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Marines First In Afghan Surge

My colleagues at are reporting that -- to no one's surprise -- some Marines will be the first troops deployed for the infusion of 30,000 new troops in Afghanistan. They should be there by Christmas. The Army won't be far behind, sending roughly three additional Infantry Brigade Combat Teams, or 9,000 more combat forces and 5,000 support troops.

The first batch of Leathernecks will hail from California, Christian Lowe reports, "with the first elements set to be on the ground in southern Afghanistan around Christmas.

The Leathernecks will bolster a force of about 8,000 Marines who deployed to the region in July to knock back Taliban gains in Helmand and Kandahar provinces where insurgents linked to Mullah Mohammed Omar threaten Afghanistan's second largest city.

'The first troops out of the door are going to be Marines,' said Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway, according to the Washington Post. 'We've been leaning forward in anticipation of a decision. And we've got some pretty stiff fighting coming.'"

Our own Greg Grant says Obama's strategy is likely to be more enemy-centric and not a classic population-centered counterinsurgency. He spoke with Ozzie Nelson, who recently commanded a joint task force in Afghanistan and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (Buzz readers will remember his op-ed here last week calling on the administration to avoid much of a surge at all.)

The Afghan strategy Gen. Stanley McChrystal originally laid out was tailored to the plan President Obama outlined in March. Since then, the situation on the ground has changed, said Ozzie Nelson, who recently commanded a joint task force in Afghanistan and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

First, the failure of the Afghan presidential elections raises serious questions about the Karzai government’s legitimacy. Second, Pakistan has undertaken a significant offensive targeting the Pakistani Taliban in the western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Given changing conditions on the ground, Nelson expects a shift in focus when Obama details the new strategy tonight. While it will ostensibly be called a counterinsurgency strategy, the strategy is likely to be enemy focused, if for no other reason than Afghanistan is too large and, even with the surge of more troops, troop levels will still be too low to install a constabulary army across the entire country to pursue a “population-centric” counterinsurgency.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to stabilize every city or town in Afghanistan and also try to do economic development across the country if we’re going to fail across the country,” he said. “It’s better to focus on a couple of key areas, get a foothold, get some successes and begin to turn the tide. That’s not going to happen if you have your forces dispersed across the country.”

The hybrid strategy will likely see the bulk of ISAF forces deployed to the most violent provinces and key urban areas in the heavily Pashtun areas, including Kandahar in the south and some areas along the eastern border, but few if any troops will be sent out to the west or north.. At the same time, a combination of drones and special operations forces will pursue what the military terms “high value targets, or a counterterrorism mission, in the more remote rural areas.

He also hopes Obama explains how the new strategy will target the senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership which currently reside in Pakistan. Any strategy in Afghanistan must include increased cooperation with Pakistan as they ultimately control operations on their side of the border. The Pakistanis worry that a U.S. offensive in Afghanistan might just drive Taliban insurgents over the border into Pakistan, greatly complicating things there, Nelson said.

If operations in both countries can be coordinated, the Taliban might be caught between two simultaneous offensives. If nothing else, offensives in both countries might stir the insurgents, forcing them to reveal themselves to targeted strikes by either troops on the ground or aircraft overhead.

Nelson expects it will take some, perhaps up to two or three years, once the surge of additional troops arrives in Afghanistan, before they begin to have a real impact. “Counterinsurgency is a long-term strategy,” Nelson says, “it’s not a get-in and get-out strategy.”

We'll have more on the Afghan strategy and the President's speech throughout the evening and the rest of the week.

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