Marines Attack Taliban Stronghold

The U.S. Marines have launched a major assault into southern Helmand province in an attempt to wrest control from the Taliban and cut the opium backed funding for the anti-government forces.

U.S. Marines exchanged gunfire with militants Tuesday after pouring into a Taliban-held town in southern Afghanistan in the first major American operation in the region in years.

Several hundred Marines, many of them veterans of the conflict in Iraq, pushed into the town of Garmser in pre-dawn light in an operation to drive out the insurgents, stretching NATO’s presence into an area littered with opium poppy fields and classified as Taliban territory. U.S. commanders say Taliban fighters were expecting an assault and planted homemade bombs in response. The British have a small base on the town’s edge but Garmser’s main marketplace is closed because of the Taliban threat.

The Globe and Mail‘s Doug Sanders dubs this an “Iraq-like surge.”

The planned marine attack on Taliban positions on the southern border, described as an Iraq-like “mini-thrust” by some U.S. officers, is a welcome development to Canadian and British NATO commanders who have seen ground lost to the insurgents and increasing deaths and terrorist attacks during the past year.

But this new U.S. contribution is accompanied by a push to “Americanize” the 40-nation NATO mission, especially in the British-Canadian Southern Command. General Dan McNeill, the U.S. Army officer who currently commands the 40-nation NATO coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said in an interview that he hopes Canada and other nations will adopt U.S.-style tactics and doctrines, including lengthier deployments for soldiers, harder-line opium-poppy-eradication strategies and the use of military forces in reconstruction and humanitarian work. Canadian and British senior officers, in interviews yesterday, said the marines are a welcome relief to their faltering missions. But they expressed reservations about the American commanders’ efforts to get their forces to adopt U.S. approaches.

I’m agnostic as to what the best approach is here and, indeed, am not overly confident that any approach will “fix” Afghanistan. I’m rather certain, though, that the status quo — including a too-small force commitment by most NATO countries — isn’t working. And this seems like a good start:

“We want to move into some areas where [NATO] hasn’t been, to disrupt the pattern of life for the insurgents,” said Colonel Peter Petronzio, commander of the marine force, in an interview at his Kandahar base this weekend. “We hope to interdict their routes: weapons and fighters going north; drugs, money, casualties going south.”

The Americans hope that their contribution will reverse a trend that has seen control of some regions slipping away from NATO troops and into the hands of insurgents, and has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in violence across Afghanistan.

NATO desperately needs a larger commitment but the deaths of forces there naturally makes member states more reluctant to step up.

“We simply haven’t had enough force to push down there. We know there are things down there. We know it’s a hive of transit of all kinds: common criminals, ordinary people, narcos, insurgents, truly intractable dudes,” Gen. McNeill said. “And if we start to lean on that area, indeed it’s going to stir things up, and we’re going to keep up steady pressure on the enemy force. And we’re going to maintain a presence down there for a while.”

While the marines are a short-term force that is scheduled to stay for only seven months, most observers expect further U.S. forces to be added to the campaign. U.S. military leaders are now talking openly about a renewed focus on the Afghanistan side of their global war on terrorism, bolstering troops in the troubled nation as the United States withdraws from Iraq. This week, U.S. President George W. Bush appointed General David Petraeus, who ordered the “surge” of soldiers in Iraq last year, to take over command of all forces in the Middle East and Asia, including Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many positive signs that more troops are coming to relieve them, as Karen DeYoung reports again this morning.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The limits of what can be accomplished in Afghanistan continue to be unclear to me. If the most we can achieve is denial of territory, I’m not completely sure if major assaults are the wisest course of action.

    I wish that more could be accomplished but I really don’t see how under the circumstances.

  2. legion says:

    Well, we could try getting the entire country’s economy onto something other than, say, opium poppies & the heroin trade. But that would require the cooperation of a functioning government, which Afghanistan ain’t got…

  3. sam says:

    Unfortunately, there aren’t many positive signs that more troops are coming to relieve them, as Karen DeYoung reports again this morning.

    The Marines have asked that their entire effort be centered in Afghanistan, and Iraq left to the Army:

    Marines Press to Remove Their Forces From Iraq

    By THOM SHANKER [NYT]
    Published: October 11, 2007

    WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 — The Marine Corps is pressing to remove its forces from Iraq and to send marines instead to Afghanistan, to take over the leading role in combat there, according to senior military and Pentagon officials.

    I can’t find anything on the status of the request. Anybody know?

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Well, we could try getting the entire country’s economy onto something other than, say, opium poppies & the heroin trade. But that would require the cooperation of a functioning government, which Afghanistan ain’t got…

    If we had some ham we could make a ham and cheese sandwich if we had some cheese.

  5. And bread. Lots of bread.