US Marines stretched for training of Afghan troops: commander

by Kimberly Johnson
Sun Aug 17, 12:34 PM ET

The US Marine Corps will not be able to increase military training teams needed to bolster security forces in Afghanistan unless it draws down in Iraq, the force's top commander has warned.

Marine Corps Commandant James Conway said Washington's problem is that as the Afghan Army grows, so will the need for advisory teams

"If we were asked for more training teams, that would be really hard for us to do. We're just about capped out at what we're providing now," he told AFP.

He said his men would likely have to turn to a partnering system in Afghanistan, whereby a portion of a Marine unit geographically adjacent to Afghan troops would embed as advisors.

This strategy differs from the current piece-meal approach of sending advisors, which often allows for the force to cherry pick officers vital to deploying units.

Conway's comments came as he wrapped up a visit to Afghanistan, where he met some of the 3,500 Marines in the field, a few hundred of whom in advisory positions. There are around 24,000 Marines in Iraq.

Advisory work goes beyond teaching Afghan soldiers military tactics, said Colonel Jeff Haynes, who commands the 201st Regional Corps Advisory Command Central, based near Kabul.

"We're teaching them to be self-sufficient," he said during a visit to a remote outpost in Nijrab northeast of Kabul.

Haynes leads a unit of 730 international troops acting as advisors across 11 provinces, including 151 Marines positioned between Kabul and the Pakistan border. And he does not mix his words when it comes to how the Afghan army will improve.

"We have these pity parties in Kabul about how much [the Afghan soldiers] need. No. They need good leadership," Haynes said.

The Afghans also need a new road, he added.

Many imported products coming in by truck from Pakistan must stick to highways going through the Jalalabad Pass, a treacherous road laden with switchbacks that can take 12 hours to drive through.

Improving a more direct existing road that bypasses Jalalabad would help jumpstart development, Haynes said. That economic development, in turn, would help sever existing insurgent rat lines.

"We're doing a little bit of nation building, but that's OK because it's going to help us with counter-insurgency," he said.

But that nation-building requires help from outside the Marine Corps, Conway said.

"He's asking his military people to provide those kinds of services and knowledge base for things they (his troops) may not be very expert in," Conway said, reflecting on Haynes' strategy.

"We do that where we have to," Conway said but added that what was really needed were people who were experts in fields outside the military, such as in agriculture and crops. "That's what we see is more of the answer," he said.

The new road will be an asset giving residents easier access to a hospital and making them "closer to the government," said Major Khairmohammed Jochi, acting commander of about 650 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers.

"We are providing the security for this road, then the contractors will come and they can start their work," he said.

Daniel Markey, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations South Asia, welcomed economic development projects as a counterinsurgency tool but cautioned that it was critical to follow it through.

"Such ambitious plans, as long as they are complemented by sustained resources and a realistic assessment of timelines, are not a bad thing," he said in an e-mail.

"The real problem comes if ambitious rhetoric is unmatched by funding or long-term commitment, since that raises local expectations and leaves them frustrated."

But keeping up a military presence is key, with security -- generally said to be deteriorating -- essential to development.

"None of these projects will be sustainable if the military pressure lets down, if the US pulls out, the ANA isn't getting funding, training or expansion, or if the Pakistani side of the border becomes increasingly unstable," Markey said.