The commander of U.S. Marines who have launched a major offensive in southern Afghanistan said his forces have removed Taliban fighters from a large section of one of their main strongholds and that U.S. troops are already working with the Afghan Army and local leaders to begin to establish stability in the region. But Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson told reporters by telephone that he needs more Afghan forces for the operation.
General Nicholson said he has enough Marines to complete his mission, although he would like to have more. Speaking on a noisy telephone connection, Nicholson said what he really needs is more Afghan troops. There are more than 90,000 in the Afghan Army, but currently, he has only about 650 of them to work with 4,000 Marines in the Helmand Province offensive.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The fact is we don't have enough Afghan forces. And I'd like more. If I'm a local and I just see a company of U.S. Marines come by with no Afghans, how does that inspire confidence in my government? How does that make me believe something positive is happening? It doesn't," he said.
The general said local Afghans must see that this operation is part of a broader Afghan government effort to deliver security and development.
He said he consulted with local leaders before the operation began, and that each of his unit commanders convened a local meeting, a Shura, within 24 hours of arriving in a town or district. Nicholson said his troops are also exercising what he called "muscular restraint" to avoid civilian casualties. He reported that there have been none caused by U.S. forces in the first week of the Helmand offensive.
There is particular danger of civilian casualties from air strikes. General Nicholson said that having more troops on the ground eases the need for such strikes, but does not eliminate it.
"We are not averse to using air power. We will use it where needed and when required. Does the number of Marines help not having to do those air strikes? Absolutely, absolutely," he said.
General Nicholson said his Marines also need to assure local residents and their leaders that the U.S. force will stay and keep the Taliban out, until the Afghan forces are able to do the job.
"What makes this all so very different in this operation is where we go, we stay; where we stay, we hold; where we hold, we build; and where we build, we work with an eye toward transition," Nicholson added.
The general reported that the governor of Helmand visited the province's southernmost district, Kahn Neshin, on Wednesday for a ceremony asserting Afghan government control in the area. Nicholson said the governor raised the national flag over the area's old castle and then convened a Shura that was attended by 150 local leaders.
At a separate event at the National Press Club in Washington, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, said more help is on the way to increase the size and capability of the Afghan Army and police forces.
"We've got about 4,000 additional trainers, which will show up later this year. That will fill a significant gap that we've had for a long period of time. And then the main effort becomes training the Afghan army and the Afghan police so that they can provide the security for their people," said Mullen.
Both senior officers described the U.S. operation in Afghanistan as a long-term effort. The regional commander, Brigadier General Nicholson, said that is important, particularly in the south because the area produces 90 per cent of Afghanistan's poppy crop, a key source of income for the Taliban.
"This is the fear that drives the Taliban. If they can't make money on this, and if they can't be in Helmand Province, if we've taken that away from them, then that's a good thing. They have gone to ground. But I suspect this enemy is not going to just stay away. This area is far too valuable, far too important," he said.
The general said his forces have encountered relatively light resistance so far, fighting just 20 battles during the past week, as many Taliban fighters apparently fled or blended into the local population. But he said he does not expect that to continue. And while some tough fighting might lie ahead, Nicholson said the more difficult part of the operation will be winning the trust of the people, establishing the authority of the Afghan government and working on local issues, like economic development.
"We've taken a hell of a large swath of Taliban heartland away from them. And our job now is to inspire the people, inspire confidence in the people that we're going to stay and that their government is there to take care of them. And that's the heavy lifting that's just ahead. That's going to be the really hard part," said Nicholson.
There are only five U.S. diplomats in the region to help with that, with five more on the way. General Nicholson said the diplomats' numbers are small, but it is a very experienced crew, including one official he worked with in western Iraq a few years ago.
But the general said he has told his troops that they will likely do lot of the work diplomats might normally do. He said he has told them to be prepared to drink a lot of Afghan tea, and to deliver candies to local residents as enthusiastically and accurately as they deliver ammunition from their weapons to Taliban fighters.
General Nicholson and Admiral Mullen said they often hear the same question: "How long are you going to stay?" The general hears it from local leaders in southern Afghanistan, and he tells them the Marines will stay until Afghan forces can provide security.
Admiral Mullen hears it from senior officials in Kabul and in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. He said he speaks to them about what he calls "long-term engagement".
"We need long-term partnerships here with both these countries, which are just starting to be renewed under obviously very challenging circumstances," he said. "And that effort and the cooperation that we're trying to generate through our engagement with the development of the Afghan security forces and the Pakistani security forces puts growing and continued pressure on that threat. I think we need to stay engaged. And overall we're working, we're moving in the right direction," he added.
Admiral Mullen says U.S., coalition and Afghan forces must at least begin to turn the tide in Afghanistan within 12-to-18 months, and must continue to provide aid to the Pakistani military in its fight against the Taliban, al-Qaida and other militant groups.