Thousands of Afghan soldiers and police will join U.S. and NATO troops in an upcoming offensive in southern Afghanistan, playing their biggest role in any joint operation of the Afghan war.
The pending attack on the Taliban-held town of Marjah in Helmand province will be a crucial test for the NATO strategy of transferring more responsibility to the Afghans so foreign troops can go home.
Exact numbers of NATO and Afghan troops earmarked for the assault on Marjah have not been disclosed for security reasons. However, U.S. and Afghan officers said the percentage of Afghan soldiers and police will be far greater than the 10-to-one ratio of Americans to Afghans during the last major offensive in Helmand province last summer.
Whatever the real figures, NATO and Afghan officials are going out of their way to promote the attack on Marjah as an Afghan-led joint operation. The offensive is called "Operation Moshtarak," a Dari language word for together or joint.
Last week, the Afghan and U.S. Marine commanders joked around in front of cameras to promote an image of camaraderie, with the Afghan grabbing the Marine general's hat and trading it for his black beret.
"They're fighting the war shoulder-to-shoulder with us," Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Afghanistan, said of the Afghans. "Wherever you see a Marine, you'll see an Afghan. This isn't fluff, this isn't talk, this is the real deal."
Partnership between NATO and Afghan security forces — especially the police — has sometimes been less than hoped.
Partnership word of the day
Last week, the deputy police chief for Kapisa province was detained with a bodyguard for allegedly helping insurgents plant deadly roadside bombs.
A U.S. military report also released last week found that Afghan soldiers failed to hold their position during a major insurgent assault on a joint outpost in Nuristan province last October, enabling the attackers to penetrate the defense perimeter at three locations before U.S. airstrikes drove them back.
Eight Americans and three Afghan soldiers died in the attack. American survivors said Afghan allies threw down their weapons and ran away.
Last month, U.S. troops called in an airstrike on what turned out to be an Afghan army post after Afghan soldiers there opened fire on a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol in Wardak province. Four Afghan soldiers were killed.
Nevertheless, partnership is the word of the day ahead of the Marjah operation, aimed at driving off the Taliban and quickly re-establishing Afghan government control.
"The important thing in a partnership is to respect the views of your partners, and this is what's happening," said Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, commander of the Afghan army for southern Afghanistan. "So this will lead us to success."
Nicholson said his Marines are much more effective when partnered with local forces who "intuitively understand things that we'll just never get," including the best places to hide roadside bombs or spotting Taliban fighters among the civilian male population.
Those skills will be essential in dealing with civilians who remain in Marjah, which has an estimated population of about 80,000.
NATO commanders hope the civilians will help pinpoint land mines and weapons caches once U.S. and Afghan troops enter the community.
"We would hope that the population will act as a restraining influence on the insurgents," said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the NATO commander for southern Afghanistan.
Commanders have been careful not to release a start date for the offensive in Marjah.
Most of the Afghan troops earmarked for the operation are from the 3rd Brigade of the Afghan National Army, considered one of the best commands. The Afghan soldiers have been outfitted entirely with new U.S. rifles instead of Kalashnikovs as well as Humvees.
A company of Afghan soldiers has pitched U.S.-issued two-man tents alongside Marines in the desert outside Marjah, located southwest of the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah. Marines have been training with the Afghans for about two weeks and said they were better riflemen than they'd expected.
'Everything we do, they do'
As part of the deepening cooperation, a Combined Tactical Operations Center has just opened in Camp Shorabak, the Afghan base next to the Marines' Camp Leatherneck. There, Afghan and NATO troops will receive all radio reports from the field, track unit movements and relay orders.
"Everything we do, they do," said Master Sgt. Anthony Greene, one of the Marines working with Afghans at the command center. "This is the real embedded partnering."
More than 80 percent of Afghan army recruits can't read and with limited opportunities, officials say there is little shortage of volunteers for the army, which is expected to grow from about 100,000 now to 134,000 by the end of next year.
Last year salaries for new soldiers were doubled to about $140 a month with more if they serve in dangerous provinces such as Helmand.
Among the biggest hurdles is a shortage of NATO trainers. Last month, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, complained that NATO had sent only 37 percent of the trainers it needed to teach initial eight-week courses for Afghan recruits.
Capt. Chuck Hayter, the Marines liaison officer with the Afghan 3rd Brigade, says he's confident soldiers joining the Americans for the fight in Marjah are competent — even if their style is different from the "by the book" formula of the U.S. Marines.
"They're not so good at going by the numbers, but as far as fighting goes, they're pretty damn good," Hayter said.