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Afghan forces show little progress as security handoff nears

GARMSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan -- An Afghan soldier lay in the mud, more unwilling than unable to extract himself. Like about half the Marines with him, he’d fallen in the shin-deep sludge moments after striking out from Patrol Base Amir near the middle of Helmand’s Garmsir district.

The head of the snaking patrol was just 200 yards from base, halfway across the next field. The Afghan at the tail had gone less than a quarter of that, but he was finished. The Marines coaxed him out before he sat on the edge of an irrigation ditch to pout. He refused to go on.

Running back to survey the situation, Lance Cpl. Christopher Jeffers, 21, a squad leader from Remington, Ind., said over his shoulder, “Make sure you write this in your report: The ANA are garbage.”

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Marines partnered with Afghan forces in Garmsir are often frustrated by the lack of motivation among some Afghan National Army and Afghan Uniformed Police forces the coalition is grooming to take over security here.

The nominal security handoff of a square mile of Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, hailed as part of the beginning of a broader transition to Afghan authority, is unlikely to be repeated here soon.

Garmsir, about 30 miles south, is one of the two most peaceful districts in Helmand province and expected to be among the first handed over to Afghan control. But Afghans in some parts of the district are reluctant to patrol without Marines, and even government officials are loath to see coalition forces leave.

At a July security meeting, the district’s intelligence chief, Mir Hamza, warned Marine commanders against withdrawing from the district out of fear the Taliban would quickly retake it.

“If the Marines leave the district, the whole province will be destabilized,” Hamza said.

The statement underlines a common belief among coalition and Afghan forces and officials that Afghans are not ready to take responsibility for this pacified quarter of the province. Some Afghans estimate a full handover might not be possible for more than a decade.

Five successive battalions of Marines have all but quashed the insurgency’s ability to operate in the district. Marines first arrived in the summer of 2008 to replace a much smaller contingent of British soldiers. Then, the insurgents controlled almost all of the district.

There is now only one Taliban cell operating in the area, and those fighters do not appear to have links to al-Qaida or other international terrorist groups.

But the effort has taken longer and cost more than top military officials promised President Barack Obama it would require. The counterinsurgency effort in this district of about 150,000 people has stretched for three years and cost the United States about $3 billion.

Yet Afghan forces say they won’t be able to maintain the hard-earned calm unless they are given what would amount to perhaps billions of dollars more in equipment and training.

Marine mentors in Garmsir say that though the army and police are more capable than they were three months ago, they still rely heavily on U.S. Marines for supplies, and to plan and direct most operations.

Afghan soldiers at Patrol Base Koshtay have most of the tactical skills they need to operate, said 1st Lt. Mike Cubillos, 23, an adviser from Albany, N.Y. Afghan squads conduct daily patrols on their own, about half of them for simple logistical tasks such as getting fresh batteries and food, he said.

“Squad level they’re pretty comparable to a U.S. squad. They can do squad-level tasks and be fine,” Cubillos said. “But as you get higher up, it seems like they seem to fall behind a little bit more at each next level up.”

He has labored to wean the Afghan troops off the Marines’ supply lines, and has gotten them used to picking up their own water from their battalion headquarters. The unit also secured a new five-ton truck to move supplies, removing their primary excuse for mooching off the Marines.

“But there’s a long way to go,” Cubillos said. “For the most part the Marines Corps — U.S. in general — has been supporting them logistically.”

Marines often feel obligated to give the Afghans water and fuel when they run out, often as a result of the Afghans’ reluctance to use their own supply systems, which are at best slow and often unresponsive.

They have given them water and fuel for so long that when they run out due to their own mismanagement “they blame us,” said Capt. Jasen Hoffman, 30, who oversees police training in Garmsir district for 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

He noted two large diesel fuel tanks outside the police headquarters, and both were “bone dry,” he said. The coalition supplies fuel to the force, but much of it disappears on the way to its destination.

The Marines have threatened to cut the Afghans off in hopes that they would take responsibility for getting their own supplies and cleaning up their system.

“That ultimatum doesn’t, unfortunately, carry the weight you’d like it to,” said Hoffman, from Johnson City, Tenn. They know the Marines won’t let them run out over fear of creating hostility and a possible exodus from the force.

Afghan forces in Garmsir are woefully undermanned. The district has fewer than half the 360 authorized policemen. Afghan army units face never-ending shortfalls from a leave system that is incapable of quickly getting troops home and back to the job, leaving manning at 70 to 80 percent.

For the most part, the Marines blame the personnel and supply shortages on inept administration. Among the police, the Marines have also noted a culture of hoarding that has resulted in overstaffing at Helmand’s provincial headquarters at the expense of districts such as Garmsir.

“They hoard the equipment, they hoard the supplies,” and they hoard the personnel, Hoffman said.

He is aware of at least 22 police assigned to Garmsir’s short-handed force but who appear to be stationed in Lashkar Gah. That number would double the force in Lakari, home of Garmsir’s largest bazaar and at least 15,000 people. Hoffman said he’s never seen the missing men and isn’t sure they exist.

The same issue affects Marjah, a neighboring district where Marine Capt. Mathew Lesnowicz oversees police training. He noted there is at least some evidence of “ghost police” — police that either don’t exist or quit the force but whose pay is collected by corrupt officers.

The Marines also suspect low-level patrolmen of bribing higher-level officers to get stationed in Lashkar Gah, the safest and most urban city in Helmand, further draining the pool available for the districts.

“I obviously can’t prove that,” Hoffman said, “but it’s one of those well-known secrets.”

In recent weeks Hoffman sent 58 men to the police academy to grow and professionalize Garmsir’s force. But because all the men were members of a local defense force hired to make up for the lack of full-fledged police, the district’s police shortage persists.

“The day they graduate, we go up there and basically shanghai them so they don’t get sent off to some other district,” he said. “It helps us make sure the effort isn’t wasted on sending guys up there.”

If he didn’t take such measures, Hoffman said, Garmsir could end up with fewer forces than it had before the recruits went to the academy.

Even if they were fully manned, nearly every Afghan officer and policeman interviewed here, as well as most elders, insist they need sophisticated equipment such as jets, helicopters, tanks and heavy armored vehicles to maintain security in Garmsir.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made similar statements, which the coalition dismissed as unreasonable and unnecessary.

But the Afghans’ overall lack of equipment to counter improvised explosive devices is a concern, and it’s the “biggest challenge” to getting Afghan security forces into the lead, Brig. Gen. Lewis Craparotta, commander of Marine ground combat forces in Helmand province, said Thursday during a battlefield visit to Combat Outpost Ouellette in Gereshk district, Helmand province.

Craparotta, accompanied by the new top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, said that after a year of accompanying U.S. forces equipped with mine rollers leading every convoy, Afghan forces could not be reasonably expected to cover the same terrain without such protection.

The Afghan forces are already using U.S.-supplied metal detectors to aid in finding IEDs on walking patrols, Craparotta said.

Allen said he’d discussed equipment needs with Karzai during a meeting last weekend and was looking into it.

But Afghan forces and elders are firm in their conviction that Garmsir, though peaceful, would fall within hours of the coalition’s withdrawal without the equipment.

“If America is not going to help with the guns, armor or planes we need for the army and police, Afghanistan will become home of the terrorists,” said Hajji Gulam Rasoul, elder of a village who is affiliated with the Afghan police near the headquarters of 1st Battalion’s Weapons Company in southern Garmsir.

“We need just like Marines’ equipment,” said Capt. Enaitullah, commander of an Afghan engineer company based in Lakari who, like many Afghans, goes by one name.

Enaitullah said the proliferation of improvised explosive devices makes it difficult for his men to operate safely in the Ford Rangers the U.S. gave them. Marines said they’ve had only two IED finds in the past three months, at least one of which was during a convoy in another part of the district, and are not a major concern for Afghan or coalition forces.

The Afghan army also has armored U.S.-supplied Humvees, said 1st Lt. Mike Bell, the 24-year-old commander of Company A’s 1st Platoon based at Patrol Base Amir, just outside Lakari’s bazaar. In June, Enaitullah’s men destroyed one of the Humvees, flipping it into a canal while driving recklessly. Another Marine officer said the unit lost more vehicles — all in crashes — on its way to Helmand from the Afghan National Army training center in Kabul.

Jamshid Nodrat, an interpreter from Kabul who has worked with coalition forces in Helmand for more than two years, said equipment isn’t what’s keeping the Afghan forces from taking a bigger role in security.

“The Afghans hate to work with the Marines because the Afghans are lazy and the Marines work hard,” he said.

He brought up the incident from earlier in the day, when an Afghan soldier refused to patrol and returned to base after falling in the mud.

“He couldn’t cross the muddy field. How can he fight the Taliban?” Nodrat said. “Mostly, ANA is useless.”

But, he said, “They’re going to get better if the coalition forces keep training these guys.” He estimated that it would take at least 12 years, probably closer to 20, to get the Army ready to work on its own.

The Marines in Lakari had a brighter view of the police, whom they have more or less successfully weaned off the Marines’ supply system.

“They’re willing to work. They want to do their jobs and want to get everything done,” said Cpl. Matthew White, a 23-year-old police adviser from Louisville, Ky. “They just don’t have the same resources that the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. police have to do their jobs.”

White noted that the police arrested four suspected Taliban in July without assistance from the Marines.

He also weaned them off the Marines’ supply system, though they are reluctant to use it and still go to the Marines first with some issues.

When one of the truck batteries died last week, Said Baki, second in command of the Lakari precinct, asked White for a replacement. White directed him to contact Omar Jan, who handles supplies for police in the district.

Baki said he’d ask, but if Omar Jan didn’t have one, the Marines would have to get him one.

“Oh, Omar Jan’s going to get it for you,” White shot back. “That’s his job.”

Capt. Surgul Khan, who runs the precinct, said his police are working hard along with the Marines “to push the Taliban away from this country.”

He acknowledged, however, that the Marines were still doing most of the work.

“We understand that this is our country, but they are working harder than us for this country.”

millhamm@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @matt.millham

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