Marine quick reaction force starts to settle into southern Afghanistan

The focus of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is largely security, but will include humanitarian work.

The Marine contingent arriving now at the massive airfield here in Kandahar will be tasked to become a quick reaction force that the senior NATO commander says will give him new flexibility to fight the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Coming as the spring and summer fighting season begins, the deployment of the roughly 2,300 Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will help to better focus military efforts against the resurgent Taliban, observers say.

But Col. Peter Petronzio, who commands the 24th MEU, is seeking to manage expectations. "We're not the cavalry, we're not here to save the day, we're not here because other people can't do their jobs," he says in his plywood-paneled office. "We're here just to help."

The unit will perform a special duty here as a "theater tactical force," designed to deploy across Afghanistan if needed. And it will report directly to Army Gen. Dan McNeill, the senior NATO commander here.

"It helps me to have a force – and the US is most flexible and viable when it comes to this – to ... go where I say to go and do what I say to do without a whole lot of hesitation," General McNeill says.

Many forces in Afghanistan, like those of Canada or Germany, operate according to political caveats at home that can hamstring commanders. McNeill was criticized by some European nations last year, for example, when he deployed a force to southern Afghanistan to perform combat operations without notifying NATO officials in Brussels first. The Marine unit gives the NATO commander forces he can use without such constraints.

McNeill says the Marines will mostly be focused on fighting the Taliban and other anticoalition militias.

"They'll mostly be doing combat operations, but they'll be helping out whatever they can and in whatever ways they can, but expect them to be on the move and living hard, and to fight when they can find the fight," says McNeill, who will finish up his second tour of Afghanistan this summer.

Although the Marine focus will be on security operations, the distinction as a theaterwide force falling directly under McNeill means the NATO commander can also use them to perform other duties such as humanitarian assistance.

"We're kind of like a Swiss Army knife – there are lots of ways we can be employed," says Capt. Kelly Frushour, a spokeswoman for the unit, addressing what has become the new reality for most forces. "From humanitarian missions to combat operations, we'll go where [the NATO commander] directs us to go and we will do what [he] needs us to do."

The structure of the Marine Corps' MEU is a unique one to the US military and lends itself to such adaptable operations. It possesses its own command, air, ground and support elements.

"Simplifies matters greatly, it's all right there," says McNeill.

The Marines were welcomed by Canadian forces that are also assigned to the region. Canada had threatened to pull out of the mission if more forces weren't sent to help them in the volatile south. The Marine unit will return home by fall, and defense officials insist it's a "one-time" deployment. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently indicated that more US forces would be sent to Afghanistan by 2009, and the expansion of this large airfield hints at a larger presence in the months to come.

In addition to the Marine MEU, an additional 1,000 to 1,200 marines will be deployed to the southern region as embedded trainers and security forces. Those marines will be deployed to northern Helmand Province in the southern region of the country as well as the eastern portion of the province, says Lt. Col. David Johnson, a spokesman for the US command that oversees training here.

So far, marines here have been doing drills, firing at the shooting range, and practicing their popular martial-arts program. The unit as a whole won't begin conducting full-fledged operations "until we're ready," Colonel Petronzio says. It's likely, however, that the unit will begin engaging the fight in the coming weeks.

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