At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?
Sunday, March 14, 2010
DELARAM, AFGHANISTAN -- Home to a dozen truck stops and a few hundred family farms bounded by miles of foreboding desert, this hamlet in southwestern Afghanistan is far from a strategic priority for senior officers at the international military headquarters in Kabul. One calls Delaram, a day's drive from the nearest city, "the end of the Earth." Another deems the area "unrelated to our core mission" of defeating the Taliban by protecting Afghans in their cities and towns.
U.S. Marine commanders have a different view of the dusty, desolate landscape that surrounds Delaram. They see controlling this corner of remote Nimruz province as essential to promoting economic development and defending the more populated parts of southern Afghanistan.
The Marines are constructing a vast base on the outskirts of town that will have two airstrips, an advanced combat hospital, a post office, a large convenience store and rows of housing trailers stretching as far as the eye can see. By this summer, more than 3,000 Marines -- one-tenth of the additional troops authorized by President Obama in December -- will be based here.
With Obama's July 2011 deadline to begin reducing U.S. forces looming over the horizon, the Marines have opted to wage the war in their own way.
"If we're going to succeed here, we have to experiment and take risks," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Afghanistan. "Just doing what everyone else is doing isn't going to cut it."
The Marines are pushing into previously ignored Taliban enclaves. They have set up a first-of-its-kind school to train police officers. They have brought in a Muslim chaplain to pray with local mullahs and deployed teams of female Marines to reach out to Afghan women.
The Marine approach -- creative, aggressive and, at times, unorthodox -- has won many admirers within the military. The Marine emphasis on patrolling by foot and interacting with the population, which has helped to turn former insurgent strongholds along the Helmand River valley into reasonably stable communities with thriving bazaars and functioning schools, is hailed as a model of how U.S. forces should implement counterinsurgency strategy.
But the Marines' methods, and their insistence that they be given a degree of autonomy not afforded to U.S. Army units, also have riled many up the chain of command in Kabul and Washington, prompting some to refer to their area of operations in the south as "Marineistan." They regard the expansion in Delaram and beyond as contrary to the population-centric approach embraced by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and they are seeking to impose more control over the Marines.
The U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, recently noted that the international security force in Afghanistan feels as if it comprises 42 nations instead of 41 because the Marines act so independently from other U.S. forces.
"We have better operational coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we have with the U.S. Marine Corps," said a senior Obama administration official involved in Afghanistan policy.
Some senior officials at the White House, at the Pentagon and in McChrystal's headquarters would rather have many of the 20,000 Marines who will be in Afghanistan by summer deploy around Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, to assist in a U.S. campaign to wrest the area from Taliban control instead of concentrating in neighboring Helmand province and points west. According to an analysis conducted by the National Security Council, fewer than 1 percent of the country's population lives in the Marine area of operations.
They question whether a large operation that began last month to flush the Taliban out of Marja, a poor farming community in central Helmand, is the best use of Marine resources. Although it has unfolded with fewer than expected casualties and helped to generate a perception of momentum in the U.S.-led military campaign, the mission probably will tie up two Marine battalions and hundreds of Afghan security forces until the summer.