Saturday, May 24, 2008

Major setback for USMC in Helmand

Readers with sound memories will recall that US Marines were operating in Nangarhar province last year, but were sent home after opening fire on civilians in the wake of a suicide attack on their convoy which injured one marine. The incident of March 4, 2007 prompted an investigation by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. It found:
"In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces employed indiscriminate force," the report said. "Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards." ... (link)
The marines' rampage killed 12 people, including a child and three elderly men. A US military judge recently decided not to charge any of the soldiers over the killings, causing outrage among many Afghans.

This year, the marines were sent back to the country and began arriving at Kandahar Air Base around mid-March. However, their arrival was far from smooth, as some sort of bureaucratic SNAFU was in the works which caused a month-long delay in the start of the marines' activities.

On April 9, General Rick Hillier told Canada's foreign affairs committee that the marines would operate under NATO rules: "They are coming in to work for the ISAF mission, which means they work under the NATO rules of engagement," he said. But the issue evidently revolved around who would command the marines. Would it be General Dan McNeill at ISAF's HQ in Kabul or would it be Regional Command South, whose command rotates through British, Dutch and Canadian commanders.

The marines' assault finally began on April 28 in the extreme south of Helmand at a forward operating base likely located in Reg district. Moving north, the marines encountered heavy resistance as they approached the district centre of Garmsir. The Pentagon's news service reported on May 7 that Taliban fighters had attacked the marines "daily" since the start of the operation.The following day, Pajhwok Afghan News reported that six civilians had been killed in the fighting, though it was not known if the Americans or the Taliban were responsible. According to the report, "[Helmand's] provincial council head said most of the district was still in the Taliban's control and that claims [to the contrary] by NATO were not true."

On May 12, the Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno reported:
[P]rovincial government sources, along with aid workers in the region, accuse the Marines of conducting aggressive door-to-door searches, rousting civilians from their homes, arresting innocents and forcing upward of 15,000 Afghans to flee into the hot desert for safety.

None of these claims has been confir- med. How- ever, the U.S. propensity for using air strikes and artillery and mortar barrages in support of their ground troops has much of the domestic media here caterwauling about a suddenly "Americanized war" in Afghanistan...
It is noteworthy that DiManno evidently feels experienced enough in Afghanistan to pass judgment on assessments by local media. Their concerns about the trajectory of the war, presumably informed by years spent living in the war-torn region, are seen by DiManno as mere "caterwauling".
[NATO spokesman in Brussels Carlos] Branco couldn't say if American troops are bound by the same rules of engagement – never specifically spelled out for public dissemination – as their NATO colleagues. "I don't actually know the answer to that question," Branco told the Toronto Star... (link)
Though DiManno deserves some credit for being perhaps the only mainstream journalist to report on the alleged misbehaviour of the marines, her report is tame compared to the UN's humanitarian news agency:
AFGHANISTAN: Call for food aid from conflict-hit Helmand Province

KABUL, May 13 (IRIN) - [...] Over 6,000 families - about 30,000 individuals, mostly women and children - are estimated to have abandoned their homes in Garmsir and flocked to various locations across the province...

Due to problems of access there has been no reliable information about civilian casualties resulting from the conflict.

However, Mohammad Anwar Khan, head of the provincial council, said many civilians had died and some had been wounded in the crossfire... (link)
AP has more:
Marines stay in Afghan town after Taliban influx

GARMSER, May 14 (AP) - U.S. Marines who once planned to be in this southern Afghan town for just a few days are extending their mission by several weeks after facing an influx of Taliban fighters.

The change in plans shows that despite a record number of international troops in the country, forces are still spread thin and U.S...

The 2,400-strong Marine unit met stiff resistance as they moved in. Between 100 and 400 Taliban fighters moved into the Garmser area as the poppy harvest got under way, apparently to defend their interests in the lucrative drug trade.

Maj. Tom Clinton Jr. said the Marines would be in Garmser for several more weeks. It means the Marines might not take part in an operation that was planned in another southern province this month.

"The number of fighters that stood and fought is kind of surprising to me, but obviously they're fighting for something," Clinton said, alluding to poppies...

Commanders say their goal is to rid the region of Taliban fighters so the Afghan government can move in and tackle the drug problem.

The prospects of that happening appear remote...

"We can't be a permanent 24/7 presence. We don't have enough men to stay here," said Staff Sgt. Darrell Penyak, 29, of Grove City, Ohio. "We would need the ANA (Afghan army) to move in, and right now the way we're fighting, there's no way the ANA can come in. They couldn't handle it." (link)
While I can find no other mention of the marines' hoped-for second operation, it is possible that it might have been in Kandahar alongside Canadian troops.On May 19, the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) announced that 1500 families are still displaced by the fighting, while press photos show that the marines were still seeing heavy resistance. And it looks as though the fighting still hasn't let up as the US Air Force reports on close air support for the battle in Garmsir, reporting that "an F-15E dropped guided bomb unit-38s in order to destroy enemy combatants."


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