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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Obama’s Marines in position for Afghan offensive

Ben Sheppard, Agence France Presse

aleqm5hjtfs5lejzyq-bunsg2pfpqhsfewprocessedlargeCAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan (AFP) — A new wave of US Marines sent to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama to turn the table on Taliban insurgents is in position and ready for action, according to the military.

About 10,000 fighters of Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade have arrived in Helmand, an opium-growing southern province where the Taliban have widespread power despite being ousted from government by US-led forces in 2001.

“All the Marines being deployed have now got here,” Lieutenant Abe Sipe, spokesman for the brigade, said Friday. “Our overall troop number is 10,700, of which 7,000 are at Camp Leatherneck and about 3,000 elsewhere in Helmand.

“These Marines form the major part of the US troop increase.”

A total of 17,000 US troops and 4,000 military trainers have been pledged for Afghanistan as part of Obama’s new strategy to defeat the Islamist Taliban, who have been gaining in strength over the past few years.

A Combat Aviation Brigade was the first to deploy, moving into the southern province of Kandahar by mid-May. A Stryker Brigade Combat Team is also heading in to complete the fighting reinforcements.

Camp Leatherneck is a collection of tents and cabins that has sprung out of the flat desert of central Helmand to accommodate Marines, who are at the spearhead of what has been dubbed the “Afghanistan surge”.

But the Marines’ commander rejected the surge tag, saying the influx was not an attempt to replicate the successes of the 2007-08 surge of US troops into Iraq.

“We don’t use the term, it is word for Iraq,” General Larry Nicholson told AFP in a brief interview. “There is no end date for us here.”

The plan combines the “hard power” of boosted US troop numbers with a major effort to improve the Afghan army and police force, and an emphasis on neighbouring Pakistan’s role in region.

The Marines in Helmand are expected to move south in the coming weeks ahead of presidential elections due to be held on August 20.

The Dutch commander for southern Afghanistan said Thursday that the NATO-led forces were seizing the initiative against insurgents.

Major General Mart de Kruif, who oversees more than 30,000 international troops, said the force was “now entering a new stage, in which we will have the operational initiatives on our side and maintain it”.

With the influx of US Marines and Army combat troops, “significant operations” would be launched “in a very short time” in Helmand province and the city of Kandahar, he said.

One of the concerns for the military is a feared rise in attacks in the run-up to August 20 presidential elections as the insurgents try to destabilise an internationally funded drive for democracy.

“One of the goals of establishing a presence here is to instill a reality that this province is stable enough to hold meaningful elections,” Sipe said.

But elections were just one factor in the Marines’ battle plan for the summer, he said.

“The overall mission of the brigade here is to secure Helmand province in co-operation with Afghan national security forces,” he said.

Parts of Helmand, which borders Pakistan in the south, are firmly in Taliban hands and the region provides much of the heroin that funds the insurgents.

The international military warned this month that violence in the country, and Helmand in particular, had reached record highs.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said insurgent-initiated attacks from January to May this year across Afghanistan were about 60 percent higher than those for the same period last year.

And Helmand was “in particular experiencing the highest increase” an ISAF spokesman said.

Marine Corps Military

Afghanistan Offensive

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