Afghanistan — Mullen Hears from Afghans, Marines

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)