In Marjah offensive, Afghan forces take the lead
In a dramatic turnaround from this past summer, Afghan forces in the new Marjah offensive outnumber international forces 3 to 2. Efforts to 'Afghanize' the face of the war against the Taliban are seen as key.
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As a result, Afghan authorities have been reluctant to send troops into those regions. It's one of the reasons why US Marines in Helmand have been reaching out aggressively to the local population to recruit and train Pashtuns for the Afghan forces.Skip to next paragraph
Ministry of Defense spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi declined to comment on why so few Afghan soldiers were sent for the summer offensive in Helmand known as Operation Khanjar, and why more troops were dispatched for the Marjah assault. Over the summer, the Afghan military was stretched thin trying to provide security around the country for the upcoming presidential elections.
An ISAF spokesman chalks up the greater Afghan involvement to the growing numbers and training of the ANA. "They've grown in capacity. They've been able to project capacity into areas they previously weren't able to purely because of capacity and numbers," says Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale.
Many of the Afghan forces actually come from outside Helmand, according to General Azimi. Just one kandak – or brigade – is from the southern corps; the remainder were repositioned from corps based in Kabul, Gardez, and Chugha-Serai. As for the police, 700 come from Helmand, the remaining 1,100 were sent from Kabul, Kandahar, and other provinces.
New willingness to fight on the front lines
On the one hand, this shows that nascent training efforts in Helmand have not yet produced a large battle-ready force. On the other hand, the repositioning of forces demonstrates a willingness of some Afghan units to be dispatched to frontline battles.
So far in the Marjah fight, Afghan security forces were among the troops airdropped behind enemy lines in the operation's opening gambit. Afghan forces also led one of the shuras – or meetings with locals – that commanders on the ground have been told to hold as soon as ground is cleared.
Involving Afghan troops on such operations pushes them up "the steep learning curve," says Ms. Khan. It also helps "Afghanize" the face of such a large assault force in a part of the country where some residents view international troops as occupiers. Khan notes that British and American casualties surged in the months following Operation Khanjar. Going in with more Afghan forces in the mix, she says, may minimize international troop fatalities and corresponding drops in public opinion in the US and Britain.
Back in July, Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the commander of the Marines in Helmand, lamented how few Afghan forces could be mustered for Operation Khanjar. "I mean, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The fact of the matter is, I – we don't have enough Afghan forces, and I'd like more," he said. "They're just not available right now."
He went on to explain why Afghan forces are crucial: "They are such force multipliers, because as you move through areas, they see things we'll never see. They understand intuitively what's going on in an area that we'll just never get, no matter how much cultural training our guys get. So they are absolutely essential."
While General Nicholson got better numbers this time around, the long-term success of the operation isn't a numbers game.
"Ultimately," Khan says, "the test will come in what transpires after this operation: Will it lead to ultimately an effective implementation of a counterinsurgency plan or not?"
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