence, senior U.S. officers across southern Afghanistan intend to shift more of their personnel assigned to work with local forces from the army to the police. “We’re now at the point where the police is more important than the army,” Riordan said.

But Omar Jan is sometimes too much of a maverick. One recent morning, Riordan ventured to the police station, a two-story building — the only one in Garmser — in which Omar Jan and his top aides live and work, to talk about the tractor raid. Riordan came with praise, and a plea.

“This is great news,” he said. But he urged Omar Jan to inform the Marines the next time the police conduct such an operation to avoid the possibility of a “friendly fire” incident. The Marines, he said, would also be able to provide medical and bomb-disposal assistance if the police required it. “All I ask is that you coordinate with us,” Riordan said.

Omar Jan, a solidly built man whose deputies rush over when he waves his hand, responded by explaining how his extensive network of informers provided the tip that led to the raid.

“You are blind in this area,” the chief said to Riordan. “The same with the ANA [Afghan National Army]. If the enemy shows up without their weapons, you guys won’t recognize them, but we will.”

Omar Jan wants the Marines to stick around because he fears Taliban infiltration from Pakistan, which is 30 miles from the southernmost part of Garmser. But he also wants the Americans to keep their distance.

He said he was worried that the Marines would deem his men abusive if they observed his operations. “If we search and we don’t find anything, people will sometimes accuse us of stealing,” he said. “When the Marines arrive, they will think we are misbehaving.”

That was the opening Riordan needed. He gently implored Omar Jan to focus not just on capturing insurgents but winning the trust of the local population.

“It’s not enough to catch the Taliban,” Riordan told the chief. “You need to have the people on your side.”

Expanding village defense

In Zhari district, 75 miles northeast of Garmser, the pressure of transition has led U.S. commanders to embrace a new Afghan security force.

After American soldiers and Afghan border police swept into Nalgham, a village that had long been used as a Taliban command and logistics center, the commanders turned to an initiative by U.S. Special Operations Forces to train villagers to defend their communities.

The effort was originally intended for remote districts that had few foreign forces, not in places such as Zhari, which is close to a large city and the focus of major coalition military operations. But the commanders now think it can help encourage residents in those areas to cooperate with the police and army.

A group of elders from Nalgham had a similar idea. Soon after the clearing operations, three of them, representing the three principal tribes in the village, held a community meeting called a shura. Abdul Wali, a leader of the Achekzai tribe who had recently returned from Kandahar, announced that it was “time to stop talking and start acting.” Others agreed.

They resolved to create a local defense force that would report to the three elders, who decided to call themselves the “weapons shura” to set themselves apart from other village shuras in Zhari, which, Abdul Wali said, “are only about talking.”

The creation of such forces, called the Afghan Local Police, is a key element of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. Special Operations Forces, working with the Afghan government, have set up local police teams in 43 districts.

In Garmser, where the Marines are employing their own variant of the program, the participants do not conduct patrols or man checkpoints. Instead, the principal value has been to funnel intelligence to Omar Jan.

Because of concerns among senior Afghan leaders, including President Karzai, that the forces could become militias, the U.S. military has required the Ministry of Interior to approve every district that wants local police. To assess support for the program in each area, the ministry convenes a large shura, which is what occurred a few weeks ago in Zhari.

Officials from Kabul, Kandahar and the district government urged residents to back Abdul Wali — who pledged that he would control his men — and other leaders who wanted similar teams in their villages.

“It is your responsibility to defend this area,” said Abdul Razziq, an enterprising but illiterate border police commander who has been serving as Kandahar province’s interim police chief since the previous leader was assassinated this spring. Although he has been accused of extensive corruption and extrajudicial killings, his men are the most effective Afghan security force in the south.

In June, they roared up to Nalgham in pickup trucks and quickly identified friend from foe. By the time they were done, seven insurgents lay dead and dozens of others had fled, allowing U.S. and Afghan soldiers to take control of the area.

“If you don’t help us, we will force you to help,” Razziq told the crowd at the shura.

A few of the Americans observing the meeting thought he was joking. But nobody laughed.

Building up confidence

When Riordan meets with people in Garmser, the same question gets asked again and again: When are you leaving?

“If you leave too soon, everything we have achieved will be lost,” Mohammed Zakir, a gray-bearded elder, told Riordan over a snack of watermelon in a reed-enclosed patio on a recent afternoon. His sentiments echoed those of several tribal leaders in the district.

“We’re not going to desert you,” Riordan responded. “We will be here until the Afghan forces are capable of handling security on their own.”

Since Riordan cannot be sure how many Marines will be here by January, he is trying to find ways to make less look like more. And that involves lots of concrete.

His battalion is now spread among 51 posts in Garmser, some so small that they lack portable toilets, hot food and showers. Instead of closing many of them to prepare for the drawdown, he is transforming them into more permanent-looking structures, with brick watchtowers, concrete walls and new buildings to replace sandbags, rows of razor wire and tents. Each will have a makeshift gym where Marines who wish for a gunfight can work off their aggression.

Bases that appear enduring, he reasons, will ease concerns about the U.S. departure, even if they are eventually filled with only Afghan forces.

“It says, ‘Security is here to stay,’ ” he said. “And it competes with the Taliban’s fear campaign.”

But community representatives such as Zakir still focus on the number of Marines in the district.

“We defeated the Russians with your support, but then you left and the Taliban showed up,” he warned Riordan. “We know what will happen if you stop supporting us again.”

The battalion commander nodded. “Our country understands that we need a longer-term commitment this time,” he said. “But you have to understand we cannot keep this many Marines here for much longer.”

 
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