MARJA, Afghanistan, March 30, 2010 — The Marines who work at the governmental center here would feel right at home at an old cavalry post in the American West.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited with local and provincial Afghan leaders and with U.S. Marines here today. The admiral said he wants to talk to the people on the ground to get a feel for how operations in this southern Afghanistan city are going.
The center looks like Fort Apache with razor wire and Hesco barriers. The center itself is a two-story building in the middle of a roughly five-acre piece of property. Guard towers are at the entrance, and the whole is surrounded by a 12-foot mud wall.
On one side of the square, Afghan National Civil Order Police and Marines live side by side in tents. The tents are surrounded by Hesco barriers that are so new that some of them are not filled with dirt yet. On the other side of the compound, Afghans are drilling a well.
“We hope to hook up a shower tent to it,” said Marine Corps Cpl. Chris Learish, a communications expert with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. None of the Marines working at the compound has had a shower for almost two months.
In the center of the compound, the Afghans erected an awning where Mullen first received briefings from U.S. and Afghan military and police leaders, then met with about 30 elders and tribal leaders from the surrounding area.
The Afghan leaders came for a shura – a meeting of community leaders — hosted by Helmand province’s Gov. Gulab Mangel. Following the shura, Mullen walked down the street outside the government center. Finally, he sat down and had a field-ration lunch with the Marines doing the tough jobs in Marja.
If there was any doubt about who owned the compound, four Afghan flags flew from its highest points.
The operation in Marja tested the new strategy for Afghanistan, and Mullen said he wanted to hear from the people on the ground how it worked. Afghan leaders – including President Hamid Karzai – helped to plan the operation, and local leaders asked for coalition and Afghan security forces to help them.
Marine Corps Col. Randy Newman, commander of the 6th Regimental Combat Team, briefed Mullen first. He spoke of the fight the Marines had in Marja – a large agricultural area that the Taliban had controlled for more than two years. He was followed by Marine Corps Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, who spoke of the fight in the town.
Afghan Police Col. Sakhi, commander of the Afghan Civil Order Police partnered with the Marines, spoke of the fight and what his police have been doing to extend government control. Afghan army Col. Nawrooz, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 215th Corps, ended the series of briefings.
The shura hosted by Mangel was an eye-opener for Mullen and for the staff accompanying him.
“They’re not shy, are they?” said Navy Capt. John Kirby, the chairman’s spokesman. Leader after leader got up and spoke his mind – they were all men – to the admiral and the governor. Some praised the way the operation went. Others complained of the lack of progress in getting services to the people.
All wanted more schools, a working hospital, road projects and electricity. Other leaders railed against the cultivation of poppy in the region, and wanted the coalition and the government to do something about it.
Mangel told Mullen through a translator that his big job “is to get the trust of the people. If we can win their trust, we can win this war.”
Mullen also spoke during the shura.
“This is your country, your province, your people,” he said. “You have been through very difficult times and lost many friends. But there has been a great change in the past days, and I would like to ensure that the focus is on you and your families.
“It is for you to lead … and us to support,” the admiral continued. “You have to lead so that security that has changed this town in such a positive way can be sustained and the government can provide services for you all.”
Later, Mullen said he was pleased with what he learned in the town and that the governor is a very impressive leader.
“I’m encouraged by watching his leadership in that shura,” he said to reporters traveling with him. “I was encouraged by the number of people that came out and, recognizing that security was important, still encouraged by the list – education, roads, medical, crops – that they had.”
Mullen said the Marines he spoke with were comfortable with the mission, but they did speak to him about the rules of engagement. The rules are written in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties. Right after President Barack Obama announced the strategy in December, the chairman traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., and Camp Lejeune, N.C., to speak with the soldiers and Marines who would carry out that strategy.
“These Marines certainly represent that, and there are some tough decisions they have to make,” Mullen said. “They have some concerns, but they really do get the issue of civilian casualties. Their concerns are the tension between calling in air or artillery support versus the potential of creating civilian casualties.”
He said there was no push-back from the Marines that tactical success can lead to strategic defeat.
“I said to them, if we keep killing Afghan civilians, we might as pack it up and go home. It isn’t going to work,” Mullen said. “They understand that, but it’s not easy.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)