21 January 2011

Marines See Progress in Afghanistan

Remember December's story about the recovering Marines severely wounded in Afghanistan who were interviewed by CBS News? During that interview they stated, "We're the ones paying the price, and we're telling you it's worthwhile."

Their grunt's-eye-view seems to agree with that of senior leadership. Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, the new deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquartered at Camp Pendleton, had this to say on Wednesday:

U.S. Marines are expanding their relationships with tribal leaders in Afghanistan to build a bulwark against the Taliban as violence subsides in several areas of Helmand province, the new deputy commander in charge of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquartered at Camp Pendleton said Wednesday.

Such relationships are proving to be the fulcrum that will determine success or failure in Afghanistan, as they were when the Marine Corps was stationed in the Anbar province of Iraq during the height of the insurgency, Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese said in a speech before a gathering of the San Diego Military Advisory Council.

Spiese said Taliban attacks have fallen off in once restive areas like Marjah and Nawa, and U.S. casualties waned in recent months in the most violent northern reaches of the province, in Musa Qala and Sangin.

Building relationships with the tribal leaders has been a key aspect of the turnaround in southwestern Afghanistan, where roughly 20,000 Marines are stationed — about half of them from the force based at Camp Pendleton.

“That’s really where the success or the failure of our operations is going to be. It’s in the villages, it’s in the tribes,” Spiese said. “In order to be successful there, to root out the Taliban, to make sure that we are able to implement some of the changes necessary … it really is working village by village and talking to the elders who control the decisions in those areas.”

Afghanistan’s diffuse tribal structure presents more challenges compared to what the Marines faced in Iraq, Spiese noted. “In Iraq the tribal structure was very hierarchical. Senior tribal leaders could make decisions that could reach across the province.”

In Iraq, the local Sunni tribes were caught in the middle between U.S. forces and foreign al-Qaeda fighters. In Afghanistan, “the Taliban are not necessarily local when they pass through, although they can be very intimidating. So getting the locals to feel comfortable enough to facilitate the exchange of information that allows us to root out the Taliban requires a lot of work.

“But it is going to happen at the local level, because that is where the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are planted, that is where the ambushes are planned.”

U.S. Marines had moved into the Marjah area of Helmand province in Afghanistan in February 2010 and were bogged down in heavy combat for months. “If you go to Marjah today you will find the markets are open, schools are open and we see Marjah as relatively benign,” Spiese said, adding that similar changes occurred in Nawa as well.

Insurgents who once operated in those areas have moved north to Sangin, Spiese said. The Marine commander in charge there, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, has described Sangin as the last stronghold of the Taliban in Helmand province.

Tribal leaders in Sangin struck a peace deal with international forces earlier this month. Since then Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment stationed in the area have not announced any combat deaths.

Earlier this week, Al Jazeera's Riz Khan discussed that recent peace deal in the Sangin district with Marine Major General Richard Mills, the commander of coalition forces in Helmand province.

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