U.S. Marines begin to hand over small bases to Afghan army in southwest

U.S. Marines have begun handing over some of their small bases to the Afghan army in the Nawa district of Helmand province, a once-volatile area.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 12:06 AM

NAWA, AFGHANISTAN - U.S. Marines have begun handing over some of their small bases to the Afghan army in this once-volatile district in the country's southwest, a transition that top military commanders intend to cite as proof that the Obama administration's troop escalation and counterinsurgency strategy are succeeding.

The transfer, which calls for most Marines to withdraw from populated parts of Nawa and consolidate in a series of desert bases by the spring, would allow the overall number of U.S. troops in the district - now about 1,000 - to be reduced by next summer. Senior Marine officers said that insurgent attacks in Nawa have declined significantly and that the capacity of the Afghan army to operate independently has increased.

But the Marine plan still envisages a significant U.S. military presence in the desert and in the district's main town to provide emergency backup to Afghan soldiers, mentor the fledgling police force and interdict insurgents seeking to enter the area.

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills, the top U.S. and NATO commander in southwestern Afghanistan, said he is planning a "thinning out, as opposed to an exit," to maintain the ability "to respond to prevent catastrophic failure."

The situation in Nawa suggests that the handover might lead to the same kinds of differing interpretations that have clouded recent reports of progress in the war, particularly the killing of insurgent commanders by coalition commandos and the talks between a few senior Taliban leaders and members of the Afghan government. Military officials have hailed both as important steps forward, but intelligence analysts and diplomats have been more skeptical of their effect on the conflict.

The Marines' assessment that they are needed in Nawa beyond next summer - the two-year mark for U.S. forces in the district - could influence a White House review of the war set for December. Senior administration officials said military leaders had promised President Obama late last year that it would be possible to transfer areas to Afghan security forces after 18 to 24 months of counterinsurgency operations.

"If we can't get out of Nawa in two years, that calls into question some of the basic assumptions of the COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy," said a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Seen as a model

A farming community of about 80,000 people along the Helmand River, Nawa is regarded by many military and civilian officials to be a model of counterinsurgency operations and the most stable district among those targeted with new forces authorized by Obama last year.

Senior military officials insist that Afghans will have principal responsibility for maintaining order in the district by next summer, effectively fulfilling the two-year promise, and that the continued presence of U.S. forces is intended to prevent backsliding.

"What's happening in Nawa is what we said would happen: We're transitioning in two years," said a senior U.S. military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. "Doing overwatch of the Afghan forces doesn't mean it's not a transition."

The military officials said that a final decision on how many troops will remain in the area after next summer will not be made until spring and that it could involve a far greater drawdown than the Marines are forecasting.

U.S. and NATO forces have handed over bases to the Afghan army over the past few years in places that never had much insurgent violence or were deemed unimportant to the campaign against the Taliban. Nawa is the first district to begin transitioning among those that received additional forces because they were assessed by commanders to be too critical to fail.

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