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02-17-09, 07:28 AM
MILITARY: Marine commander readies for troops surge

By MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

With President Barack Obama set to announce the size of the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan, the Marine commander there said more forces are urgently needed.

"The enemy here is pretty tenacious and is not going to give up," Col. Duffy White said Monday morning during a telephone interview from his headquarters in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. "We need additional forces to keep the people safe."

White oversees 2,300 Marines deployed to Afghanistan in November to fight a war that analysts say is spinning out of control. The troops include a helicopter squadron from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that Obama will decide "within days" when and how many additional troops are going to be dispatched to Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest and most underdeveloped nations.

A boost to assist the 33,000 U.S. military and 42,000 troops from other countries is needed to stunt the gains made in recent months by the Taliban, insurgents who once ruled the country until being toppled by the U.S. in late 2001, White said.

"Afghanistan is much bigger than Iraq, but it has fewer forces," said White, who has served two stints at Camp Pendleton and was commanding the Hawaii-based 3rd Marine Regiment when tapped for the Afghanistan command.

The bulk of his forces are conducting counterinsurgency operations and working with Afghan police in and around the Kandahar, Helmand and Farah provinces in the southeast. There are only two paved roads in the region where his troops are working.

Seven of his men have been killed since their deployment began, White said, the majority in small engagements and not in large-scale attacks. Twenty-one U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan in 2009, raising the overall number of U.S. military deaths since the war began to 651.

"Training and mentoring the Afghan National Police have absorbed almost all our time," said the Memphis native, who is on his first Afghanistan assignment following one tour in Iraq. "We're also partnered with an Afghan army company."

His forces are comprised of units from Marine bases around the world organized as a special air-ground task force which was dispatched there to replace units from Twentynine Palms and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Last month, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway reiterated his desire to move all his forces out of Iraq in favor of Afghanistan. Service officials have said they believe they can send between 15,000 and 20,000 Marines to Afghanistan this year if their role in Iraq is substantially reduced.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said part of the new strategy in Afghanistan will be moving troops out of bases and smaller outposts and into towns and villages.

White said he believes spending long periods in towns and villages along with Afghan forces is crucial to turning back Taliban gains.

"That was another one of the lessons we learned in Iraq's Anbar province," he said. "The more you can get away from large bases and conduct combined operations with troops from the host nation the better, and that is what we are trying to do."

His forces have established some small bases in recent months where, he said, "we're really taking the fight to the enemy and seeing some marked improvements."

In another sign of the impending troop buildup, a group of Seabees attached to Camp Pendleton's I Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq was recently deployed to Afghanistan with the mission of building a 430-acre base in the Helmand province.

White said the American public will need to be patient. The rapid gains that resulted from the troop surge in Iraq are not likely to come as quickly in Afghanistan.

That reality has been reflected in recent weeks by Obama administration officials, who have been tamping down the rhetoric about democracy and stability.

"Everything in Afghanistan takes more time than we would like," said White, who along with other troops from his headquarters group is scheduled to remain there until late next fall.

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

Ellie