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The Marines : What to Expect in Afghanistan

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is busy training for Afghanistan. The US Marines are one of the finest fighting forces in the World, with great pride and elan. But the Marines know that Afghanistan is a different kettle of fish. So what do the Marines expect when they land in Bagram next month.

Afghanistan is seeing a surge of violence as indicated by a number of suicide attacks particularly in the South. Taliban Chief Mullah Omar is reported to have threatened to increase the strikes a few months back. The Afghanistan government is heavily dependent on international support, any reduction of troops or premature exit without stabilizing the situation is likely to result in a high level of instability in the country.

On the other hand, President Hamid Karzai is faced with the dilemma of having to manage the internal political situation with attempts by intelligence agencies of other countries such as Britain to denote a stake in internal politics. The latter is not acceptable in any nation state and all attempts to interact with the Taliban should be only through the Afghan government. This will ensure that the authority of President Karzai is not eroded.

In any classic insurgency scenario, the militants generally have control of the villages and the rural areas, while the security forces are in control of cities and main highways, they are unable to venture out into the countryside due to militant pressure in these areas. Afghanistan is reflecting the same pattern. While ideally NATO forces should establish themselves on these axes, there is a problem in the instant case where there is paucity of forces. The aim should thus be to retain control of the key locations and attempt to dissuade the Taliban local leadership to join the movement while eliminating the leadership’s influence amongst the populace.

The problem of troops in Afghanistan is unlikely to go away with induction of 2200 US marines in the south. There is a minimum addition required of approximately 5000 troops in the south to carry out sustained operations particularly in the Helmand and Kandahar province and with Uruzgan also reporting sporadic incidents, there are reasons for enhancing the strength. The dividend in Eastern Afghanistan is a result of operations by Pakistan in Waziristan and NWFP and larger deployment of troops in the area for elections. This has to continue. Thus in Afghanistan the way ahead would be as follows:-

  • Continued commitment of the international community to the Karzai government and US and NATO forces to support the Afghan Army.
  • Increase in level of forces across the board, but certainly in the South, East and provinces around Kabul, particularly Wardak.
  • Sustained operations in Pakistan’s Western borders to prevent rise and upsurge of Taliban and Al Qaeda in the area.
  • Sustained operations by Afghan forces leading, backed up by NATO in Afghanistan.
  • Handing over control of areas secured to local leaders who are loyal to the government rather than the Taliban, which will reduce the number of troops required to hold the area.
  • Convert tactical operations into strategic victories by establishing control over larger areas through local political influence which denies influence of Taliban.

    The fighting in Afghanistan will no doubt be hard, but nothing that the Marines are not used to. The key issue is balancing the hearts and minds with the bullet, here they may have to take some raw lessons from the veterans, for winning over the Afghan is difficult. Learning the language, keeping away from the women and respect to the tribal elders are some useful tips. Others will be learned on the ground. So best of luck to the gallant fighters in the toughest military in the World and in some of the roughest terrains.

  • Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.

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