By Laurent Hamida
GARMSIR, Afghanistan, July 12 (Reuters) - "Do you know who these men are?" a U.S. Marine asks residents, gesturing to Afghan border police near the recently captured town of Garmsir. But the answer is always "no", no one has ever seen the force before.
The Afghan border police, accompanied by U.S. Marines, went out on patrol for the first time this week since Garmsir district centre was recaptured from Taliban control in April. No one knows or can remember the last time the border police were seen there.
A fighting force of some 2,200 U.S. Marines was deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year to make up for shortfalls in troops Washington failed to persuade other NATO allies to fill.
The Marines moved into Garmsir district in late April, taking up positions east of the river that cuts through the desert region, and in early May began a fierce fight to push Taliban militants west and south.
"This is the first integrated patrol today. It's just kind of a test one for both sides, so they can get to know us, we get to know them and they start to learn how we operate," said Lieutenant Marc Matzke.
Garmsir, at the southern end of the inhabited green strip along the Helmand River, had been a transit and logistics hub for Taliban fighters moving in from the south. Helmand is also the largest opium producing region in the world.
NEW GUYS ON THE BLOCK Government presence in the largely empty desert south of the district centre all the way to the Pakistan border some 80 km (50 miles) distant has always been either poor or non-existent, said Captain John Moder of the U.S. Marines.
His men's mission, he said, was to secure a perimeter around the town, which had been captured by the Taliban, and help the government establish its authority in the area. The long-term plan is to extend that perimeter, he said.
Although the district centre is now under control of U.S. Marines, there are still insurgents left in the surrounding areas, but Marines are not being engaged like before.
The Marines were sent to Garmsir as the more than 8,000 mainly British forces in Helmand, holding a string of bases to the north, did not have the numbers to take the town alone.
Since beginning the operation the U.S. Marines have killed more than 400 Taliban, the governor of Helmand said this week, a figure the U.S. military supports.
With the Marines due to leave in October the question had always been what would happen after they went. They had been intended as a mobile force to be replaced by other foreign and Afghan troops to hold the ground they had captured.
But so far due to the lack of either government or other foreign forces, the Marines have stayed in Garmsir, security experts said. Last week the U.S. government extended the Marines' tour of duty by 30 days till November.
The Marines are hoping visual patrols with Afghan border police witnessed this week will increase public confidence in the area as well as keep insurgents away from the district centre.
"You know, the locals, when they are asked questions like: who do you talk to when you have problems, who do you go to to have these problems fixed? They say, we go to our government; our officials," said Matzke.
But for the residents in Garmsir anybody who fixes their problem is the official. Two months ago it just happened that they were Taliban, he said.
"But now we are trying to show them that there are some new guys in town." (Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Jerry Norton) (Kabul newsroom, +93 799 335 284))