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The View From Helmand & Farah Provinces

Just did a bloggers’ roundtable with Marine Lt. Col. Richard Hall, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, which has spent the last several months in Afghanistan’s Kandahar, Helmand and Farah Provinces. The 2-7’s mission is a training mission: they’re there to get the still-relatively-untested Afghan National Police into professional shape.

It’s been tough. Afghanistan violence has spiked during the 2-7’s tour, and Hall has lost nine Marines and an interpreter in the last month and a half. “We expected a lot of friction by enemy,” he said. “They had absolute freedom of movement and freedom of action until our arrival.” Hall attributed the rise in violence to his Marines taking the initiative. “It’s not that the Taliban increased their level of activity so much as it is us interdicting and disrupting their operations. … As we get out in the street more, get much more active in their environment, disrupting their activities, it puts them on defense.” That, in turn, he said, gives the Afghan National Police an example to follow.

But the terrain is a serious challenge. The battalion operates in an area about the size of Vermont with only one paved road — the ring road at that — across deserts and wadis, where they’re “four-wheeling practically all the time.” (You can imagine the amount of battering their equipment and vehicles take.) As a result, it’s easy for insurgents to plant IEDs, and IEDs have been the primary factor behind the 2-7’s casualties. “We’re not being beaten by the Taliban, per se, we’re being beaten by an explosion,” Hall said. “So we’re aggressively working [to] get the roads blacktopped so they can’t place IEDs.” In response to a question from Military.com’s Christian Lowe, Hall admitted that getting air support has been a problem. “We need rotary-wing assets… because we have such a large battlespace, it takes awhile on the ground.”

Hall is confident, though, largely because the Taliban, he said, has alienated the population through its graft and brutality. When the 2-7 returns home in a few months, Hall will consider his mission successful if his Marines have raised the police “to the level where they’re confident and competent to maintain secrity, control their specific districts, [and possessing] the character development… to be respectable even when no one’s looking. … We slowly pull back the reins, and the public will see what ‘right’ is supposed to look like.”

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