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U.S. Marines run cover for Afghan voters

DARVESHAN, Afghanistan — Only weeks after launching a major strike against Taliban insurgents nested in southern Afghanistan — and days after a smaller-scale follow-up — U.S. Marines are preparing to take a supporting role during national elections here Thursday.

Commanders of Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines met with regional police of Helmand Province’s Garmsir district, as well as Afghan National Army (ANA) command this week to solidify a game plan for the Aug. 20 election. The goal was to have everyone on the same page — or map, as it were.

Local police, Afghan soldiers and U.S. Marines, for example, chose the map they will all be using to ensure accuracy in locating the seven polling sites that are planned for this farming district of 117,000. The sites will be announced by radio broadcast the day before elections.

The Marines will focus on ensuring security at polling stations to guard against Taliban intimidation, said 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines’ executive officer, Maj. Thomas Garnett.

The strategy to push Afghan forces into the inner ring of security is one all International Security Assistance Forces will be adopting across Afghanistan during the national election, and follows close on the heels of Operation Khanjar launched in this region in early July. That operation, which included 4,000 Marines fighting alongside about 650 ANA soldiers, marked the biggest air insertion of Marines since Vietnam, commanders here say.

A smaller operation launched Wednesday to rid the Nawzad region of Helmand Province of Taliban insurgents involved 400 U.S. troops and 100 Afghan soldiers. The offensive was part of the new strategy announced in March by President Barack Obama and being implemented by his commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The strategy calls for international and Afghan troops to secure more parts of the country, and then to stay in those areas to keep the Taliban out and allow the Afghan government to establish its authority and provide services.

The Garmsir district, a lush agricultural zone infamous for its booming poppy crops, flanks the Helmand River, which bisects the province and has proven to be a haven for the Taliban. The terrain variety, from six-foot-tall elephant grass to a system of irrigation canals, has provided cover for the insurgency.

The Helmand River Valley, bordered by Pakistan to the south, “has not been well-developed by ISAF in the past and, as a result, enemy forces have taken great advantage,” said Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

“For the amount of geography that we are currently securing, there really hasn’t been any persistent presence established by ISAF in the past,” he said.

Marines here say that has changed.

While British troops in this region last year were constrained by troop numbers and unable to stay in a location more than a few days, the larger contingent of Marines are now able to stay indefinitely, said 2/8 Commander, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss. Convincing the locals that coalition forces intend to stand their ground will take time, he said.

“I think long term, one of the biggest issues that will help them believe is when the replacement unit for my unit comes and we start introducing them to the next Marine unit.”

This interim arrangement has, however, proved deadly. Since arriving in Helmand in June, the battalion has lost 11 Marines, killed during attacks ranging from small arms fire to improvised explosive devices.

The approaching elections have been a lightning rod for Taliban attacks, according to a regional Afghan Army commander.

“The election this year is the line between past and future,” said Lt. Col. Abdul Hai Neshat, commander of the region’s ANA battalion. “Most people here are not content with the authorities because of the corruption. They’re not doing their job very well.” His unit is one of nine ANA battalions in Helmand, and his troops are scattered among three districts in the province. They would be more effective if they were in one district, he conceded.

“We need more troops in Helmand in order to secure the area, in order to show our presence, because if we go on an operation to take an area, we need to stay there, not leave. If you leave, they come back.”

Hai acknowledged that recruitment for new troops was a tough sell lately. His soldiers currently receive about $180 a month, which he would like to see doubled. They routinely deploy for up to nine months at a time before being granted leave to return home to visit their families. Afterward, they often do not return to duty, he said.

The thin troop number has a sobering impact. “I cannot hold an area, he said. “Without ISAF help, we would not be doing anything.”

Winning the trust of the locals will determine the outcome of this counterinsurgency fight, Marines say.

“If the people feel safe enough that they can go out and vote, that’s what will show us. We’re hoping so, but at the same time, there’s information that the Taliban tries to suppress people, saying if you do this — participate in elections — then there’s going to be retribution,”

Garnett said.

“The question, I guess, that will really be answered on election day is, do the people really feel safe enough to go out and vote?” he added.

“We’re trying to do everything that we can to set the conditions so that they can do that.”

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