Marines Launch Mission in Afghanistan's South Focused on Security and Governance

U.S. Marines launched a pre-dawn mission in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province in an effort to wrest control of the area from Taliban insurgents.

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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan, July 2 -- Thousands of U.S. Marines descended upon the volatile Helmand River valley in helicopters and armored convoys early Thursday, mounting an operation that represents the first large-scale test of the U.S. military's new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The operation will involve about 4,000 troops from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which was dispatched to Afghanistan this year by President Obama to combat a growing Taliban insurgency in Helmand and other southern provinces. The Marines, along with an Army brigade that is scheduled to arrive later this summer, plan to push into pockets of the country where NATO forces have not had a presence. In many of those areas, the Taliban has evicted local police and government officials and taken power.

Once Marine units arrive in their designated towns and villages, they have been instructed to build and live in small outposts among the local population. The brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, said his Marines will focus their efforts on protecting civilians from the Taliban and on restoring Afghan government services, instead of mounting a series of hunt-and-kill missions against the insurgents.

"We're doing this very differently," Nicholson said to his senior officers a few hours before the mission began. "We're going to be with the people. We're not going to drive to work. We're going to walk to work."

Similar approaches have been tried in the eastern part of the country, but none has had the scope of the mission in Helmand, a vast province that is largely an arid moonscape save for a band of fertile land that lines the Helmand River. Poppies grown in that territory produce half the world's supply of opium and provide the Taliban with a valuable source of income.

The operation launched early Thursday represents a shift in strategy after years of thwarted U.S.-led efforts to destroy Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and extend the authority of the Afghan government into the nation's southern and eastern regions. More than seven years after the fall of the Taliban government, the radical Islamist militia remains a potent force across broad swaths of the country. The Obama administration has made turning the war around a top priority, and the Helmand operation, if it succeeds, is seen as a potentially critical first step.

Traveling through swirling dust clouds under the light of a half-moon, the first Marine units departed from this remote desert base shortly after midnight on dual-rotor CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters backed by AH-64 Apache gunships and NATO fighter jets. Additional forces poured into the valley during the pre-dawn hours on more helicopters and in heavy transport vehicles designed to withstand the makeshift but lethal bombs that Taliban fighters have planted along the roads.

The initial Marine units did not face resistance as they converged on their destinations. Marine commanders said before the start of the operation that they expected only minimal Taliban opposition at the outset but that assaults on the forces would probably increase once they moved into towns and began patrols. Field commanders have been told to prepare for suicide attacks, ambushes and roadside bombings.

Officers here said the mission, which required months of planning, is the Marines' largest operation since the 2004 invasion of Fallujah, Iraq. In the minutes after midnight, well-armed Marines trudged across the tarmac at this sprawling outpost to board the Chinooks, which lumbered aloft with a burst of searing dust. A few hours later, another contingent of Marines boarded a row of CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters packed onto a relatively small landing pad at a staging base in the desert south of here. As the choppers clattered through the night sky, dozens of armored vehicles rolled toward towns along the river valley.

The U.S. strategy here is predicated on the belief that a majority of people in Helmand do not favor the Taliban, which enforces a strict brand of Islam that includes an-eye-for-an-eye justice and strict limits on personal behavior. Instead, U.S. officials believe, residents would rather have the Afghan government in control, but they have been cowed into supporting the Taliban because there was nobody to protect them.

In areas south of the provincial capital, local leaders, and even members of the police force, have fled. An initial priority for the Marines will be to bring back Afghan government officials and reinvigorate the local police forces. Marine commanders also plan to help district governors hold shuras -- meetings of elders in the community -- in the next week.

"Our focus is not the Taliban," Nicholson told his officers. "Our focus must be on getting this government back up on its feet."


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