« Marines launch massive assault in Afghanistan | Main | Marines seize insurgent command center in southern Afghanistan »

US Marines to ‘stir things up’ in Helmand

The first US Marines of a new expeditionary force were deployed in Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand province yesterday, promising new and more aggressive tactics in an implicit criticism of the British operation there.


April 29, 2008
Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor, in Kandahar

General Dan McNeill, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said that the Marine expeditionary force of about 3,500 troops would “stir things up” in remote southern districts of Helmand, where few if any Nato troops have operated in the past seven years.

“We want to establish and maintain a force here and take the pressure off the forces in the north,” he said.

As well as getting added firepower, the British will also come under pressure to adopt American counter-insurgency tactics as the US tries to lead a “mini-surge” to fill the gaps in the Nato alliance’s ranks. The deployment is being regarded as a tacit admission that, after two years in Helmand, British troops have failed to dim the insurgency or to have an impact on opium production, currently the highest in Afghanistan.

The US Marines were due originally to deploy in Iraq but the situation was regarded as calm enough for the force to be rerouted to Afghanistan.

Colonel Pete Petronzio, the Marine commander, said that his forces would be used to disrupt Taleban communication lines, where wounded fighters and opium are moved south to the Pakistani border and arms and money are moved north. The Marines are expected to deploy in northern Helmand later, where they will fight alongside British Forces but come under the direct control of General McNeill, the four-star US general in Kabul. “We want to throw some rocks in the stream and see where the water goes,” Colonel Petronzio said.

The extra US force in the south will make it easier for the Americans to press their allies to adopt common tactics, primarily those refined over the past few years by US forces, against the Taleban and other groups.

In particular, General McNeill said that he would like to see British troops double their six-month tour of duty to one year because the longer US deployments had helped to fight a war where knowledge of the local population was a key to winning their support and distancing them from militants.

For the same reason, he also would like Britain and other Nato allies to rotate the same units to Afghanistan, as US forces were doing.

British officials are broadly in favour of extending the tour of duty, although such a move would probably be resisted back home, where the Army is already overstretched and struggling to meet its overseas commitments. As for rotation, Britain has already been sending the same units back to Afghanistan, particularly from the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines.

There are even more serious differences over how to contain Afghanistan’s growing poppy production. Last year the Americans pushed for eradication in Nangarhar province, where the local governor arrested growers and destroyed crops. Flying over the area this weekend it was clear that farmers had switched to wheat this season. By contrast, the fertile Helmand valley is carpeted with poppies and can expect another bumper crop. Teams of labourers were in the fields lancing and scraping the bulbs to extract the opium.

In addition, the Americans want the British to copy the success of their military-led aid efforts in eastern Afghanistan, where a $280 million (£140 million) reconstruction project is credited with winning over the local population. Colonel Mark Johnstone, deputy commander of US forces in eastern Afghanistan, said that the Commander’s Emergency Response Programme, which has built roads, schools and clinics, was the most powerful weapon in his armoury. “It is our nuclear weapon. It is awesome — it really works,” he said. “I pity other Nato countries that have not used it for the past six years.”

Strength in numbers:

5,500: The number of British troops stationed in Helmand province

2: The number of years since British forces first arrived in Helmand

700: The number of British soldiers forming the battle group stationed in Musa Qala, the former Taleban stronghold captured by British forces last year

32,500: The total number of US troops across Afghanistan

Source: Times archive