Marine general says U.S. succeeding in Afghanistan but gains not yet 'irreversible'
The top Marine in Afghanistan says the Marines from Camp Pendleton and other bases, along with troops from coalition nations, are successfully thwarting a Taliban counter-offensive in Helmand province and also training Afghan forces to ultimately take responsibility for protecting the province.
But he wishes the Kabul government would increase its efforts to provide services to villagers in the province, particularly in Sangin where the Marines ousted the Taliban after months of fighting.
"Sangin is an important area that needs to come under the influence of the Afghan government," said Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who assumed command of U.S. and coalition forces in Helmand province in mid-March.
Toolan also said that Pakistan is not providing enough help in keeping Taliban fighters and supplies from flowing from Pakistan into Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The Camp Pendleton-based 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment is expanding the sense of security for villagers in Sangin, Toolan said.
The 1/5 replaced the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, also from Camp Pendleton, that had 25 killed and more than 200 wounded. During months of fighting, the 3/5 pushed the Taliban into the fringes of the community.
Still, progress in Sangin and elsewhere in the province remains fragile, Toolan said. "Nothing is irreversible," he said.
The 1/5 has had seven Marines killed since late April. Two have been killed from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment from Twentynine Palms. In all, 30 Marines have been killed since April 1.
The Taliban's weapon of choice continues to be the roadside bomb. Toolan said the Marines find a high percentage of such bombs before they can detonate -- a capability that may increase, he said, with the recent arrival of new technology.
Taliban fighters rely on the roadside bombs because they no longer have the capability to attempt much in the way of small-arms fighting, he said. "They don't have the supplies, the resources to keep the pressure up."
The provincial capital of Lashkar Gah is being returned to Afghan control, Toolan said. British troops under his command have departed the city, with the Afghan army and police now taking the lead in providing security.
Marines on the Afghan side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are disrupting long-established "rat-lines" used by the Taliban to bring fighters and supplies from Pakistan into Helmand and Kandahar provinces, Toolan said.
A conference was held recently in the Afghan city of Spin Boldak to discuss increased cooperation between the two sides. The U.S. has long wanted Pakistan to be more aggressive in stopping its country from being a sanctuary for the Taliban.
"I think it's an OK relationship but I don't think the Pakistanis share enough information with us that we can do something about it," Toolan said. "We're talking but talk is cheap."
Toolan is a veteran commander from the war in Iraq. He led Marines during the assault on Baghdad in 2003 and the fighting in Fallouja in 2004.
In any war, the nature of the conflict changes over time, Toolan said. "In Iraq, we went in to fight the [Saddam Hussein's] Republican Guard and ended up fighting the fedayeen [a Sunni insurgency]," he said.
And in Afghanistan, the goal has now shifted toward preparing the Afghan forces for the eventual leavetaking of the U.S. and other Westerners.
"We're at a critical stage this year," Toolan said in a telephone interview from Camp Leatherneck, the Marines' base in Helmand province. "...We need to set [the Afghans] up for success."
-- Tony Perry in San Diego
Photo: Marines patrol Sangin district of Helmand province, Afghanistan. Credit: Marine Corps