By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan, July 2 -- Columns of U.S. Marines in eight-wheeled armored vehicles pushed deep into southern Afghanistan on Thursday in an attempt to cut off Taliban supply lines from Pakistan and restore order in areas long neglected by short-handed NATO forces.
The movement of the Marines to the town of Khan Neshin in the lower Helmand River valley is the most significant deployment of U.S. forces in areas near the Pakistani border with southern Afghanistan, and it reflects a growing concern among U.S. military and intelligence officials that much of the violence that has plagued the south is linked to a flow of fighters and munitions from Pakistan's Baluchistan region.
The troops encountered roadside bombs and small-arms attacks, which resulted in the death of one Marine, but commanders opted to mute their return fire. In the first 24 hours of the operation, the Marines did not lob artillery or call for fighter planes to drop bombs.
The drive to Khan Neshin is part of a Marine campaign to root out Taliban insurgents by restoring the authority of local officials and police departments in the Helmand River valley. The 4,000-strong operation -- one of the largest conducted by the U.S. military in Afghanistan -- is intended to demonstrate new strategies advocated by the Obama administration to turn around a struggling, seven-year-old war effort.
As units from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade fanned out on foot in other parts of the valley Thursday, their principal focus was to meet local leaders -- and to set about winning their confidence -- not to hunt down Taliban fighters. Marine officers distributed handbills explaining their presence and talked to residents with the help of interpreters. Some Marine companies, which had arrived by helicopter early Thursday, bedded down for the night in empty homes instead of constructing bases with razor wire and sand-filled barriers.
The brigade's operations officer, Col. Eric Mellenger, said the absence of opposition in Khan Neshin represented a "major political and security success" and would allow the Marines to meet with town elders over the next few days. In other areas, he said, "people have been coming up to us with information about the Taliban."
U.S. military and diplomatic officials say the vast majority of Afghans, even those in violence-racked places such as Helmand province, do not want to be ruled by the Taliban and its extremist ideology. The officials contend that if Afghans are provided security and basic services, they will switch allegiances and support the local government.
Reactions to the Marine operation varied across the valley. In Khan Neshin, residents largely stayed off the streets, wary of being caught in the crossfire of possible Taliban attacks on the troops. In the northern areas, around the Nawa district, several residents approached Marines with information about where roadside bombs had been planted. Farther south, in Garmser district, a Marine company was attacked by a group of insurgents, who eventually retreated to a housing compound.
A gun battle at the house was the day's most significant combat engagement, resulting in the Marine fatality and the deaths of at least three insurgents. As the sun set, it appeared that the standoff would continue through the night.
Another challenge for the Marines was the 110-degree weather. Loaded down with backpacks and ammunition, and insulated by flak vests and Kevlar helmets, several fell ill from heatstroke, and five had to be evacuated for further medical attention. Helicopters had to be summoned to replenish units with extra water.
"All in all, it's been a pretty good day, considering we have 4,000 Marines involved in this operation," said Maj. Tom Clinton, the senior watch officer in the brigade's combat operations center here.
Commanders expressed surprise that the Marine battalion that moved south to Khan Neshin -- an imposing collection of 70 armored vehicles, each weighing 17 tons -- did not encounter more resistance. The battalion reported an incident of gunfire directed at one of the vehicles, but little else.
The experience in Khan Neshin, a hardscrabble riverfront town that sits north of a vast desert stretching into Pakistan, suggests that Taliban fighters there, and elsewhere in the Helmand River valley, may be lying low to observe the Marines before trying to retaliate with roadside bombs and suicide attacks. But the Marine presence may also lead some of the fighters to move to other parts of the country or seek other infiltration paths from Pakistan.
Either way, U.S. military and civilian officials say they have an opportunity to impede the Taliban's ability to operate with impunity by building local government institutions and reconstituting police units. In Khan Neshin, there is no district governor, and although the Afghan government has 59 police officers on the payroll for the area, none show up for work.
Marine officers and representatives from a British-U.S. reconstruction team in Helmand have held meetings in the provincial capital with elders from Khan Neshin in recent weeks. The elders have urged the Marines to move into the area, which has become a key transit point for Taliban fighters coming from Pakistan, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Although most fighters have crossed into Afghanistan through the eastern provinces that abut Pakistan, increasing patrols in that area and the relative strength of the Taliban in the south have led increasing numbers of Pakistani fighters to infiltrate into Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province, according to U.S. officials.
"There's no doubt that the community doesn't want the Taliban there," said Rory Donohoe, a U.S. Agency for International Development officer who will serve on a reconstruction team for Khan Neshin. It will be the first U.S. district-level stabilization program in the south.
But getting residents to engage with the Americans could prove challenging at first. Marine commanders had hoped the officers with the Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion that moved into the town would convene a meeting with community leaders Thursday. But no such gathering occurred.
It was not immediately clear why. Although Marines walked through the town soon after they arrived, most residents stayed indoors. "We first have to figure out what they want," Donohoe said. "Our goal is to work in partnership with them."