Outgoing Commander Cites Progress in Southwestern Afghanistan
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2013 As he prepares to conclude a year of command in one of the most challenging regions of Afghanistan, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus said he’s optimistic about the progress his forces have helped to bring about as they overcame challenging circumstances and an evolving mission.
Gurganus is scheduled to transfer command of the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command Southwest next week to Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Walter Miller Jr., wrapping up a year overseeing operations in Helmand and Nimroz provinces.
Talking by phone with American Forces Press Service from his headquarters in Helmand province today, Gurganus reflected on the challenges he and his 15,000 U.S. and coalition forces faced during a transitional year.
“We came over here and were clearly still leading the counterinsurgency fight,” he said. But the mission evolved over the course of the deployment, with Gurganus’ forces conducting more joint operations with their Afghan national security counterparts, then moving into advisory and mentoring roles as the Afghans took on more security responsibility.
Now, a new step in the evolution is under way – a process focus on developing the logistics systems, training programs and other institutions. “That is really a key part of the evolution, because I think that is where we leave behind capabilities that are sustainable,” Gurganus said, posturing the Afghans for future challenges.
“This will not always be a counterinsurgency fight they are in, and they will have to shift more and more to being able to defend their country against external aggression,” he said. “So I think this next evolution is pretty important.”
Recognizing that “Marines still love a good fight, there is no doubt about that,” Gurganus credited his Marines with embracing every phase of the transition. “They have shown a tremendous deal of flexibility in what they bring to the nation’s defense and whatever is asked of them,” he said.
In doing so, “they have really seen the power of their assistance to the Afghans,” he said. “They have seen what that really means in terms of advising, assisting, training and helping them to integrate new capabilities. It has become something that the Marines and our coalition soldiers have taken a lot of pride in, being able to watch these guys step up more and more and take the lead responsibility for security.”
Meanwhile, coalition troops have juggled other challenges, including the drawdown of more than 10,000 Marines and other ISAF forces and their equipment in the midst of the fighting season. As part of the surge recovery, two Marine regimental combat teams were reduced to one, six battalions were reduced to two, and 143 bases were closed or transferred.
“That made the mission more difficult,” Gurganus conceded. “But once we laid out what needed to be done, the commanders got after it and the Marines just got on with doing it.”
These experiences have enabled the Marines to develop skills Gurganus said will easily transfer to security cooperation missions they could be called on to support anywhere in the world. “I think these experiences are going to be key to being able to execute those missions with a great amount of professionalism.” he said. “I don’t think we will ever run out of a needing the skills that we developed here -- at least not in the foreseeable future, anyway.”
Gurganus reported “a laundry list” of progress during the past year. The Afghan army and police have demonstrated that they’re up to the task of increasingly challenging roles. “They’re certainly not perfect yet,” Gurganus said, “but they have developed, and their capabilities have gotten stronger.”
He cited particular progress within the police force, which is putting the concepts of community policing and evidence-based criminal processes into action. “That’s been a huge step in a province where 85 to 90 percent of the people are illiterate,” Gurganus said.
But the most promising development, he said, is the growing – albeit it slow – support of the Afghan people for their government. Sustainable development projects are benefiting the population, and people have a voice that simply didn’t exist a decade ago, he noted.
“I won’t tell you it is wholesale yet, that everybody thinks the government is great,” Gurganus said. “But I think probably that is the part that is most heartening.”
Despite “a lot of good-news stories,” Gurganus recognized that many challenges remain. “I told Lee Miller I think he will have plenty of work to do over the course of the next year or so, but I think we have some good progress,” he said.
Among those challenges is the expectation that the Taliban will attempt to resurge as coalition forces draw down – just as they did during the past year’s drawdowns. But based on Afghans’ response, Gurganus said, he’s confident they’re prepared to take the Taliban on.
“We saw the Taliban actively target and take on the police and Afghan National Army and have seen them, quite frankly, step up to the plate and handle the threat,” he said. “It was not without casualties and not without trouble. But at the end of the day, they took the day. And it is really troublesome, I think, for the Taliban.”
Afghans are leading all operations, from planning to resourcing their activities, he said. Coalition forces provide support only when the Afghans absolutely need it, such as medical evacuation capabilities they have not yet developed.
As his Marines prepare to return to Camp Pendleton, Calif., Gurganus credits them for the role they have played in Afghanistan’s future. Gains made haven’t come without sacrifice, he recognized. So even before he leaves Afghanistan, Gurganus already is planning a memorial service to be held April 11 at Camp Pendleton to honor the 75 Marines, sailors and coalition soldiers in Regional Command Southwest killed during the past year.
The ceremony not only will honor them and recognize the magnitude of their sacrifice, he said, but also will help to give closure to the Marines who served and sacrificed alongside them.
Gurganus recognized the U.S. and coalition forces who sacrificed before them in Helmand province and helped set the conditions for his forces to build on.
“It goes back not only to the things we have done. It goes back to every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine who has served out here,” he said. “The conditions were well set for us to pick up this mission. And hopefully, we will have taken it to another level, where now General Miller just picks it up and goes right on from here.”
What that future will look like remains unclear, he acknowledged. But the way Garganus defines success – and encourages his Marines and coalition forces to define it – is through the opportunity they have given the Afghans.
“Ten years ago, the Afghan people had no opportunity. They had nothing resembling a chance to have a better future,” he said. “Our job is to help create that opportunity. And what they decide to do with it is ultimately going to be their decision.”
By this measure, Garganus declared the current deployment and previous ones it has built on a success.
“I really do believe that the work that has been done over the course of the last 10 years by all of the coalition has given the Afghans the opportunity now to really step up and be a country for which they determine its future,” he said.