Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Nawa, Afghanistan -- When President Obama outlines his new strategy for Afghanistan tonight, a pivotal element will focus on the country’s south, where an influx of troops will try to secure the Taliban’s spiritual center and seize a major center for bomb-making and drug-trafficking.
New forces will be concentrated most heavily in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, said officials familiar with the planning. Those provinces are part of Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartland, where the roots of the Taliban movement are deepest.
Plans call for a near-doubling of the Marine contingent in Helmand, which is to grow to about 20,000. That in turn will pave the way for a U.S.-led push to capture the town of Marja, which has remained out of the grasp of Marines who arrived in Helmand five months ago.
The town of about 50,000 people, southwest of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has become a sanctuary for fighters who fled other areas as the Marines cleared them.
With the militants so entrenched, commanders say their own ranks are simply too thin for the all-out assault that would probably be needed. They are also reluctant to leave other towns and villages unprotected by pulling in troops for the expected battle in Marja.
Another crucial task will be to prevent Taliban fighters from further strengthening their foothold in and around Kandahar city, the capital of neighboring Kandahar province and the hub of the south. Taliban insurgents have never abandoned their dreams of recapturing the city, the movement’s birthplace, which they still regard as their spiritual home.
As a result, Kandahar has the distinction of being the most imperiled of Afghanistan’s major population centers. Local officials who cooperate with foreign forces find themselves continually targeted for assassination; Kandahar’s provincial governor last week narrowly escaped without injury the bombing of his convoy.
American and Canadian forces serve as the main lines of defense for Kandahar, and in an indication of the importance accorded that partnership, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces, is to travel soon to the Canadian capital, Ottawa, for consultations.
Late last month, at a news conference in Halifax with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said more allied forces were needed to help secure Kandahar, and an expectation exists for North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries to “up their game.”
As in virtually all the areas of the country where significant buildups of American and other Western forces are to occur, the envisioned new push in Helmand is to have an “Afghan face,” with a highly visible role for Afghan army troops. That tactic is meant to give people here the sense that their own national interests are at stake, rather than the fight being a solely foreign enterprise.
“Wherever we are, they will be too,” said an American Defense official familiar with the broad outlines of the administration’s new initiative.
But that may be easier said than done.
During their initial push into the lower Helmand River valley, Marines -- in the midst of their biggest operation since the 2004 battle of Fallouja in Iraq -- swiftly discovered that there were not enough Afghan troops to help them with crucial tasks like making and maintaining contacts with influential tribal elders.
Afghan security forces are struggling to meet recruitment goals, prompting the government last month to order a 40% pay raise. That will translate to about $140 a month for rank-and-file police officers -- barely enough to compete with Taliban paymasters.
Moreover, the police force is considered particularly prone to infiltration. On Monday, officials in the south’s Nimruz province disclosed that a day earlier, an Afghan police officer had turned his weapon on his colleagues, killing five of them before escaping. He was killed in a subsequent firefight with government forces.
Earlier in the month, five British soldiers were shot to death by a rogue Afghan policeman in Helmand who turned a heavy machine gun on them. That incident caused an outcry in the United Kingdom and sapped support for the British presence in Afghanistan.
In U.S. military circles, there is broad agreement that there are not enough American troops to secure vast, far-flung Helmand -- even though officials point to accomplishments including the reestablishment of local governance in Nawa, a district capital previously under Taliban sway.
On Monday, as helicopters began taking out Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, from Camp Pendleton and replacing them with Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment, from Hawaii, the town’s bazaar was bustling.
“It’s reassuring to see a sense of normality that wasn’t here five months ago,” said Scott Dempsey of the U.S. Agency for International Development, assigned to oversee construction projects in Nawa.
Military officials acknowledge that the troop buildup will carry with it an intensification of the same risks faced every day on the ground -- including more deaths and injuries from improvised explosive devices, the biggest killer of Western troops. Western combat fatalities increased over the summer, and nearly 60 American troops died in October, the most lethal month of the war for U.S. forces.
Afghan civilian casualties caused by coalition forces have dropped off dramatically in recent months, after McChrystal issued stringent new rules of engagement meant to protect noncombatants.
Arriving troops will, as one U.S. official put it, have it “hammered into their foreheads” that preventing civilian deaths is essential to the success of the war effort, but more new troops in the field could translate into greater potential for error, at least initially. Ordinary Afghans appeared torn between hope and skepticism over whether the new American strategy will mark a turning point in a war now in its ninth grinding year.
“Sending more troops is a positive step,” said Ajmal Wasey, waiting his turn at an open-air kebab stand in the capital. “Security should come first.”
Humayoon Hashimi, a waiter in a downtown Kabul restaurant, wasn’t so sure.
“The situation will only get worse,” he said. “Look how long the foreign troops have been here -- what have they accomplished?”