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How Has The Mission Changed In Afghanistan?

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Aired 1/13/10

How will local Marines be affected by the troop surge in Afghanistan? We speak to local journalist Tony Perry, and Brigadier General Joseph Osterman, about what's currently happening in Afghanistan, and the challenges U.S. forces face in trying to create peace in the country.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The reality of the Afghanistan surge is about to be felt here in San Diego. Thousands of Camp Pendleton Marines are preparing to deploy as part of the 30,000 troop build-up announced by President Obama last month. Some of the pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton has involved getting Marines to learn about the culture and people of Afghanistan, an acknowledgement that weapons alone will not win this complicated war. The man who will command Camp Pendleton-based Marine ground forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Joseph Osterman, will join us in a moment on These Days, but first I’d like to ask my guest Tony Perry, who is San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, to give us some background on Afghanistan. And welcome to the show, Tony.

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve recently returned from reporting in Afghanistan. What can you tell our listeners about the situation? What U.S. forces are doing there right now?

PERRY: Yes, I returned. I was in Afghanistan for seven weeks. I was with the Marines from Camp Pendleton for five of those weeks. I spent a week in the nation’s capital of Kabul and then a week with the California National Guard out in the mountainous eastern region. Well, Afghanistan’s a country about the size of Texas. It’s got about 30 million people. It’s broken up into all sorts of ethnic and political divisions, always has been. It has a history of political turmoil and coups and wars, and it’s a country that’s really been—devastated may be too strong a word—but certainly wracked by 30 years of war, the Russian occupation, the civil war, the fight with the Taliban and now the fight against the resurgent Taliban. It is a country that has known war for three decades and even longer. It’s an impoverished country. It’s a country with a very low literacy rate. It’s an agricultural country outside of the nation’s capital of Kabul, shares a long border with Pakistan that traditionally nobody governs. It’s called the tribal area and that’s a troublesome area where the Al Qaeda fighters can flow over, have been flowing over from Pakistan as they try to destabilize the government in Kabul and also try and destabilize the Pakistan government in Islamabad. It’s a very complex country with a very rich and chaotic history and with people that look quite different, one to the other, various ethnic groups. You have folks that have the Asian look and then you have folks that could walk the streets of San Diego and not be noticed at all. So it’s a very complex country and it’s a very complex task which the U.S. and its allies are attempting to do, to stabilize a very shaky government, to drive a wedge between the insurgency and the population and also to confront those fighters that want to fight and kill them.

CAVANAUGH: Well, after giving us that very comprehensive background – answer to my background question, I’d like to welcome Brigadier General Joseph Osterman, that is Osterman, to our conversation. General Osterman is Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Marine Division and Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Pendleton. And good morning, General, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOSEPH OSTERMAN (Brigadier General, USMC, Camp Pendleton): Oh, good morning, Maureen. It’s great to be with you this morning.

CAVANAUGH: When are you and the next wave of Marines going to Afghanistan?

OSTERMAN: Well, actually we’ve got, as you probably know, not only Marines here at Camp Pendleton on the west coast but Marines on the east coast in a variety of units that will be supporting the surge effort here. For those in the headquarters element, which I’ll specifically address here, we’ve got deployments basically moving through the March-April timeframe going out to relieve the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which is currently there commanding the ground – well, actually all the Marine efforts in the Helmand Province.

CAVANAUGH: And I’ve heard a deployment of 4500 Marines from Camp Pendleton. Is that about correct?

OSTERMAN: Well, you know, it’s probably important to point out that at any given point in time those numbers change a lot. From a one-year standpoint, yes, we’ll deploy the headquarters elements from here and they’ll be in there for a year. But we constantly have battalion size units, about a thousand Marines each, that rotate constantly through the course of the year on seven month deployment so at any given point in time you can see those numbers ebb and flow. But for the near term, yeah, the 4500 is about right.

CAVANAUGH: And you mentioned, sir, the Helmand Province. Is that the part of Afghanistan the Camp Pendleton Marines will be deployed to?

OSTERMAN: Yes, right now that’s where we have the vast majority of Marines focused is in the Helmand Province. There’s a few that have some areas that are just small portions of adjacent provinces but the vast majority are located there in the Helmand Province.

CAVANAUGH: And why is that? Why is the focus on that province?

OSTERMAN: Well, right now, to be frank with you, the Helmand Province, the Kandahar area which is adjacent to it, all of those were really the heartland of the Taliban insurgency. And so as the force structure built over the last two years, when the Marines became available as we pulled out of Iraq, it made sense to go ahead and apply those additional forces, you know, into the heavy insurgent areas, of which Helmand was one of the major areas.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tony, you visited the Helmand Province. Can you tell us a little bit about the place?

PERRY: Sure. I was there for five weeks with the Marines from Camp Pendleton, the 1st battalion, 5th regiment. Helmand, as the General said, is one of the strongholds, historically, of the Taliban and also the adjacent province of Kandahar. Helmand is rural, it’s farmers, it’s small villages, and the Taliban has been very strong both ideologically with the people and also through a rather vicious campaign of intimidation. It is also the heartland of the poppy crop. The poppy crop turns into heroin, the heroin turns into massive profits, by one estimate $500 million a year, flowing to the Taliban from the poppy crop basically in Helmand. So the Marines’ job, among the many jobs they’ve been given, is to try and wean the farmers away from the poppy crop and get them on to another crop. Very difficult, among the very difficult tasks. Helmand and Kandahar are next door, which is mostly army, U.S. Army and the Brits, are very tough nuts to crack and the Marines have been given that task. If there are three main areas in Afghanistan of concern to the U.S. and NATO and General McChrystal, it’s Helmand and Kandahar, Kabul, of course, the government and with the trouble and the corruption of the Karzai government and then that tribal area that I was mentioning, that no-man’s land really where every so often you’ll read about the drones striking a Taliban-Al Qaeda hideout some – on one side of the border or another, so three basic areas and the Marines have been given one of them to fix.

CAVANAUGH: General Osterman, what will be your role when you’re in Afghanistan. You are going to be in command of Camp Pendleton ground forces, is that correct?

OSTERMAN: That’s correct. Essentially, we’re deploying under the traditional construct that we use as Marines which is called a Marine Air-Ground Task Force. So the commander of that entire force will be Major General Mills who is the division commander here at 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. And then I will have the ground combat portion of that. We also have another brigadier general who is in charge of the logistics here at Camp Pendleton, Brigadier General Hudson, who will also command the logistics portion of that organization. And then we also have an aviation element which is based out of Miramar and the assistant wing commander, Brigadier General O’Donnell, will deploy forward and he will command those air forces that are associated with that overall organization as well.

CAVANAUGH: And, General, as you prepare for this deployment, what are you hearing? How are things going for U.S. forces that are in the Helmand Province right now?

OSTERMAN: Well, I tell you, it’s been absolutely remarkable the progress the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade has made in theater. They have only been there about eight months really. They got the bulk of their forces in towards the end of last May. They hit the ground running in spite of the fact that, you know, they still had forces flowing in. They’ve really made great progress. You know, as Tony mentioned earlier, the 1st battalion, 5th Marines in Nawa really created one of those prime – or pristine examples of the way that things are supposed to be done and taking a completely insurgent controlled area, reestablishing security in their area, which then allowed governance to come in and then that being followed by legitimate economic progress as well. I was there a few months ago and literally warehouses of wheat seed that were there for alternative crop production, etcetera, as he mentioned in terms of the alternate crop economics associated with trying to get rid of some of the poppy activity.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Marine Corps Brigadier General Joseph Osterman who will be the commanding Camp Pendleton-based Marine ground forces in a deployment expected within weeks from Camp Pendleton to Afghanistan. And I’m also speaking with Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. And if you have a question or a comment for the general, please give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. General, when you get there, what do you anticipate being your biggest challenges in Helmand Province?

OSTERMAN: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges that we’ll face is to continue the progress in terms of not only along the lines of security, governance and – or, along the lines of security, governance and economics in the sense that really what we’ve seen is specific areas within the province that have achieved great success. In a typical counter-insurgency strategy there we kind of take an ink blotter approach to things. We just expand those areas of success. So I think our biggest challenge there is really the – just the continuous pressure and continuity of effort in order to literally drive the Taliban and the insurgent forces out of the area in order to establish a stable province so that then the legitimate government, you know, can work services to the people because this really is, and again, as alluded to earlier, a focus on the population and making sure that the population is well taken care of, that the central government actually reaches down through the provincial and district levels to provide for the people. And then at that point, obviously, they really have no appetite for any kind of insurgent influence. So I would say mostly just – for us, it’s just to continue press – continuous pressure, continuity in terms of the effort across all those economic, governance and security lines, so to speak.

CAVANAUGH: General, just this morning there was a news report, two more American troops killed in Afghanistan. I know that one of the areas that is taking a big toll on our forces are improvised explosive devices, IEDs being manufactured. Can you tell us about the threats that the IEDs pose to our troops and how the Marines are going to work to prevent against those things being planted and killing more of our soldiers?

OSTERMAN: Sure. You know, we have two ways of really looking at that. We can look at attacking the network, which is, you know, to preclude the actual IED emplacement and we have a lot of intelligence operations that are associated with that to identify the people who know how to make them, manufacture them, and place them, that kind of thing, to preclude them even being put into place. But then assuming, obviously, that we won’t stop all of that, assuming that there are some that will be emplaced, the Marine Corps done a great job in terms of procuring the upgraded vehicles, our MRAP vehicles, as we call them, the mine resistant ambush vehicles. The – We have a new vehicle called the MATV, which is there, gives us a little bit better mobility with the same kind of protection against the IEDs. And on top of that, we also have some very dedicated forces that are very highly trained called Route Clearance Teams that actually move forward in front of our logistics convoys and things like that who have technology to be able to detect the IEDs and then obviously either detonate them before any friendly vehicles hit them or to bypass them, you know, and clear them later on. So it’s really a very, very comprehensive approach, a lot of effort. We have a – essentially within the staff, specific individuals who work this counter-IED effort and, you know, after – I guess you have before the blast, during the blast and after the blast, the – we also have people that work the forensics on the backside of the finding of IEDs or the exploding of IEDs that then tie that right back into the defeating the network on the front end similar to what you’d find with police work and, you know, your typical forensics of characteristics of these IEDs or even fingerprints, things like that.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Tony, there was an article in the LA Times that talked about how aerial drones are being used to strike people who are maybe burying these IEDs or look suspicious in Helmand Province. And is that an example of our changing approach to fighting in Afghanistan?

PERRY: Well, it’s certainly an example of how serious this threat from the IEDs, the roadside bombs, is. I mean, the majority of American casualties come not from small arms fire or battles, classic battles, but rather buried bombs and then you drive over them with your Humvee and there’s an explosion. There was, the other day, a drone strike with a missile strike and the reports I read said 13 killed in an area called Nawzad which is in Helmand Province. It’s an area that the Marines swept into about six weeks ago to try and clear it out of insurgents. The battle with IEDs, roadside bombs, continues day in, day out. It’s a cat and mouse game really with deadly circumstances. The Marines are out every night looking for who it is who’s planting these. They have shoot to kill orders. The insurgents are out every night trying to plant them. They only have to succeed once in awhile, we have to succeed all the time in blocking it because if there’s anything that’s going to drive down American public support—and it’s already pretty low—for this mission, it’s the continual casualties because of these IEDs. If we have decided politically that this is a campaign that has to be waged and has to be won for our national security, sit down and put your feet on the ground, it’s going to take awhile and there are going to be casualties. And the U.S. knows that, the U.S. military knows that, and doing everything they can to minimize those including – and the general did not mention one very good asset, which is very well-trained dogs. I knew a – or met a dog, trained dog, who had found 10 roadside bombs while out patrolling with Marines. So everything is being tried from dogs to high tech gizmos that we’re spending billions of dollars for.

CAVANAUGH: We are – I’m speaking with Tony Perry and Marine Corps Brigadier General Joseph Osterman, and we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I just want to talk a little bit more, General Osterman, about those drones because I know they’ve been very controversial. I know that as commander of ground-based forces for Camp Pendleton Marines that you really won’t have much to do with the command of those drones but I would like to get your take on some of the controversy that surrounded the use of drones in the fight in Afghanistan.

OSTERMAN: Well, at least from my perspective, the drones or ISR assets as we call them, are actually used locally with us to great effect in a very non-controversial manner. They provide a – because they’re unmanned, they have very high endurance so they can stay up for many hours at a time. The sensors that they have on them are very, very good and both, you know, optical as well as infrared, things like that that allow us a lot – to see a lot of things that we would not normally be able to see. And so as a result they allow us to anticipate things and thus, you know, make sure that the Marines are well prepared for whatever they’re going to run up against, whether it be on a convoy or as they’re preparing an operation to be executed in a village or something like that as far as patterns of light, things like that. So it’s a very, very positive asset. When you say controversial, I think you may be referring to the, you know, the use of those in supposed cross-border strikes and all and, frankly, that’s not within my realm of use of those so I really don’t have much to comment on that. I can tell you that for what we do use them for within the Marine area of operations, very, very effective, and they provide us a tremendous asset that helps to save Marines’ lives as we pursue the operations that we’re tasked with.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, I’ll continue my conversation with General Joseph Osterman and Tony Perry, talking about the imminent deployment of Camp Pendleton Marines, more Camp Pendleton Marines, to Afghanistan. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about Camp Pendleton Marines who will participate in the Afghanistan surge. We’re talking with Brigadier General Joseph Osterman, who will command those Marines, ground forces, in Afghanistan, and also Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. And we’re taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. In fact, let’s take a call right now. Deanna is calling from San Diego. And good morning, Deanna. Welcome to These Days.

DEANNA (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I had understood that the Marines were working on changing the crops that the Afghanis grow. Why are we not using the poppies to buy the poppies to make morphine? Why aren’t we letting them do what they’re already doing? I’ll take your answer off the air.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, General, would you care to answer that?

OSTERMAN: Well, as far as purchasing the poppies, you know, I think that’s one of those kind of out of the box type of ideas that might have viability to it. I have not seen anything or any commercial interest at this point in terms of buying the poppy production. I think, you know, one of the reasons we had not pursued that actively is that in order to make sure that we’ve got good economics, good governance within the country, one of the important things is to be able to make sure that they can feed themselves and that they have a diverse economic basis. And so I think one of the things that would probably dissuade us from going perhaps down that road is to – because if it’s a singular crop production, you know, that is then purchased or that is – overproduces what’s really required by the global economy, then you run into a situation where they could have, very quickly, a failed economic system. So I think that’s why you see the push towards things like wheat, pomegranates, nuts, things like that that have been traditional Afghan crops actually with viable markets both locally and regionally that would better allow them to have a sustainable economy over the long haul.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, is buying the poppy crop, is that a workable idea?

PERRY: No, I don’t think it is. I remember talking – spending a good deal of time actually with the State Department folks who were running a program to give to the Afghan farmers wheat seed and fertilizer to get them off of growing poppies. Also, they were lecturing them or having Afghan leaders lecture them that it’s illegal in Afghanistan to grow poppies. This issue of buying it and turning it into morphine has been floated before. The problem with that, as I understand it, is it creates or perpetuates that there is a market for poppies. And the U.S., NATO and Afghan government policy is to end that market both by talking to the farmers and getting them away from it but also, frankly, by seeking out and destroying the middle men, the Taliban middle men who come to farmers and say, you know, give me your poppies. There will be an offensive in the not too distant future that will strike at a place in Helmand that the Taliban has taken refuge in and among the reasons that the Marines will strike at this place is to eliminate that middle man, that middle market for the farmers to take their poppies to. Poppies are not traditionally Afghanistan in Helmand. They only came in in the last decade or so, so the thought is that while they have been very profitable for these subsistence farmers, it’s not so ingrained that they can’t be weaned away from them with some both encouragement and, frankly, with the threat that it’s against the law…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PERRY: …in Afghanistan.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. And Richard is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Richard. Welcome to These Days.

RICHARD (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. It’s a great panel. My question is, you know, with the technological advances in the military, you know, you mentioned the drone strikes on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which I think are terrific if that’s saving Marines’ lives. I’m sure there’s, you know, the controversies over collateral damage, you know, civilians, you know, dying as a result of those drone attacks. But I’m just curious as to the panelists’ response to, you know, as we advance in the military with greater and greater technology to be more laser accurate in our strikes, you know, it creates an expectation in the U.S. public that, you know, less and less tolerance for collateral damage and civilian, you know, civilian issues there. I’m just curious how you see that developing over time, how you’ve seen it in the past but – and in the future. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much, Richard. General, would you care to comment?

OSTERMAN: Sure. I think, you know, the caller’s right on the mark there about the desire of technology to continually work to reduce the collateral damage and things like that. You know, in Afghanistan, that is actually critically important for us. It’s a very tight society when you start talking about tribal affiliations, families, I mean, really no different than what you would think of here, you know, in the United States in the sense of people caring about their families and things like that. So as a result, the – if you were to have a strike—and we have had strikes obviously in the past that have had collateral damage, you know, you may kill a few insurgents but the question is then how many other enemies have you now made because of the inadvertent collateral damage in terms of human loss. So that part is very important. I think, you know, by taking some of these technological solutions that allow us to have better accuracy or minimizing the collateral damage, it really does work towards the overall goal, which is really that focus on the population. And, you know, I guess a – it bridges back a little bit to one of the previous questions about like the counter-IED situation. One of our best sources of information and the best ways to avoid the IEDs is the local population telling us where they are and how to avoid them and working with the Afghan national forces who obviously are closer to the population. So the more that we can take efforts like this to avoid damage, if you will, to the civilian population and bring them to an understanding that, you know, they really are better off working with us rather than against us, the more success we have in the broader scope of winning the counterinsurgency here.

CAVANAUGH: And this brings us to – there was a report this morning that we aired on Morning Edition from our reporter Alison St John and she went to Camp Pendleton and saw Marine officers training in role playing exercises about being over in Afghanistan and dealing with the population there and sharing cups of tea and so forth with the people of Afghanistan. Is this the way that we are changing our approach to being – winning this war in Afghanistan, so to speak, General?

OSTERMAN: Yes, I think, you know, General McChrystal has articulated a strategy that is focused on the population and as a result it becomes very much of a human endeavor, if you will. Some of the initiatives along those lines is all of us, as leaders of Marines, you know, the key leaders here within the Marine Corps are required to take language courses in Pashto and Samandari in order to be able to just in a rudimentary fashion, but at least in a polite fashion, be able to talk with and engage with the local population understanding their customs, understanding their way of life so that as we take actions to try and alleviate the suffering and, you know, create positive environments over there for the development of the governance, economics, security, that we do it within the context of the people that are there, you know, rather than trying to impose a American solution if you will so – or an American proxy type scenario. So as a result, all of these training exercises that we have, that we use real Afghan role players, in other words Afghan-Americans who actually impart those scenarios onto the Marines so that they understand the cultural dynamics, understand some of the customs that are associated with it, understand the tribal dynamics. It helps us to initially get introduced to and establish rapport and respect with the population, which is absolutely crucial to working with them towards, you know, a positive end.

PERRY: One thing I noticed when I went over was that the issue of collateral damage, of civilian deaths, is not overplayed. I thought it was overplayed. I thought I would go over and find that the Afghans, while they’re concerned, are not that concerned. They’re very, very concerned. One reason the 1st battalion, 5th regiment from Camp Pendleton did so well in Nawa is that when they stormed in and pushed the Taliban out, they were very, very careful to minimize collateral damage. And, indeed, those homes and farms and such that they did damage, they quickly laid out money and other things to repair. So it’s not an overplayed issue. I thought it was when I went over. But I would ask the general this, I mean, in practical terms, doesn’t it mean when you order your young troops to be even more vigilant to avoid collateral damage, avoid civilian deaths, aren’t you really, when you come right down to it, asking them to take a greater risk by not firing back when they’ve been fired on, by not storming a house that they’re not 120% sure there are bad people in there, not calling in an air strike, not calling in a mortar strike? In practical terms, aren’t you asking your Marines to take greater risks with their lives to avoid collateral damage, avoid killing innocent Afghan civilians?

OSTERMAN: Well, I think I would answer that by not saying that we ask them to take increased risk necessarily. I mean, we do the risk assessment on everything that we do. I think what I would describe it as being is we’re training and then asking them to be much more sophisticated in their approach. You know, it’s very easy to have one sniper round come from a village and rather than even get near that, just obliterate the village. You know, we’ve seen that in the history of warfare. But that’s a very simplistic solution. The more sophisticated solution obviously of working through to ensure that you understand the full range of dynamics associated with that are really what we’re training them to and asking them to do. You know, I think one of the best ways it was articulated and, again, it has morphed over time here, General Krulak, one of our previous commandants had mentioned the three block war where you, on one block you might be handing out humanitarian aid, the next block you might be guarding a convoy and then the third block you might be involved in, you know, a very hard firefight type scenario. I think we’ve actually taken that one step beyond now where we’re asking those young Marines, who are just absolutely phenomenal out there, to really be sophisticated in their approach, to apply judgment and to not be risk adverse but not to accept undue risk. You know, they really walk that very, very fine line when you do the risk assessment to make sure that they achieve the immediate desired result but they’ve also got that long term, literally, strategic consequence in mind as they take a particular action.

CAVANAUGH: General Osterman, how long are deployments?

OSTERMAN: Right now for the Marine Corps, and I’ll just speak strictly to the Marine Corps, our battalion and below size units deploy for seven months. That fits in very well with the way we have traditionally deployed with our man power cycles, our resourcing base, all of those kinds of things. And then for our regiments, regimental headquarters and above, they all deploy for one year.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know that perhaps this is unfair to ask you in the short time we have left and you haven’t really been deployed over there yet but how realistic is it to begin withdrawing Marines in 2011, do you think?

OSTERMAN: Well, I think, you know, Secretary Gates really talked to that in detail after the president announced his strategy there. That really is, as he articulated, conditions based. I think we have a very, very good opportunity to conduct the transition in certain areas to Afghan security forces and things like that that would allow us to, you know, incrementally begin to draw down some of the force structure that’s out there. So I – From what I’ve seen, I’ve been over to Afghanistan twice just for short visits, but in very close communication with the Marines that are in theater now and when you see the progress, again, the Second MEB has made in just eight months, you know, I think that is not an unreasonable timeline as long as you keep it in context as a conditions based and gradual withdrawl, you know, rather than an assumption that it’s a black or white, you know, all out or all in kind of thing.

CAVANAUGH: General Osterman, thank you so much for speaking with us and good luck to you and your forces in Afghanistan.

OSTERMAN: Well, thank you very much, Maureen, I appreciate it. And I’d also like to, in closing, just express my incredible thanks to the greater San Diego community and all of the communities that surround Camp Pendleton. We receive incredible support from the community and just want to express my heartfelt thanks for everyone that looks after our young Marines here.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, sir. And, Tony Perry, thanks so much.

PERRY: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Thank you so much for listening and, as always, you can post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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