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Camp Pendleton general: Afghans taking lead in Taliban fight

February 13, 2013 | 12:28 pm

Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Credit: Marine Corps

As Marines return to Camp Pendleton from Afghanistan, fighting continues in volatile Helmand province, but the responsibility for battling the Taliban has now shifted to Afghan forces, the top U.S. general in the region told San Diego reporters Wednesday.

"They're sticking with the fight," Marine Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus said of the Afghan army and police during a teleconference with reporters at Camp Pendleton. The move to put Afghans in the lead represents a "role-reversal" for the Marines, he said.

Still, the fighting "won't end with a surrender," Gurganus said. "It's going to end in some sort of talking, some sort of negotiation."

Of the 7,000 Marines in Afghanistan, about 4,000 are from Camp Pendleton. At the height of the U.S. "surge" in late 2011 into Helmand province, long a Taliban stronghold, there were about 21,000 Marines, drawn from several bases.

Combat units from Camp Pendleton are coming home as the U.S. responsibility for training the Afghans in Helmand province shifts more to Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

With U.S. combat forces slated to remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, there will probably be one final deployment to Afghanistan for Marines from Camp Pendleton, Gurganus said.

While guarded about the long-term prospects for Helmand province, Gurganus was upbeat about improvements in the Afghan army and police, whose competency and honesty have long been criticized.

The Afghan force recently led a successful assault against the Taliban in the area of Marjah, where the Marines had led a battle in 2010. This time, Gurganus said, "this was Afghan-planned, this was Afghan-executed. The only thing we did was [evacuate] some of their more serious casualties."

In the last month, Gurganus said, there was one Marine killed but 21 members of the Afghan National Security Force, an indication, he said, of how the Afghans are now taking the lead in confronting the Taliban.

Gurganus, commander general of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), is set to return to
Camp Pendleton in coming weeks after a year as the top general of U.S. and coalition forces in Helmand and Nimroz provinces in southwestern Afghanistan.

Gurganus pointed to a series of numbers: an increase in schools, health centers, and paved roads, along with an increase in Afghan soldiers and police. But he also cited anecdotal evidence of progress.

"When you see girls go back to school," he said, "it's one of the most heartening things in this province."


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--Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

Photo: Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Credit: Marine Corps