"We're kind of the leading edge of the U.S. plus-up of forces in this area," said Col. Duffy White, commander of the Marine task force that recently deployed to southern Afghanistan. "I'd love to win hearts and minds, but I would really prefer at this point to win trust and confidence of the people; that we're here to help them, we're here to stay and we're here to help the Afghans find a solution to an Afghan issue."
For months, Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines labored to hold a huge operational area that stretched across three provinces. Relying on NATO allies for logistics, air and other functions, 2/7's commander, Lt. Col. Rick Hall, pleaded for more equipment and support - the kind of things Marines are used to having when they deploy as an expeditionary unit or a MAGTF.
Now, with White and his infantry battalion from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines and his logistics arm from the Hawaii-based 3rd Marines, coupled with Cobras from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 and CH-53E Super Stallions from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466, there's a lot the Marines can do to not only clear the enemy out, but also to hold onto coalition gains.
"We are picking up from the success [2/7] had and now it goes a little bit beyond that because now we have a little bit more capability," White said during an exclusive interview with Military.com on Dec. 15.
As the war on Iraq winds down and security gains take hold, international focus is shifting towards the festering battle for Afghanistan where attacks on coalition troops are increasing at an exponential rate and casualties are beginning to outpace those in Iraq.
Though White believes the situation in his operational area isn't teetering on the brink of failure, the interview with Military.com was interrupted by a rocket attack on his headquarters in Kandahar.
"We're going to be able to succeed where we are," White said after resuming the interview about one hour later. "If we can get the unity of effort right and everyone pulling in the right direction, I don't think it's as dire as most people think it is."
One of the major factors that contributed to 2/7's heavy casualty rate of was the lack of armored vehicles to protect its troops from roadside bombs planted in the unimproved roads of Afghanistan's southern deserts. White comes armed with mine resistant, ambush protected vehicle variants that carry both troops and route clearance gear. His logistics teams include explosive ordnance disposal technicians and ground roving robots that can probe for increasingly sophisticated IEDs, he said.
He's also looking forward to the potential development of an all-terrain MRAP the Army's pushing for use in areas today's massive, top-heavy MRAPs can't reach.
"That would be something that I would say we need the most," White said. "Being able to make your own roads when you need to, to go off road and be able to surprise some enemy is the key."
With the increase in forces, new, more robust equipment and aviation elements at his back, White hopes he'll be able to expand on the slim gains made by his predecessors. And a new NATO commander for coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif, who trained at the Army War College and is "very bright, very energetic and very focused on the enemy and how to defeat him in a holistic manner" will help.
Add to that a group of hard-charging British Royal Marines guarding his flank in Helmand province, and the MAGTF commander sees a tough force for militants to reckon with.
"Marines are Marines and they're fighters and they're going after it," White said of the Brits. "So, what I've seen is what I'd expect to see if I had a U.S. higher commander and U.S. forces on my flank."