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Road out of Afghanistan: On the ground with US troops in potential final push

The recent battle for the Kajaki Valley in Helmand Province, which ended with few casualties and Taliban fighters in flight, may mark the last major operation for US troops in Afghanistan.

By Tom A PeterCorrespondent / December 3, 2011



 

Marine Gen. John Allen, left, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, right, the senior U.S. commander in Helmand Province, confer at Combat Outpost Alcatraz on Nov. 23, just north of Sangin in north-central Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Robert Burns/AP

 

Kajaki Valley, Afghanistan

A group of marines huddles around the top enlisted marine in their unit, who had come to visit newly established US patrol bases throughout the Kajaki Valley in Helmand Province.

A week earlier, they had been part of a force of 600 marines and several Afghan Army and police units who flooded the valley. Though US forces have made progress throughout Helmand during the past year, Kajaki had remained one of the last major areas still under Taliban control.

Now, with several US Marine and Afghan military bases established in the valley and little resistance from the Taliban, the Helmand operation appears to have been more successful than many marines had expected.

Looking to inspire a platoon that had three men medevacked during the initial assault and had been living outdoors without tents or cots since the operation began, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment's Sgt. Maj. Larry Harrington tells the group of assembled marines, "It started for me in Kandahar in 2001, and now I'm seeing the end of it."

While the insurgency continues, the war is indeed nearing its end for the marines in Helmand and for other International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) units elsewhere in the nation. With all the surge forces scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer, and troop levels expected to keep falling from there, this operation is quite possibly the last major US Marine offensive designed to gain and hold new ground for the rest of the war.

"From my perspective, it's the last piece of real estate that ISAF forces are going to really clear," says Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the ISAF commander in the southwest region of Afghanistan.

This ending battle echoed many that had come before, with the US overrunning its foe, the Taliban choosing to flee more often than fight. But a big question lingers over the durability of the gains. Marines express optimism that the lessons learned over the decade-long war will help them stabilize the area and hand it over to the Afghan government.

A decade of war in deadliest province

There are some 140,000 international forces in Afghanistan, a little less than 100,000 are American. US and international troops came here more than a decade ago following the Sept. 11 attacks, when the ruling Taliban regime refused to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Since then the war has grown into a large nation-building effort with the United States alone investing more than $70 billion on development projects designed to strengthen Afghanistan's government and social institutions. Meanwhile, some 1,843 US and 970 international service members have lost their lives here. Another 14,342 have been injured.

Throughout the Afghan war, the south – Helmand in particular – has seen the most fighting. More than 795 international troops have been killed in Helmand, more than in any other province and nearly twice as many as in Kandahar, the second-most deadly province.

There are about 30,000 foreign forces in Helmand, equivalent to about one-third of the US force in Afghanistan. The area has been the primary responsibility of US Marines and British troops.

But will the improvements hold?

Although there are numerous indications that international forces have made progress in Helmand, there are just as many questions among locals about how long these improvements will last.

A report released by the New American Foundation in October found that while locals in Helmand say the Taliban are weaker now compared with 12 months ago, 49 percent of the population say they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in Helmand and Kandahar say that violence will lead to a civil war after international troops withdraw in 2014.


In the face of continued skepticism from the Afghan population, the US Marines pushed into the Kajaki Valley to take this last Taliban stronghold in the hope that it could make the difference for the region's lasting stability. Kajaki is of particular importance because of a dam there that provides electricity for much of southern Afghanistan.
 

Though many marines say Afghan forces in Helmand are increasingly capable, they also say that it was important to take advantage of the Marine presence here to clear out the Kajaki Valley. Afghan forces still lack the specialized equipment and troop levels necessary to conduct the type of major assault required to clear an area this large under insurgent control.

"Once we leave, I think Afghan forces will absolutely be able to have the manpower to hold it, but that initial going in and trying to secure something like this, that does take a lot of force and power that they initially wouldn't have," says Capt. Brandon Turner, operations officer for 1/6 Infantry Battalion.

'Surprised' by lack of fighting'

During the initial assault, the marines and Afghan forces faced about two days of resistance that cost the lives of two marines and injured a handful of others. Shortly after, most of the valley went quiet.

The marines had expected to face much heavier fighting. Once inside the valley, they found a number of abandoned Taliban bunker complexes that indicated insurgents had been ready for a battle.

"Their unwillingness to fight surprised me," says Lance Cpl. Terr­ence Moran, a marine from 1st Platoon, Bravo Company 1/6 Infantry Battalion.

When the operation started, the marines and Afghan forces inserted into the valley from the north, south, and center, which many say caused insurgents in the area to feel overwhelmed.

"I think they expected us to come from one direction, and only that direction, so they were confused," says Moran.

Prior to the operation there had been no bases inside the valley, except for a small US base next to the dam. Taliban domination of the area had grown so strong that locals said the roads leading in and out of the valley were unsafe, and villagers around the dam lived virtually under siege.

"The situation in Kajaki was really bad before the operation," says Ghulam Ali Baryal, a tribal elder from Kajaki. "People were stuck in the area around the dam. They were concerned that there would be food shortages because no food or supplies were arriving to the city and the farmers couldn't export their crops outside Kajaki."

Marines bring hard-won lessons to bear

As is the plan throughout Afghanistan, the marines will gradually cede ground to their Afghan counterparts as they leave Helmand. For now, there is much optimism among the marines working here.

After 10 years of the US-led war, it's common for soldiers and marines inheriting the security responsibility of an area to be hampered by the mistakes of the unit that preceded them, or even those of units that were stationed in the area years before. But the 1/6 Infantry Battalion is the first international unit based in Kajaki Valley.

"Kajaki is kind of like a blank slate for us," says Lt. Stephen Grodek, who commands Bravo Company's 1st Platoon.

Many marines say they hope they can take what they've learned in a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and apply it here.

One example: When the military began to focus heavily on development projects as part of their strategy to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people, units would make big promises about what services they could provide. Many were broken, causing locals to lose faith in foreign forces. Marines say it is now critical to keep expectations on both sides in check and promise only what they can provide.

"We were able to take the lessons we learned in other districts ... so you don't come in and create the wrong expectations or start inadvertently working through the wrong people. We're able to take a lot of those lessons and do it the right way in Kajaki," says Lt. Col. George Benson commander of 1/6 Infantry Battalion.

 


 

Current Middle East Strategies and News Releases

Christian Science Monitor

The war in Iraq: soldiers assess 'peaks and valleys,' prospects of a final attack

As they prepare for the final exit from the war in Iraq, US troops aim to avoid any spectacular attack – and take stock of a conflict that gave the Middle East its worst violence in recent decades.

Soldiers of the US Army's 115th Brigade Support Battalion hoist tow bars as they rehearse mounting a withdrawal convoy of armored vehicles from Iraq south to Kuwait at their location 25 miles southeast of Baghdad at Kalsu Base, Iraq, on November 22, 2011. With less than 20,000 American troops left in Iraq from a peak of more than 170,000, US commanders say they are on track for a total withdrawal by December 31, which will end the 8 1/2-year US military presence in Iraq that saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a brutal civil war and insurgency, and finally a deadlocked democratic Iraqi government.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images


 By Scott Peterson, Staff writer / November 26, 2011
 

Kalsu Base, Iraq

As he watches yet another U.S.Military column prepare to drive across Iraq’s southern desert wastelands and withdraw into Kuwait, US ARMY Col. Scott Efflandt fears the impact of any final strike against his troops.
 

"What we worry about is a disproportional attack that taints the overall accomplishments," says Efflandt, speaking at this dusty staging post 30 miles south of Baghdad.

"So a spectacular rocket attack – which has happened in Iraq repeatedly in the years we've been here – if that's the last thing that happens in Iraq, you know, like a chef at a restaurant, you're only as good as your last meal,” says Efflandt.

From its first "shock and awe" moments in March 2003, the American invasion of Iraq was about shaping perceptions. The bombing of Baghdad, live on TV, was meant to be so overwhelming that Suddam Husseins's regime would crumble – and along with it, the resolve of America's enemies from Al Qaeda on down.

Nearly nine years later, as American forces fully withdraw by Dec. 31, the US military is eager to do what it can to shape the legacy of a war that has witnessed the worst violence in the Middle East in recent decades, bitterly divided Americans over its cost in blood and treasure, and has now almost become a distraction or forgotten by the public at large.

Fewer than 20,000 US troops are left here, down from a peak of more than 170,000. The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, told US troops on Thanksgiving that attacks would likely continue until the end.

"They are probably going to shoot at us the last day that we are here," Austin said at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

American soldiers who have spent the most time in Iraq – many of them upwards of three years of their lives, during three deployments – often have the most optimistic view, because they fought and bled during the vicious insurgency and sectarian civil war, and see relative calm today.

Violence levels are well down from those dark days, and an Iraqi government is in place, even if plagued by political deadlock. Though the US occupation was tainted in the minds of many Iraqis with scandals such as Abu Ghraib, and the deaths of almost certainly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, US soldiers on the ground hope a better legacy will prevail.

Their own losses have been substantial, with some 4,500 dead Americans, seven times that many wounded, a rise of veteran suicide rates, and dwindling support at home for a conflict launched to find weapons of mass destruction that never existed.

"It's history. We came in and helped some people," says Sgt. Robert West who arrived for his first tour during the month in 2007 that claimed the highest number of US lives. He has since spent 32 months in Iraq during three tours.

"The Iraqis that I talk to, they don't mind us being here – some of them like it," says West. "I think we helped and set them up for their success."

There have been "a lot of peaks and valleys," says Sgt. First Class Jeffrey Wilkes of Silver, Texas, a little more candidly. Iraq is "completely different; when we first came through in '03, it was a pretty messed-up place."
 

"I think we're leaving this place better than we found it," says Wilkes. "We're on the road a lot, and I see kids going to school, infrastructure. I didn't see that in '03-'04. If I saw kids on the road [then] they were usually begging for something."

Running convoys, Wilkes says this 115th Brigade Support Battalion has "been up and down" Iraq since it arrived last August. "Think it's a lot safer place than it used to be."

Almost by definition, individual soldiers only see a limited slice of the conflict, especially on a battlefield as expansive and varied as Iraq's. Since 2009, when US troops handed control of the cities to Iraqi forces, direct contact with Iraqis has shriveled further.

Multiple deployments shape a longer-term view

But multiple deployments add perspective for some US officers.

The result for Iraqis has been "mixed," says Maj. Timothy Draves of Hoffman, Ill., who is on his third deployment and has tallied 30 months in Iraq. "You get some guys who want you to stay – I was up in the Kurdish region, that wants to you stay – and you get other regions that say, 'Ah, we need you to go.' "

"Time will tell" if it was worth it  – for the prolonged separations from his family, as well as more strategically for the US and Iraq, says Draves, as he watches soldiers strap heavy tow bars to an armored vehicle.

Was it worth it for the Iraqis?

"Getting rid of a dictator, and to get a democratic society? Probably so," says Draves. "They might not see it now. But I think in the future they could see they are better off. I was there for the provincial elections in '08, and people dipping their finger in the purple ink saying they voted, they were proud of it."

Coming to terms with the death toll on both sides would require "a longer perspective, because it is hard to separate yourself from those events," says Draves.

Perspective is also gained by time, in a country where a large segment of the population were children when Baghdad was rocked by "shock and awe," and decades of repressive dictatorship ended overnight.

Efflandt says he has seen "stunning differences" in the course of his three tours, the first in 2004 when the insurgency was just gathering steam and there was a "noticeable vacuum of power."
 

The final chapter? Not written yet.

"The final chapter is not written," says the US Army colonel, from Rock Island, Ill. "But there are ideas that are now resonant in the culture that were not anywhere near resonant when I first came here for reconnaissance in 2003. People have an expectation that their voice is heard, and there was nothing like that in 2003.

"You'll hear statements from youth that, 'Oh, it was better when Saddam was here,' adds Efflandt. "Having met people in 2004 that showed you the bill they got billed for the bullet that killed their uncle – I've seen that – the 26-year-old [Iraqi] who is unhappy now hasn't seen that."

"I'm pretty sure they're happy we're leaving," says Spec. Steve Caudle, from Prineville, Ore "Not just like, 'We finally got rid of them,' but just the fact that they can feel they've got back completely what is theirs.

"There's going to be bitterness with a lot of [Iraqis]. I'm not saying everybody – not everybody's experience is the same – I'm sure some of them had bad experiences."

The perspective is the same for many Americans, both at home and in Iraq, says Caudle, who has spent 33 months in Iraq of his 28 years.

"A lot of people feel it's time to leave, [but] I feel overall there's not too much negativity from it," says Caudle. "Being here as long as I have, it's kind of nice to know when I leave there isn't anybody who needs to replace me. It's just shut off the lights and be done with it."

A 'triangle of death' quiets down

One measure of change is the experience of troops in this area, beyond the edges of what was called the "triangle of death" south of Baghdad during the sectarian killing that peaked with death tolls in 2006 and 2007 as high as 3,000 per month in the capital.
 

In recent years it has been relatively peaceful, thereby providing a different experience for some US troops, who have experienced Iraqi hospitality – such as being invited to Iraqi homes for meals – that was once in very short supply.

In many regions, during much of the past nine years, any association at all with Americans – whether real or imagined – could result in killing by Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias. 

"Local nationals get on with us very well, they feed us dinner, they always invite us to their homes; if anything happens in that area, they come and find whoever is out on patrol and gives them a heads up," says Sergeant First Class Tony Fishburne, from Walterboro, S.C.

"The situation [Iraqis] see now is much better than in past years ... they said security has improved 10 times more than it was ... they're not happy that we're leaving."

Fishburne was one of the first US troops to arrive in Baghdad, taking part in the original "Thunder Run" into the capital which marked the American arrival.

"I never thought I would be back, that from 2003 to now we would still be doing patrols," says Fishburne. This tour, the Americans are "more in the advisory role" of Iraq units, whom he says are "just as talented."

From 500-plus bases to eight

As US troops here pack up this base, one of only eight that remain, down from more than 500, they are aware of the high cost – and the doubts back home about the Iraq war.

Sgt First Class Rogers Davis, from Ocala, FL, has been a "casualty assistance officer" at the unit's base at Fort Hood, Texas. His job, alongside a chaplain, is to inform families in person about the death of a family member, and then support them through the aftermath.

"It's a very hard thing to do. Face-to-face, knock on the door, and try to build the courage to actually say the words to notify them that their loved one has passed, and the reason why," says Davis. "They won't open the door. It might take a number of days, where you're just sitting and waiting until someone answers the door. You wait. Come back, knock on the door."

"Doubts, you have a lot of doubts" among grieving families, says Staff Sgt. Kimberly Havis of the Louisianna National Guard, from Choudrant, La. She has been in Iraq since February, but her job at home is with the state's organization for military funeral honors. She says she volunteered for Iraq, to better understand the sacrifice those troops had made.

Louisiana has had 43 service members killed in Iraq; she has been with many mourning families.

"At that time, a family is dealing with so much mentally that it is hard to hold that sense of pride and have closure – the family just feels anger," says Havis. "We don't want a soldier's family to ever lay them to rest and not have honor and pride for what their soldier stood for."


 

Current Middle East Strategies and News Releases


Pentagon

Sources: Obama Administration to Drop Troop Levels in Iraq to 3,000

Published September 06, 2011

FoxNews.com

iraq_bombing_AP

AP        Aug. 15: Iraqis inspect the site of a bombing in Kirkuk, Iraq.
 

The Obama administration has decided to drop the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of the year down to 3,000, marking a major downgrade in force strength, multiple sources familiar with the inner workings and decisions on U.S. troop movements in Iraq told Fox News.

Senior commanders are said to be livid at the decision, which has already been signed off by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The generals on the ground had requested that the number of troops remaining in Iraq at the end of the year reach about 27,000. But, there was major pushback about "the cost and the political optics" of that decision that the number was then reduced to 10,000. 

Commanders said they could possibly make that work "in extremis," in other words, meaning  they would be pushing it to make that number work security-wise and manpower-wise. 

Now, sources confirm that the administration has pushed the Pentagon to cut the number even lower, and commanders are concerned for the safety of the U.S. troops who would remain there. 

"We can't secure everybody with only 3,000 on the ground nor can we do what we need to with the Iraqis," one source said. 

A senior military official said by reducing the number of troops to 3,000, the White House has effectively reduced the mission to training only. 

"There is almost no room for security operations in that number; it will be almost purely a training mission," this official said. The official added that a very small number of troops within that 3,000 will be dedicated to counter-terrorism efforts, but that's not nearly what Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wanted.

This shift is seen by various people as a cost-saving measure and a political measure. The only administration official fighting for at least 10,000 forces to stay in Iraq at the end of the year was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sources said. But she has lost the battle. 

Responding to the news, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who has traveled to Iraq many times, said that in all the conversations he has had on force strength, he has "never heard a number as low as 3,000 troops to secure the gains Iraqis have won over the years." 

Lieberman said his first question for the administration is whether the number is one Iraqis had requested or if it was chosen according to other criteria. Any of the plans will require Iraqi approval, and on that front, the Pentagon recently secured a commitment from the Iraqis to start negotiations, but they have not agreed to any number. 

Fox News' Bret Baier contributed to this report



 

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