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US begins handing over bases to Afghan military

Marines plan to shift troops to desert posts

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post / November 7, 2010

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NAWA, Afghanistan — US Marines have begun handing over some of their small bases to the Afghan army in this once-volatile district in the country’s southwest, a transition that top military commanders intend to cite as proof that the Obama administration’s troop escalation and counterinsurgency strategy are succeeding.

The transfer, which calls for most Marines to withdraw from populated parts of Nawa and consolidate in a series of desert bases by the spring, would allow the overall number of US troops in the district — now about 1,000 — to be reduced by next summer.

Senior Marine officers said insurgent attacks in Nawa have declined significantly and the capacity of the Afghan army to operate independently has increased.

But the Marine plan still envisages a significant US military presence in the desert and in the district’s main town to provide emergency backup to Afghan soldiers, mentor the fledgling police force, and interdict insurgents seeking to enter the area.

Marine Major General Richard P. Mills, the top US and NATO commander in southwestern Afghanistan, said he is planning a “thinning out, as opposed to an exit,’’ to maintain the ability “to respond to prevent catastrophic failure.’’

The situation in Nawa suggests that the hand over might lead to the same kinds of differing interpretations that have clouded recent reports of progress in the war, particularly the killing of insurgent commanders by coalition commandos and the talks between a few senior Taliban leaders and members of the Afghan government.

Military officials have hailed both as important steps forward, but intelligence analysts and diplomats have been more skeptical of their effect on the conflict.

The Marines’ assessment that they are needed in Nawa beyond next summer — the two-year mark for US forces in the district — could influence a White House review of the war set for December. Senior administration officials said military leaders had promised President Obama late last year that it would be possible to transfer areas to Afghan security forces after 18 to 24 months of counterinsurgency operations.

“If we can’t get out of Nawa in two years, that calls into question some of the basic assumptions of the COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy,’’ said a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

A farming community of about 80,000 people along the Helmand River, Nawa is regarded by many military and civilian officials to be a model of counterinsurgency operations and the most stable district among those targeted with new forces authorized by Obama last year.

Senior military officials insist that Afghans will have principal responsibility for maintaining order in the district by next summer, effectively fulfilling the two-year promise, and that the continued presence of US forces is intended to prevent backsliding.

“What’s happening in Nawa is what we said would happen: We’re transitioning in two years,’’ said a senior US military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. “Doing overwatch of the Afghan forces doesn’t mean it’s not a transition.’’

The military officials said a final decision on how many troops will remain in the area after next summer will not be made until spring and that it could involve a far greater drawdown than the Marines are forecasting.

US and NATO forces have handed over bases to the Afghan army over the past few years in places that never had much insurgent violence or were deemed unimportant to the campaign against the Taliban. Nawa is the first district to begin transitioning among those that received additional forces because they were assessed by commanders to be too critical to fail.

Marine officers said that in the coming months, they plan to begin transitioning three other districts in Helmand province that, like Nawa, were subjected to comprehensive counterinsurgency operations starting last year.

The transfer entails significant risks. Although Nawa is one of the most secure districts in this part of Afghanistan, Taliban fighters continue to plant homemade bombs on roads and threaten residents who cooperate with the government. The Marines are betting that ragtag soldiers and a police force beset with internal divisions will be able to hold their own and maintain public confidence.

“If the people feel you’ve left them early, and the Taliban exacts revenge, we’ll never get them back,’’ said Marine Colonel David Furness, the regimental commander responsible for central Helmand province. “There are a lot of people in Nawa who have voted with their lives. We owe them security.’’

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