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U.S. Marines, British advisers at odds in Helmand

Disputes in the volatile region highlight flaring tensions as U.S. troops surge into southern Afghanistan, an area once patrolled almost solely by NATO allies.

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Map of Helmand, Afghanistan
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 8:50 PM

IN MUSA QALA, AFGHANISTAN U.S. Marines and British civilian advisers are waging two wars in the hilly northern half of Helmand province: They're fighting the Taliban, and they're quarreling with each other.

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The disagreements among the supposed allies are almost as frequent as firefights with insurgents. The Americans contend that the British forces they replaced this spring were too complacent in dealing with the Taliban. The British maintain that the Americans are too aggressive and that they are compromising hard-fought security gains by pushing into irrelevant places and overextending themselves.

"They were here for four years," one field-grade Marine officer huffed about the British military. "What did they do?"

"They've been in Musa Qala for four months," a British civilian in Helmand said of the U.S. Marines. "The situation up there has gotten worse, not better."

The disputes here, which also extend to the pace of reconstruction projects and the embrace of a former warlord who has become the police chief, illuminate the tensions that are flaring as U.S. forces surge into parts of southern Afghanistan that had once been the almost-exclusive domain of NATO allies. There are now about 20,000 U.S. troops in Helmand; the 10,000 British soldiers who once roamed all over the province are now consolidating their operations in a handful of districts around the provincial capital.

The new U.S. troops in the south are intended to replace departing Dutch soldiers and relieve pressure on under-resourced and overburdened military personnel from Britain and Canada, where public support for the war has fallen even more precipitously than in the United States. But the transition entails significant new risks for U.S. forces, who are now responsible for more dangerous parts of the country.

To the south of Musa Qala, U.S. Marines are in the process of moving into Sangin district, where more than 100 British troops - nearly one-third of that country's total war dead - were killed over the past four years. Senior Marine officers initially resisted being saddled with the area, which they dubbed "the killing fields," but they relented after pressure from top U.S. commanders.

The influx also has elicited conflicting emotions from coalition partners. British and Canadian officers say they didn't have the manpower or equipment to confront a mushrooming insurgency by themselves, but they also cringe at the need to be bailed out by the United States.

"There's a mix of relief and regret," said a British officer. "We've spilled a lot of blood in Sangin and Musa Qala, and we're quite frankly happy to leave those places, but we don't want this to look like another Basra," referring to the southern Iraqi city that U.S. and Iraqi forces had to rescue after it was seized by militias upon a British pullout in 2007.

More than a dozen U.S. and British military and civilian officials were interviewed for this story, but almost all of them spoke on the condition that they not be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A more aggressive stance

Here in Musa Qala, a large town surrounded by farms and rocky hills, the arrival of the Americans has also prompted debate about whether a more offensive posture by coalition troops will stem the insurgency, or whether deals, compromises and a concentration of resources around key population centers will be sufficient to achieve stability.

British forces rolled into Musa Qala in early 2006 after the Taliban killed the district chief, but the troops left later that year after striking a deal with the insurgents to not attack the town. The truce was short-lived, and by the following February, hundreds of Taliban fighters recaptured the area, prompting the British, aided by the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, to conduct a large operation in late 2007 to wrest control of the district center.


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