CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Thousands of U.S. Marines descended upon the volatile Helmand River valley in helicopters and armored convoys today, mounting an operation that represents the first large-scale test of the U.S. military’s new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
The operation will involve about 4,000 troops from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which was dispatched to Afghanistan earlier this year by President Barack Obama to combat a growing Taliban insurgency in Helmand and other southern provinces. The Marines, along with an Army brigade scheduled to arrive later this summer, plan to push into pockets of the country where NATO forces have not had a presence. In many of those areas, the Taliban have evicted local police and government officials and taken power.
Once Marine units arrive in their designated towns and villages, they have been instructed to build and live in small outposts among the local population. The brigade’s commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, said his Marines will focus on protecting civilians from the Taliban and on restoring Afghan government services instead of a series of hunt-and-kill missions against the insurgents.
“We’re doing this very differently,” Nicholson told his senior officers a few hours before the mission began. “We’re going to be with the people. We’re not going to drive to work. We’re going to walk to work.”
Similar approaches have been tried in the eastern part of the country, but none has had the scope of the mission in Helmand, a vast province that is largely an arid moonscape save for a band of fertile land that lines the Helmand River. Poppies grown in that territory produce half of the world’s supply of opium and provide the Taliban with income.
The operation launched early today represents a shift in strategy after years of thwarted U.S.-led efforts to destroy Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and extend the authority of the Afghan government into the nation’s southern and eastern heartlands. More than seven years after the fall of the Taliban government, the radical Islamist militia remains a potent force across broad swaths of the country. The Obama administration has made turning the war around a top priority, and the Helmand operation could be a critical first step.
The U.S. strategy here is predicated on the belief that a majority of people in Helmand do not favor the Taliban, which enforces a strict brand of Islam that includes an eye-for-an-eye justice and strict limits on personal behavior. Instead, U.S. officials believe, residents would rather have the Afghan government in control, but they have been cowed into supporting the Taliban because there was nobody to protect them.
In areas south of the provincial capital, local leaders, and even members of the police force, have fled. An initial priority for the Marines will be to bring back Afghan government officials and reinvigorate the local police forces. Marine commanders also plan to help district governors hold shuras – meetings of elders in the community – in the next week.
“Our focus is not the Taliban,” Nicholson told his officers. “Our focus must be on getting this government back up on its feet.”