KABUL (Reuters) - Concrete signs of Washington’s new strategy for Afghanistan are taking shape with the final elements of some 8,500 U.S. Marines arriving in southern Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, to bolster over-stretched British forces.
The Marines launched a helicopter assault early on Thursday in the lower Helmand river valley, with nearly 4,000 Marines and U.S. sailors and about 650 Afghan troops and police involved.
The Marines are the biggest single wave of an additional 17,000 extra U.S. troops and 4,000 more to train Afghan forces ordered by President Barack Obama. U.S. forces will reach 68,000 by year-end, more than double the 32,000 at the end of 2008.
Former special operations chief General Stanley McChrystal has meanwhile taken command of the present 90,000 U.S. and NATO troops with the Pentagon saying it is time for “fresh thinking.”
Following are questions and answers about the new strategy and the main areas McChrystal wants to address.
McChrystal has a second-in-command in a newly created post. Lieutenant General David Rodriguez is in charge of the day-to-day running of foreign forces in Afghanistan. This mirrors the structure used in Iraq by General David Petraeus, now commander of U.S. forces in central Asia and the Middle East.
This allows McChrystal to focus on strategy, diplomacy and training Afghan security forces. He and Rodriguez have been close friends for more than 30 years.
McChrystal has also beefed up his media strategy, calling Rear Admiral Greg Smith out of retirement. Smith coordinated communications in Iraq for Petraeus.
Since taking over last month, McChrystal has told commanders in Afghanistan he wants a “cultural shift” away from conventional warfare toward counter-insurgency operations aimed at winning the support of Afghans.
His predecessor General David McKiernan was removed, most experts believe, because Washington was losing patience with conventional tactics that failed to quell mounting violence.
McChrystal has said most forces in Afghanistan were designed for conventional “high-intensity” combat using every asset available. One of his priorities now will be to draw insurgents away from ordinary Afghans, saying foreign forces need “to convince people, not kill them.”
That would make the new Afghan strategy similar to that Petraeus used in Iraq under the so-called surge from early 2007. If McChrystal follows that pattern, the Marines will push out of large base camps to establish smaller forward operating bases, or FOBs, to live and fight among ordinary Afghans.
The same strategy might also see the use of community-based guard forces along the lines of tribal councils that sprang up among Sunni Muslim communities in western Iraq at roughly the same time as the surge, a major turning point in the war there.
McChrystal has repeatedly pledged to take steps to limit civilian casualties, especially from air strikes, which have infuriated Afghans and turned them against foreign forces.
He is expected to issue orders soon requiring troops to disengage from combat when possible to reduce civilian deaths. He also says air strikes should only be called in if soldiers on the ground are under imminent threat and at risk of being over-run.
The issue was brought into sharp focus in May when U.S. B1 bombers killed dozens of civilians in western Afghanistan.
McChrystal used to command JSOC, the most elite and secretive branch of the U.S. military’s special forces tasked with hunting down “high-value targets” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His men are believed to have helped capture Saddam Hussein and kill both of Saddam’s sons.
McChrystal has said killing or capturing high value-targets would still be part of the strategy in Afghanistan but he has also said he understands it has its limits.
“You don’t really need to chase and kill the Taliban. What you need to do is take away the one thing they absolutely have to have and that’s access and support of the people,” he said.