Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pullout deadline likely to slip for Marines in Afghan province

USA TODAY's Gregg Zoroya, reporting from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, says none of the nearly 20,000 U.S. Marines fighting in Helmand province is likely to be pulled out when President Obama's deadline for troop withdrawal is reached next summer.

Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of Marine combat ground troops there, tells Zoroya that if there are reductions of Marines in the Helmand area, they will be sent elsewhere in the country rather than home.

About 19,000 U.S. Marines are deployed to Helmand province, including 12,000 to 13,000 ground combat troops in six infantry battalions under Osterman's command.

Zoroya sends us this file on his interview with Osterman:

While Marines have provided enough security in certain areas to allow schools to open soon and commerce to improve, too much of this southern province remains contested or controlled by the Taliban for any withdrawal to occur next year, Osterman says.
"This was the heart of darkness," he says of Helmand, for years a core Taliban stronghold. "It's one of those things where you can't be everywhere."
Obama set June of 2011 as the deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. forces as security operations are handed off to Afghan troops.
A limited transition to Afghan control could occur for some government centers in Helmand by the end of this year, Osterman says. But any Marines freed by this will be needed to fight elsewhere, he says.

Osterman concedes there were rosy predictions of rapid change when the Marine offensive to drive the Taliban from Helmand province began with the seizure of Marjah in February. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then overall commander of forces in Afghanistan, promised a government-in-a-box approach that would quickly extend central government control.
Osterman, who took command of the 1st Marine Division here weeks after that operation began, says it took far longer to find competent government leaders who could run services in Helmand.

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