Marine picnic for the Taliban.
Marines stay in Afghan town after Taliban influx
GARMSER, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Marines who once planned to be in this southern Afghan town for just a few days are extending their mission by several weeks after facing an influx of Taliban fighters.
The change in plans shows that despite a record number of international troops in the country, forces are still spread thin and U.S. commanders must make tough choices about where to deploy them.
Manpower problems are acute in Helmand, the largest and probably the most dangerous province in Afghanistan, where the U.S. 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived late last month to open a route to move troops to its southern reaches near the border with Pakistan.
Britain has about 7,500 soldiers in the province, but does not have enough troops to move south of Garmser, a district still largely held by the Taliban and bursting with opium poppy fields.
The 2,400-strong Marine unit met stiff resistance as they moved in. Between 100 and 400 Taliban fighters moved into the Garmser area as the poppy harvest got under way, apparently to defend their interests in the lucrative drug trade.
Maj. Tom Clinton Jr. said the Marines would be in Garmser for several more weeks. It means the Marines might not take part in an operation that was planned in another southern province this month.
"The number of fighters that stood and fought is kind of surprising to me, but obviously they're fighting for something," Clinton said, alluding to poppies. "They're flowing in, guys are going south and picking up arms. We have an opportunity to really clear them out, cripple them, so I think we're exploiting the success we're finding."
Helmand is the hub of opium production in Afghanistan, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the global supply of this raw material of heroin. The Taliban are believed to derive tens of millions of dollars from the trade.
Still, the Marines have been careful not to alienate residents by destroying the poppy fields that poor farmers rely on for income. Commanders say their goal is to rid the region of Taliban fighters so the Afghan government can move in and tackle the drug problem.
The prospects of that happening appear remote. Although thousands of acres of poppy fields are eradicated annually in Afghanistan, it is only a small fraction of the total area sown. Year after year, production has soared and security has deteriorated.
In recognition of the growing threat posed by Taliban militants, there are now almost 70,000 international soldiers in Afghanistan. The U.S. has 33,000, the most since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 ousted the Taliban for giving haven to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
U.S. forces have mostly operated in the east of the country, rather than the south, where NATO has struggled to find nations willing to fight the increasingly bloody insurgency.
U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said he needs three more brigades — two for combat and one to train Afghan soldiers, roughly 7,500 to 10,000 additional soldiers.
When the Marines eventually leave Garmser, any gains the 24th has made could be quickly erased unless other forces from NATO or the Afghan government move in.
"We can't be a permanent 24/7 presence. We don't have enough men to stay here," said Staff Sgt. Darrell Penyak, 29, of Grove City, Ohio. "We would need the ANA (Afghan army) to move in, and right now the way we're fighting, there's no way the ANA can come in. They couldn't handle it."
Afghanistan's army and police forces are steadily growing, but are still not big — or skilled — enough to protect much of the country. Spokesmen for both forces said they were not aware of plans to send forces to Garmser.
Col. Nick Borton, commander of British forces in the southern part of Helmand, recently visited U.S. positions in Garmser, where he told the Americans he'd be happy if they stayed on.
"If they're here for only a short time, we can't build very much off that," he said. "Their presence for a few days doesn't really help us."
A representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm, told Marine battalion commander Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson that "people lose faith if you pull out."
The next day, at a meeting of Marines and Afghan elders, the bearded, turban-wearing men told Marine Capt. Charles O'Neill that the two sides could "join together" to fight the Taliban. "When you protect us, we will be able to protect you," the leader of the elders said.
Despite uncertainties over how secure Garmser, O'Neill liked what he heard.
"We have something here we can really exploit, if we can get some Afghan national police here," he said. "The Marines can definitely do the job, but we're not a permanent presence. With their own people providing their own security they can really get something done."
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxArranged air cover 24/7 and Arty, and settled in for a 6 week picnic, Here talbi, here talibi.