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

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.

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.

The British pushed the Taliban out of the town and the immediate environs. The troops eventually established front lines about four miles north and south of the town center that they patrolled up to, but generally not across, meaning everything beyond those lines was insurgent country. President Hamid Karzai, with the agreement of the British, named a former Taliban commander as the new district governor in an attempt to reintegrate insurgents into peaceful society.

Marine officers said the commander, Mullah Salem, was mercurial and corrupt, and his drug-addled personal militia ran roughshod over the area, but British military and civilian officials deemed Musa Qala stable enough. Life began returning to normal within the security bubble. Shops and schools reopened, and policemen came back to work.

But when the U.S. Marines arrived this March to take over the area, they deemed the status quo untenable. Within 48 hours, they punched beyond the northern front line and seized a town that had long been a Taliban stronghold. Marine units now are targeting insurgents well beyond the old southern line. The Marines also leaned on the provincial governor to replace Mullah Salem, and they have sought to disarm his militia.

"They didn't pursue the Taliban," the Marine commander here, Lt. Col. Michael Manning, said of the British. "We'll go after them."

The result of the more aggressive posture, Manning said, has been a doubling of the area under the control of the Afghan government. "The Taliban is losing ground here," he said.

But British diplomats and stabilization advisers, who still have lead responsibility for reconstruction and governance matters in the province under a deal worked out between Washington and London, contend that the Marine expansionism has resulted in more insurgent activity in the town center. The Taliban has expanded efforts to intimidate Afghans working for the government, and earlier this summer, an insurgent shot the district director of transportation in the face in the bazaar, less than a quarter-mile from the main Marine base.

"The Marines are too focused on pushing north and south," one British official said. "They're neglecting the place where all the people are, but the Taliban aren't. They're moving back into those places."

Manning and other Marine officers argue that their operations actually have made the town center safer. They maintain that the bazaar has tripled in size since they arrived, in part because the combat operations to the south have improved security along the main route trucks use to bring goods into the area.

The district governor and several shopkeepers concurred with that assessment. "When the British were here, they didn't care about security in the bazaar. They would fight and leave," said Sher Agha, the owner of a small shop where people can make telephone calls by satellite because there is no mobile phone service here. "The Marines patrol all the time."

The top Marine commander in Helmand, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, played down the tensions between his forces and British civilians. He said the changes that have occurred in Musa Qala would not have been possible without the British having "paid a large price in blood" in the district over the past three years. "We went in with different tactics, but our success is based on the work that was done before," he said in an interview.

Contrasts in rebuilding

Manning makes little effort to conceal his frustration with the pace at which the British are rebuilding the area. Musa Qala's grand mosque, which was destroyed in the 2007 military operation and now is a giant hole in the ground, was supposed to have been rebuilt two years ago. The British, he said, also pledged to construct - but failed to deliver - a bridge over a riverbed that floods every winter, forcing people to rely on ferries.

He keeps a wooden sign in a trunk in his office that reads, "Promise Everything, Deliver Nothing." He said he found it in an encampment that British engineers had vacated. "That was their attitude," he said.

British officials said the delays with the mosque and the bridge are the result of helping to teach the Afghan government how to take charge of such projects. "The U.S. approach is focused on getting it done. The British focus is on building up the government to deliver," said a Western reconstruction official in Helmand. "The process is more important to the Brits than the Americans."

There also is a difference of opinion about the importance of Musa Qala in general. The Marines insist the British-run provincial reconstruction team has shortchanged this area and the neighboring district of Now Zad. The reconstruction team has insisted its focus should remain in other areas, including in and around the volatile district of Marja, because those places have been deemed more important by top U.S. commanders in Kabul.

The lack of support has not deterred Manning. He has built a temporary bridge with shipping containers, sandbags, plywood and dirt-filled barriers that were originally designed to protect bases from explosions. It is not elegant, and it will not survive the rainy season, but, he said, "it's better than nothing."

"International forces have made promises upon promises to the people here," he said. "We've got to give them something."

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