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

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.

Marine officers said that in the coming months, they plan to begin transitioning three other districts in Helmand province that, like Nawa, were subjected to comprehensive counterinsurgency operations starting last year.

The transfer entails significant risks. Although Nawa is one of the most secure districts in this part of Afghanistan, Taliban fighters continue to plant homemade bombs on roads and threaten residents who cooperate with the government. The Marines are betting that ragtag soldiers and a police force beset with internal divisions will be able to hold their own and maintain public confidence.

"If the people feel you've left them early, and the Taliban exacts revenge, we'll never get them back," said Marine Col. David Furness, the regimental commander responsible for central Helmand province. "There are a lot of people in Nawa who have voted with their lives. We owe them security."

Two-pronged strategy

The start of the transition here has not been announced publicly, to avoid enticing the Taliban to target fledgling Afghan forces in the district. But Marine officers and other U.S. military officials were willing to speak about it in general terms to demonstrate what they say is evidence that the application of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy is working.

What is occurring here is part of a two-pronged transfer strategy planned by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO military leaders and diplomats are working with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his top aides on a list of provinces (principally in the north, which is the most stable) that can be handed over to Afghan control starting in the spring. The list will be presented at a NATO conference on the war in Portugal next month.

The province-by-province transfer is intended to demonstrate momentum in the military campaign and push the Afghan government to take greater responsibility for security. In areas that had once been under insurgent control, such as Nawa, Petraeus and his subordinates intend to pursue a low-key base-by-base handover, with U.S. and NATO troops stationed nearby to assist Afghan troops by calling in airstrikes or summoning medical evacuation helicopters.

"We're going to do this without a lot of fanfare and trumpets," Mills said.

In Nawa, there has been no public announcement of the fact that five patrol bases are now the exclusive domain of Afghan troops. From the outside, they appear unchanged: Each remains ringed with dirt-filled barriers and razor wire.

The difference is clear only when troops leave the compound. A few weeks ago, Marines and Afghans walked side by side. Now, the Afghans go it alone, sometimes on foot, sometimes in tan pickups.

The Marine platoons that pulled out of the bases last month have moved to other outposts less than two miles away, but they regularly check up on the Afghans, often with an admonishment to conduct more patrols instead of remaining in checkpoints along rutted dirt roads. "They're still under our umbrella of protection," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Holt, the commander of the Marine battalion in Nawa.

During an inspection tour this month, the top Afghan commander in Helmand province, Maj. Gen. Said Mulook, told the soldiers that their performance was being watched closely. "If we don't take responsibility, we cannot expect other countries to help us," he said at one of the bases.

In an interview the next day, Mulook said that his forces "have made excellent progress" in Nawa but that they are not ready to take charge of the entire district because they lack sufficient equipment, including heavy-duty machinery to detect and detonate roadside bombs. The Afghan army has struggled to deliver food and fuel to the independent bases.

"With the right gear, and some more training with the Marines, we'll be able to do it on our own," he said before boarding a Marine helicopter to head back to his base.

But some residents remain skeptical, noting that before the arrival of the Marines in July 2009, Afghan soldiers were unable to keep the Taliban at bay. "If there are no Marines here, it will be no different from the past - the bazaar will be closed," said Naik Mohammed, a tailor who shares a small stall in the market with his brother, a motorcycle repairman. "If there are fewer Marines, the bazaar will not be as crowded. There will be fewer children in school."

Mindful of those sentiments, which appear to be widely held by the population, Marine officers are trying to craft an inconspicuous transition.

"This can't be done overnight," Furness said. "We have to wean them off our presence."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company