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At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?

A Marine operation began last month to flush the Taliban out of Marja in central Helmand. Some U.S. officials question whether the operation is the best use of Marine resources.
A Marine operation began last month to flush the Taliban out of Marja in central Helmand. Some U.S. officials question whether the operation is the best use of Marine resources. (Andrea Bruce For The Washington Post)

"What the hell are we doing?" the senior official said. "Why aren't all 20,000 Marines in the population belts around Kandahar city right now? It's [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar's capital. If you want to stuff it to Mullah Omar, you make progress in Kandahar. If you want to communicate to the Taliban that there's no way they're returning, you show progress in Kandahar."

Marines support Marines

Until earlier this month, McChrystal lacked operational control over the Marines, which would have allowed him to move them to other parts of the country. That power rested with a three-star Marine general at the U.S. Central Command. He and other senior Marine commanders insisted that Marines in Afghanistan have a contiguous area of operations -- effectively precluding them from being split up and sent to Kandahar -- because they think it is essential the Marines are supported by Marine helicopters and logistics units, which are based in Helmand, instead of relying on the Army.

Concern about the arrangement reached the White House. In early March, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who heads the Central Command, issued an order giving McChrystal operational control of Marine forces in Afghanistan, according to senior defense officials. But the new authority vested in McChrystal -- the product of extensive negotiations among military lawyers -- still requires Central Command approval for any plan to disaggregate infantry units from air and logistics support, which will limit his ability to move them, the defense officials said.

"At the end of the day, not a lot has changed," said a Marine general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did several other senior officers and officials, to address sensitive command issues. "There's still a caveat that prevents us from being cherry-picked."

The Marine demand to be supported by their own aviators and logisticians has roots in the World War II battles for Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Marines landing on the Pacific islands did not receive the support they had expected from Navy ships and aircraft. Since then, Marine commanders have insisted on deploying with their own aviation and supply units. They did so in Vietnam, and in Iraq.

Despite the need to travel with an entourage, the Marines are willing to move fast. The commandant of the Corps, Gen. James T. Conway, offered to provide one-third of the forces Obama authorized in December, and to get them there quickly. Some arrived within weeks. By contrast, many of the Army units that comprise the new troop surge have yet to leave the United States.

"The Marines are a double-edged sword for McChrystal," one senior defense official said. "He got them fast, but he only gets to use them in one place."

Marine commanders note that they did not choose to go to Helmand -- they were asked to go there by McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, because British forces in the area were unable to contain the intensifying insurgency. But once they arrived, they became determined to show they could rescue the place, in much the same way they helped to turn around Anbar province in Iraq.

They also became believers in Helmand's strategic importance. "You cannot fix Kandahar without fixing Helmand," Nicholson said. "The insurgency there draws support from the insurgency here."

'Mullahpalooza tour'

The Marine concentration in one part of the country -- as opposed to Army units, which are spread across Afghanistan -- has yielded a pride of place. As it did in Anbar, the Corps is sending some of its most talented young officers to Helmand.

The result has been a degree of experimentation and innovation unseen in most other parts of the country. Although they account for half of the Afghan population, women had been avoided by military forces, particularly in the conservative south, because it is regarded as taboo for women to interact with males with whom they are not related. In an effort to reach out to them, the Marines have established "female engagement teams."

Made up principally of female Marines who came to Afghanistan to work in support jobs, the teams accompany combat patrols and seek to sit down with women in villages. Working with female translators, team members answer questions, dispense medical assistance and identify reconstruction needs.


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