“The Marine approach — creative, aggressive and, at times, unorthodox — has won many admirers within the military. The Marine emphasis on patrolling by foot and interacting with the population, which has helped to turn former insurgent strongholds along the Helmand River valley into reasonably stable communities with thriving bazaars and functioning schools, is hailed as a model of how U.S. forces should implement counterinsurgency strategy.
But the Marines’ methods, and their insistence that they be given a degree of autonomy not afforded to U.S. Army units, also have riled many up the chain of command in Kabul and Washington, prompting some to refer to their area of operations in the south as “Marineistan.” They regard the expansion in Delaram and beyond as contrary to the population-centric approach embraced by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and they are seeking to impose more control over the Marines.
The U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, recently noted that the international security force in Afghanistan feels as if it comprises 42 nations instead of 41 because the Marines act so independently from other U.S. forces.
“We have better operational coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we have with the U.S. Marine Corps,” said a senior Obama administration official involved in Afghanistan policy.
…Until earlier this month, McChrystal lacked operational control over the Marines, which would have allowed him to move them to other parts of the country. That power rested with a three-star Marine general at the U.S. Central Command. He and other senior Marine commanders insisted that Marines in Afghanistan have a contiguous area of operations — effectively precluding them from being split up and sent to Kandahar — because they think it is essential the Marines are supported by Marine helicopters and logistics units, which are based in Helmand, instead of relying on the Army.
Concern about the arrangement reached the White House. In early March, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who heads the Central Command, issued an order giving McChrystal operational control of Marine forces in Afghanistan, according to senior defense officials. But the new authority vested in McChrystal — the product of extensive negotiations among military lawyers — still requires Central Command approval for any plan to disaggregate infantry units from air and logistics support, which will limit his ability to move them, the defense officials said.
“At the end of the day, not a lot has changed,” said a Marine general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did several other senior officers and officials, to address sensitive command issues. “There’s still a caveat that prevents us from being cherry-picked.”
The Marine demand to be supported by their own aviators and logisticians has roots in the World War II battles for Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Marines landing on the Pacific islands did not receive the support they had expected from Navy ships and aircraft. Since then, Marine commanders have insisted on deploying with their own aviation and supply units. They did so in Vietnam, and in Iraq.
…The Marine concentration in one part of the country — as opposed to Army units, which are spread across Afghanistan — has yielded a pride of place. As it did in Anbar, the Corps is sending some of its most talented young officers to Helmand.
The result has been a degree of experimentation and innovation unseen in most other parts of the country. Although they account for half of the Afghan population, women had been avoided by military forces, particularly in the conservative south, because it is regarded as taboo for women to interact with males with whom they are not related. In an effort to reach out to them, the Marines have established “female engagement teams.”
Made up principally of female Marines who came to Afghanistan to work in support jobs, the teams accompany combat patrols and seek to sit down with women in villages. Working with female translators, team members answer questions, dispense medical assistance and identify reconstruction needs.
…The Marines have sought to jump into another void by establishing their own police academy at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand instead of waiting for the U.S. military’s national training program to provide recruits. The Marines also are seeking to do something that the military has not been able to do on a national scale: reduce police corruption by accepting only recruits vouched for by tribal elders.
…Nicholson now wants Marine units to push through miles of uninhabited desert to establish control of a crossing point for insurgents, drugs and weapons on the border with Pakistan. And he wants to use the new base in Delaram to mount more operations in Nimruz, a part of far southwestern Afghanistan deemed so unimportant that it is one of the only provinces where there is no U.S. or NATO reconstruction team.
…Because the Marines cannot easily be moved to Kandahar, U.S. and British military and diplomatic officials have begun discussions to expand the Marine footprint into more populous parts of Helmand with greater insurgent activity where British forces have been outmatched. That shift could occur as soon as this summer, when a Marine-run NATO regional headquarters is established in Helmand.
…“The clock is ticking,” Nicholson told members of an intelligence battalion that recently arrived in Afghanistan. “The drawdown will begin next year. We still have a lot to do — and we don’t have a lot of time to do it.”
2010-03-16 15:23:05 UTC