BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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Helmand marines focus on job in hand not surge

Mark Urban | 18:45 UK time, Monday, 30 November 2009


CAMP LEATHERNECK, HELMAND - Ask the US troops here about the forthcoming announcement by President Barack Obama and you tend to get answers like, "oh that's way above my pay grade".

We're not talking about a private with a spanner tinkering under his Humvee - even colonels have given me much the same answer.

The president is expected to address the nation on Tuesday evening - an event that will fall in the early hours of Wednesday, Afghan time.


Most people are expecting a big increase in troop strength, with some talking about 34,000 to start, with an option on a further 10,000 in about one year.

As a large news organisation we are naturally interested in covering such a big escalation in the American military effort - a step that will brand Afghanistan, if it is not already labelled as such, "Obama's War".

In truth though, I cannot say that I have overheard anybody at this camp (which sits near Camp Bastion, the British base where I last blogged from) spontaneously discussing the troop uplift in their tent or chow hall.

As is often the case with an international "news event", we have had to go soliciting opinions on this.

Feelings of guilt

I expect there will be some discussion about the White House's announcement on Wednesday morning, but day to day here people just focus on the job they have got.

Combat operations go on beyond the wire, and the frequent arrival of casualty evacuation helicopters reminds us all of the grim reality that they are engaged in.

Inside the relative safety of this base, at the HQ of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, people beaver away, routinely working 18-hour days, seven days a week.

The amount of time they spend at their desks is a product of many things: American office culture; an expression of their commitment as marines; and a measure of soldierly guilt that they are not here in a fighting role, so must do everything they possibly can to work for their colleagues who are.

When you press them about the Obama announcement you do get answers. Some express a determination that the reinforcements should bring to an end the rural counter-insurgency here.

They want an answer of the kind that the Iraq troop surge of 2007 produced - a distinct change for the better that will lead to a long term reduction in US forces.

Need for local forces

Among US marine officers I have heard quite a bit of discussion about the need to get more Afghan troops into the field.


This country's limited ability to generate such forces is just one of the many differences between Afghanistan's situation and that of Iraq.

The slow time in which Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government can field its new forces is likely to be just one of the areas of tensions between it and the main Nato countries in coming weeks.

It may take many months for newly announced forces to start operating here, but the administration needs signs of progress quickly.

For that reason, US troops are trying to step up their pressure on the Taliban.

In the coming days we intend to get "outside the wire" to see that at first hand.


  • Comment number 1.

    Out of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan we tend to hear most of Kandahar and Helmand being the most dangerous. What will be the likely new tactics and will this figure on the Waziristan War with the Pakistan Taliban, Mark?

    An albumen print from 1881 of the Courtyard of Governor Sher Ali. Please note it is a technically correct architectural photograph unlike the Downing street efforts in flickr.

    'outside the wire' - sounds dodgy Mark - takecare with yourself.

  • Comment number 2.

    If 8 countries agreed to increase troops, does that mean 34 refused?

  • Comment number 3.

    While Obama's been procrastinating for 3 months over troops, who's running USA?

  • Comment number 4.

    from the film posted on the main blog the afghan troops feel like the whipping boys? paid three times less than the taliban, the poorest equipped and protected and at the beck and call of sometimes ignorant masters both domestic and foreign their side isn't put across much?

    what can really be achieved when it takes 900 men to protect a convoy to move bottled water 6 miles?

    while others have equipment and pay they said 'all we have is belief and bravery'

  • Comment number 5.

    Funny ol' world eh!

    We're over there imposing dimocracy in Afghanistan...

    '500 special forces troops in Afghanistan, says Gordon Brown'


    ...and they're over 'ere imposing Islam

    'Europe unites to deplore Swiss ban on minarets'

  • Comment number 6.

    I noted on Radio 4's Today programme this morning that the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, referred to the Iranian Government as the 'Iranian regime'.

    He was quite adept in referring to them as a 'regime' several times during the interview. I thought it strange to refer to the Iranian 'regime' especially when the Iranians held democratic elections only 5 months ago.

    Mr Proser also mentioned several times that the Iranian 'regime' does not care for it's own people....I would like to know on what basis does he make this remark?

    I was even more perturbed to hear the BBC's Jeremy Bowen refer to the Iranian 'regime' during Radio 4's drive time programme this evening!

    Do you think they both may have been referring to the same notes???

  • Comment number 7.

    Note who the reporter was for the BBC on the John Demjanjuk 'Nazi war criminal' trial news story from Munich. on BBC news tonight

    Coincidennce oder coincidence?

  • Comment number 8.

    Blimey!...blow me down with a feather!

    JP just mentioned Israel's clandestined nuclear programme tonight...he did blurt it out rather quickly...and swiftly moved the story onto Iran's (not so) clandestined nuclear programme!

  • Comment number 9.


    Your point regarding use of 'regime' noted with interest. I have been pondering: ANTISemitic (re Jews) and IslamoPHOBIC (re Arabs).

    Personally, I am theoANATHEMIC and zenoJUDICIOUS.

    Hang on - knock at the door.

  • Comment number 10.


    Oh lord - let no one notice.

  • Comment number 11.

    Don't see much going to plan in Afghan. Will the Taliban not just fade away - melt back into the landscape play a kind of ropeadope - a waiting game on the Americans. They just sit back and wait for people to tread on bombs ?

    What then to do - the Americans ? Hard slog with history of past invaders pulling like quick sand at the mind. But it has to happen, Pakistan CAN NOT be allowed to slip into Taliban hands. Lets hope there are some American generals of genius who can work out how to use that landscape to their advantage. I think that dealing with such soaked through corruption will mean out bidding, not trying to change a culture - it may change on the surface, but the reality is karzai isn't going to deal with it even if he could. The mind-culture-landscape cannot be changed just like the harsh rugged Afghan terrain, but how can you use it to your advantage?

    I found it interesting to hear what Ranulph Fiennes looks for in others to join him on expeditions - think it can apply to Afghan.

  • Comment number 12.

    Last night my father remarked one of the problems of getting rid of Saddam was that he would have been likely to keep the Iranians 'occupied'

    Now we have them totally paranoid ranting and hissing away. Interesting listening to the man who set up their nuclear situation in the 70's, talking about US and UK having to sort out all the local problems - totally unreal. Just getting the increasing feeling that cruise missiles will have to go into Iran. If Israel attack the problem, it will have to be awesome to put absolute fear into all their neighbours vying for blood who may take advantage to attack them - its why I think they could tactical nuke Iran or Pakistan, crazy I know but the thought comes to me - they are well known for 'overkill'


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