Cpl. Jason Ducote, a fire team leader with 3rd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, uses the scope of his rifle to check out suspicious activity while Pfc. Jacob Cooper, an assaultman with the 3rd Platoon, provides security on the outskirts of Marjah in February. (Lance Cpl. Tommy Bellegarde / Marine Corps)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — U.S. forces face a tough summer in Afghanistan, and the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah and other parts of Helmand province will be among the most treacherous, said a top officer overseeing operations there from the Pentagon.
"One thing I caution people is to not look at all of Afghanistan through the filter of Marjah because Marjah and Helmand are the toughest places in Afghanistan," said Army Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, director of the joint Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell. "So we can't judge the success of the entire endeavor on how tough it is in the hardest area. We have to look across the board at the entire country, and there are many areas where we are seeing a greater degree of stability."
Nicholson's comments on Marjah, taken over by the Corps following an assault launched Feb. 13, came during a wide-ranging April 21 forum on Afghanistan attended by numerous Marine generals at Marine Corps University.
Marine units have performed well in securing areas up and down the Helmand River valley, Nicholson said, but Marjah is still among the most unstable areas in the country. The general also said that for all the efforts of troops on the ground, it is still uncertain whether civilians in southern Afghanistan can be swayed to trust their local government after years of instability, indifference and corruption.
"This is not a sure thing," he said, speaking to a crowd of about 200 officers and foreign policy analysts. "It's going to be tough, and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. We have a lot of difficult days ahead of us, especially in terms of governance ... and people feeling that connection to their government. We're obviously working very hard to make that part successful."
The operations in Marjah will continue while U.S. forces prepare for new operations in neighboring Kandahar province. Nicholson said they will begin in June and July, with forces that haven't yet arrived in Afghanistan leading the way. He didn't say which units could be involved, but with the Corps' buildup downrange complete, it would appear the Army is in line to lead operations near Kandahar city, a sprawling city of about 850,000 people.
Nicholson said Kandahar operations will be conducted differently than in Marjah — and they likely will involve seizing less terrain.
"It won't be the same as Marjah, which had a D-Day where we moved into a very well-defined enemy enclave, then cleared it," he said. "For those of you who have been to Iraq, [the Marjah assault] wasn't as much kinetic activity as some of what we saw in Iraq, but it was more kinetic than what Kandahar city will be."
Problems training Afghans
U.S. forces also will continue to train Afghan army and police forces this summer, but it needs to step up the pace, officials said. The Afghan National Army currently has control over half of Kabul province, just east of the capital city, but isn't in charge anywhere else and needs to be pushed to improve, said retired Marine Col. Jeff Haynes, who also spoke at the forum.
Haynes, who oversaw 700 U.S. trainers in 2008 as commander of Regional Corps Advisory Command-Central, said the problems in the ANA go straight to the top in the capital, where the "Kabul mafia" of politically connected Afghan officers lacks leadership.
"There's not enough good leaders in the ANA to go around, and that results in a lack of accountability and initiative," he said. "These guys are smart. They're clever people. They can do more, and they're playing us. We need to stand up to that and stomp them out of that now."
The Afghan army, however, has some impressive enlisted leaders and rank-and-file soldiers, he said. While acknowledging it wouldn't be easy, Haynes said the U.S. should consider pressing the Afghan government to develop a commissioning program for promising senior noncommissioned officers and have them take over for corrupt officers.
"There are fantastic sergeants major out there, young guys, senior NCOs who are in their late 20s and 30s," said Haynes, the vice president of operations for Glevum Associates, an independent research center in Washington. "It's a young army, so they make sergeant major pretty quick. Some of those guys, if I had my way, I'd make them majors tomorrow."