Thursday, July 09, 2009
No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy [Fred Schwarz]
Here’s a fascinating transcript of a press conference with Larry Nicholson, the commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade–Afghanistan. His men have just kicked the Taliban out of the Helmand Valley, a poppy-growing stronghold; now they must continue to build trust among the locals while preparing to eventually hand over the region to Afghan troops. The general’s statements show how deeply the lessons of counterinsurgency from the surge in Iraq have been absorbed throughout the U.S. military. “Marine diplomacy” might sound like the punch line to a joke, but in Afghanistan today, it’s an indispensable part of America’s arsenal.
From the very beginning of the operation, the emphasis has been on winning over the locals:
Seven days ago tonight, we inserted — at 01:00 local, we inserted about 4,000 Marines and sailors into the Helmand River Valley, over a period of about seven hours. The intention was to go in big, strong, fast; overwhelm any opposition and frankly save lives on all sides but most specifically save civilian lives . . . these are areas that have been visited before by coalition forces and Special Operations forces. But they never stayed. It was always just passing through. The number-one question we’re getting across the board right now is, how long are you staying? And one of my requirements, to every one of our company commanders, was that within 24 hours of hitting the deck, you will have a shura [consultation] with the local elders. . . .
The focus of this operation from the very beginning has been on the people, not the enemy. And I know that may sound very strange, and I got some raised eyebrows even with talking to Marines, but our focus is to get to the people. So the — you know, on the way, we’ll take care of the Taliban. But get to the people. So the fact that the Taliban in large part have decided to flee the area, often leaving significant weapons caches and weapons and IED, you know, components behind is in our — I think in our great favor.
Integrating Afghan troops with U.S. units is a key part of the plan, and it has several benefits: taking advantage of the Afghans’ cultural knowledge, training them in counterinsurgency tactics, and reassuring local residents that it’s not just a foreign invasion:
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. The fact of the matter is, I — we don’t have enough Afghan forces, and I’d like more. You know, imagine right now I’ve got 4,000 Marines in Helmand with about 600 . . . 650 Afghan forces. Imagine if I had 4,000 Marines with 4,000 Afghan forces. . . . they are such force multipliers, because as you move through areas, they see things we’ll never see. They understand intuitively what’s going on in an area that we’ll just never get, no matter how much cultural training our guys get. So they are absolutely essential. And of course everything we do — everything we do — is with an eye towards turning over and transitioning to them . . .
One of my biggest fears — as we move into the Helmand River Valley, if I’m a local, and I just see a company of U.S. Marines come by with no Afghans, you know, how does that inspire confidence in my government? How does that make me believe in — that — in something — that something positive has happened? It doesn’t. And again, it’s just another bunch of foreign troops moving through the area. . . . So we have sort of subdivided and sliced and diced the existing Afghan forces that we have and moved them down into every formation we have, so that there are no Marines on the battlefield that don’t have Afghan forces with them.
Marines are learning to apply their superior force with a light touch:
One thing we learned in Iraq . . . the surge was great, the surge provided more troops and more equipment; but at the end of the day, you can’t surge trust, you can’t surge cooperation, you can’t surge personal relations. Those have to be built over a period of time. If we go into a town and it requires lots of damage to the town and we’re killing local people, even if we kill Taliban, those local fatalities and the damage we cause is going to resonate. And I think one of the things that the [provincial] governor has been so public about this week is that we don’t have one — as far as I know right now, we have not had one civilian casualty in the past seven days. Now, that’s — you think about 4,000 Marines, 600 Afghans, moving through an area, at least 20 engagements with the enemy, and to the best of our knowledge — and we stay very close to this — we’ve not had a civilian casualty.
They use a variety of weapons to achieve their goals:
I made sure my guys understood that stability ops started the day we hit the deck — the day we hit the deck, when we see our first locals. Because again, we choreographed this very closely with the governor, and . . . the governor through his networks got the word out: When the Marines land, stay. Don’t leave. The Marines are coming in, but stay there. And furthermore, approach the Marines, go up to the Marines. . . .
Clearing for us, as I’ve told our guys a hundred times, can be moving into an area, handing out Jolly Ranchers and drinking tea, or it can be a very kinetic, house-to-house fight. And I’ve told our guys: You should expect some of both. And you’d better be able to hand out Jolly Ranchers and 5.56 ammunition with equal enthusiasm and accuracy.
And so I really think that our guys have taken this to heart. They feel like they’re part of something special, because they are. We’ve taken a hell of a large swath of Taliban heartland away from them. And again, our job now is to inspire the people, inspire confidence in the people that we’re going to stay and that their government is there to take care of them. And that’s — the heavy lifting is just ahead. That’s going to be the really hard part.
And amid all the friendship-building, basic logistics are not being neglected:
The number one threat here right now today is not the Taliban, it’s the heat. And as I said, it is hot as fire. Every day we’ve got helicopters, day and night, pushing all manner of logistics, but especially pallets of water to the Marines. I am more than confident — and I stay in touch with my commanders down there — I am more than confident that we’re getting the amount of water they need in a timely manner. No one is going without water.
My problem, and what I’m fussing about with my staff, is that the water’s not cold. We need to freeze that water. We need to deliver water that’s pretty well frozen. It will thaw out very quickly. So we’re working on that. Also trying to get them a special meal this weekend, get some steaks down there. And these guys sure as hell have earned it. So we will have some helicopters this weekend flying in a special meal to the guys.
07/09 03:06 PMShare