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02-14-09, 07:58 AM
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MILITARY: Strategy shift awaits Afghanistan-bound troops

By MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

In an effort to turn around what one military analyst says is a losing war in Afghanistan, military leaders are planning to station more troops in towns and villages to win the support of the population and keep anti-government Taliban and other insurgent forces at bay.

The shift away from keeping troops on bases reflects the U.S. Marine Corps' practice in Iraq's once-turbulent Anbar province and is central to the long-held military doctrine that says "clear, hold and build" is key to success in counterinsurgency operations.

The move is coming as the situation in Afghanistan continues to spiral downward, with increasing gains by the Taliban and a loss of popular support for the U.S.

On Thursday, analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the House Armed Services Committee that time is running short in Afghanistan, where a group of Marines and sailors from San Diego's Miramar Marine Corps Air Station are now serving and where more local Marines, including units at Camp Pendleton, are expected to be sent later this year.

"We are losing the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we have at most two years in which to decisively reverse this situation," said Cordesman, a former aide to Sen. John McCain and one-time director of intelligence assessment for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Cordesman's testimony was blunt.

"We either empower our commanders and country teams in the field and provide the resources they need, or we lose the war," he said. "We must provide the budgets, military forces and aid personnel necessary to compensate for years of inadequate funding and underresourcing.

"We must stop the process of reacting to enemy gains and provide the resources necessary to win the initiative."

'Permanent presence'

Cordesman's comments came shortly after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Army Gen. David Petraeus said they were planning to change the way the military has been operating in Afghanistan.

Gates said Tuesday that as President Barack Obama prepares to send up to 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to join the 32,500 the U.S. already has there, their mission in places such as the southeastern Helmand province where the Miramar Marines are stationed must be altered.

"The goal of those troops is to bring greater security in places like Helmand by being a permanent presence there ... rather than flying out by helicopter for a day's operations or a couple of days' operations and then flying back to their base," Gates said. "They would be a continuing presence, and thereby, along with their Afghan partners, enhance the security of the population."

A day earlier, Petraeus, credited with designing the troop surge that brought calm to Iraq and who now heads U.S. Central Command, told NATO officials at a conference in Europe that it's "necessary to locate forces where they can establish a persistent security presence.

"You can't commute to work in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations," Petraeus said, adding that assigning troops to live full time in population centers "enables us to understand the neighborhood."

"Leaders and troops have to understand the tribal structures, the power brokers, the good guys and the bad guys, local cultures and history, and how systems are supposed to work and do work," he said. "This requires listening and being respectful of local elders and mullahs, and farmers and shopkeepers, and it also requires, of course, many cups of tea."

Petraeus said Afghanistan requires a variety of new initiatives in addition to more U.S. troops. He called for more NATO troops, military police, engineers, special operations forces and civil affairs units, helicopters, airplanes and training teams to mentor and increase the size of the Afghan army and police.

Obama is expected to outline a new set of goals for Afghanistan before an April NATO summit meeting. The new administration's plans will have broad implications for the troops heading there later this year.

While no decisions have been announced on what units will be going to Afghanistan, at least one Camp Pendleton battalion is training exclusively for Afghanistan, according to its commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on troop plans.

Clear, hold and build

Military commanders frequently cite "clear, hold and build" as the only way to defeat an insurgency. They point to the successes achieved by the Marine Corps in Iraq's Anbar province as the latest example of that doctrine.

There, in a region once considered lost to the insurgency, Marine commanders forged ties with local tribal sheiks after clearing cities and towns of insurgents. The "hold" part of the doctrine was accomplished by stationing troops at forward operating bases; the "build" component came by providing cash assistance to the sheiks and for civic projects.

Much of that strategy needs to be implemented in Afghanistan, analysts say, where U.S. and NATO troops largely have operated almost exclusively from bases since toppling the Taliban government in late 2001.

Cordesman said added emphasis on the "clear, hold and build" model, along with new offensives against the insurgency, offer hope of real progress.

"It could reverse many of the problems and failures that empower the Taliban and al-Qaida," he said.

'They're scared'

In November, a U.S. Navy corpsman from Murrieta told a story to a North County Times reporter visiting a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan that underscored why it's important for troops to stay in local communities.

Roden Quibuyen spent five months treating wounded Marines and providing medical care to the Afghan people in a mountainous region near the border of Farah and Helmand provinces. He said he treated one family's medical needs and learned a few days later that the Taliban had been watching.

"They came and beat up the man and took the medicine," Quibuyen said. "The people want us here, but they're scared. That’s what we're up against."

At a military trade show in San Diego on Wednesday, retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said the next five years in Afghanistan will be complex, and he described the country as "in misery."

Turning that around will require a massive investment of resources such as those outlined by Petraeus, said McCaffrey, who served in the Clinton administration.

Another military expert at the same event, retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs, said embedding troops district by district in Afghanistan's provinces is the only way to defeat the insurgency.

"But the tactic will only work if we have enough patience and are willing to put in enough resources," said Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient for heroic actions during the Vietnam War and now a commentator, author and lecturer on military affairs.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or mlwalker@nctimes.com.