| CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan U.S. Marines in the vanguard of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan "surge" will face a bloody fight for the last major Taliban bastion in southern Helmand Province, their commander said.
Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, who now commands 10,000 Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan's deadliest province, said the reinforcements would be sent before next summer to take the town of Marja, which he called the militants' "end of the line".
"It's no secret we're going there. There's an inevitability that there's a date with destiny with Marja and we're moving toward that," Nicholson told Reuters and CNN in an interview at Camp Leatherneck, the Marines' sprawling headquarters in Helmand.
Under Nicholson's command, Marines seized most of the lower Helmand River valley in the biggest offensive of the 8-year-old war in July, leaving only Marja, a warren of irrigation canals on the outskirts of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
At the time, the Marines met only sporadic resistance from the Taliban, many of whom retreated to Marja, their last redoubt. Nicholson said the fighters no longer have a place to go in the province, setting the stage for a decisive showdown.
"Our indications are ... that the enemy is going to stay and fight," he said. "Every indication is that this is where the enemy feels secure, this is where he feels safe, this is where he has his minefields and IEDs (homemade bombs)."
"This is kind of it for him though. This is, for our area, his last spot. There are no other sanctuaries in Helmand province. There are no other places he can go. Marja for him is the end of the line."
A unit of 1,500 Marines is due to begin arriving in Afghanistan within days, the first of 8,500 in total that will nearly double the Marine contingent in the next few months.
Nicholson said Afghan security forces would hopefully head the Marja operation, with extensive training planned for the next few months.
"We're going to come in together. We're going to take Marja back," Nicholson said, adding that a district governor had already been selected for the town.
"We're building a team around him of Afghans and U.S. and U.K. representatives to go in and ... try to take care of people quickly."
A centerpiece of Obama's Afghanistan strategy is the training of Afghan security forces to a point where NATO forces can withdraw. Obama has said a U.S. troop withdrawal would begin in 18 months, raising alarm bells among some in the Afghan political and military leadership, who fear being abandoned.
Nicholson, whose present forces arrived in May in a previous increase ordered by Obama earlier this year, would not say how realistic the 18-month deadline was but said he was optimistic about what could be achieved in that time-frame.
"I am more than cautiously optimistic, I'm very excited about what we've been able to do in six (months) and the potential of what you can do in 18 more is very significant," he said.
Success depends on building capable and loyal Afghan forces, a difficult feat especially in the south, where many Afghan recruits quit due to poor pay and dangerous conditions. Nicholson's Marines in Helmand outnumber the Afghan security forces they are supposed to be assisting by four to one.
Nicholson said the Afghan ministries of interior and defense had promised 17,000 Afghan soldiers and police for Helmand by the end of next year, a nearly seven-fold increase from 2,500 now.
Many Afghan troops are under-trained, with only 13 percent of the police in the Marines' area of operations having been to any kind of school, Nicholson said. This was changing, he added.
"We've ended the practice of hiring guys and putting them in uniforms just to make numbers and waiting to send them to school," he said. "Our goal by the time my unit leaves is that every policeman walking the street of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade's is a graduate of a school."
"Imagine if we had 20,000 Marines and 17,000 Afghans. Wow, we would really be able to make a difference here, it would be more than cosmetic, it would be more than just perfunctory," he said. "We would be making real progress." (Editing by Jerry Norton) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)