Newly deployed Marines to target Taliban bastion
RENEWED FOCUS ON HELMAND
Obama expected to give war plan in speech
Sunday, November 29, 2009
KABUL -- Days after President Obama outlines his new war strategy in a speech Tuesday, as many as 9,000 Marines will begin final preparations to deploy to southern Afghanistan and renew an assault on a Taliban stronghold that slowed this year amid a troop shortage and political pressure from the Afghan government, senior U.S. officials said.
The extra Marines will be the first to move into the country as part of Obama's escalation of the eight-year-old war. They will double the size of the U.S. force in the southern province of Helmand and will provide a critical test for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's struggling government and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy.
"The first troops out of the door are going to be Marines," Gen. James T. Conway, the Corps' top officer, told fellow Marines in Afghanistan on Saturday. "We've been leaning forward in anticipation of a decision. And we've got some pretty stiff fighting coming."
The Marines will be quickly followed by about 1,000 U.S. Army trainers. They will deploy as early as February to speed the growth of the Afghan army and police force, military officials said.
The new forces will not start moving until Obama outlines his new strategy in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. The revised plan, which faces a war-weary and increasingly skeptical American public, is expected to call for 30,000 to 35,000 new troops in a phased deployment over the next 12 to 18 months.
The parceling-out of reinforcements is driven in part by Afghanistan's lack of infrastructure, which cannot immediately support a larger U.S. force. The phased approach will also allow the president to cancel some of the additional reinforcements if the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, does not show results or if the Karzai government does not meet goals for stamping out corruption and providing for the Afghan people, White House officials said.
The first place Obama will look for results is Helmand, a Taliban-dominated province that has been McChrystal's primary focus for much of this year and has been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting. Earlier this year, about 10,000 Marines moved into the area and pushed Taliban fighters out of several major cities there. The Marines then began to rebuild the long-absent Afghan government and police forces in the area.
The U.S. offensive, however, did not dislodge the Taliban from such places as Marjeh, a city of about 50,000 people in central Helmand that remains a major center for the opium trade. After several months of fighting, senior Marine officials concluded that they did not have enough troops to expand into Marjeh and a handful of other Taliban havens while holding on to the gains they had made in the province.
"Where we have gone, goodness follows," Conway said. "But the fact is that we are not as expansive as we would like to be, and those probable additional number of Marines are going to help us to get there."
The Marines' inability to push the Taliban out of these key sanctuaries led some Afghans in the area to doubt U.S. resolve. The Taliban has used its haven in Marjeh to produce roadside bombs and plan attacks on areas where Marines were trying to build the local government and police forces. This month, Taliban fighters from Marjeh killed three Afghan city council members in nearby Nawa, which Marines have held up as a major success story in the province.
"The two questions I get from Afghans are 'When are you leaving?' and 'Why aren't you going into Marjeh?' because that is where the real enemy is," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, senior Marine commander in the province.
Marine commanders have little doubt that the additional 9,000 troops moving into the province will push the Taliban out of its remaining sanctuaries in Helmand. But the gains will be transitory if U.S. forces do not build effective local police forces and foster a government that is relatively free of corruption and can provide for the Afghan people, U.S. officials said. "This will be a credibility test for the [Afghan] government to see if it can deliver," said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a spokesman for McChrystal.