US troops say Obama plan holds out hope they can hand fight to Afghans and go home

By Denis Gray, AP
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

US troops hopeful Obama plan will wind down war

FORWARD OPERATING BASE AIRBORNE, Afghanistan — U.S. service members in Afghanistan said President Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops offered hope that they can go home — if the reinforcements can build up the Afghan army to protect civilians against the Taliban.

Commanders applauded the reinforcements announced Wednesday, which they say are needed to turn the war around.

“Counter-insurgency in the state we are in now, for the enemy we face, mass matters,” said Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, as howitzers firing in support of a nightime operation against the insurgents shook their camp.

The troops at this base in Wardak province, west of Kabul, learned of Obama’s decision while watching TV clips of his speech during their breakfast of sausage, eggs, hash browns, fruit and cereal. Obama said that if conditions permit, the troops could begin coming home in 18 months.

“Really, I’m truly happy,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Phillip M. Hauser, an explosives demolition expert from Salina, Kansas, who is on his fourth tour of Afghanistan and Iraq. “As soon as the Afghans can do it on their own without our help, we can go home.”

Hauser said the Afghans were inexperienced — but he didn’t question their determination.

“They charge in and start pulling the wires” on the explosives, Hauser said. “It’s not the safest way to do things, but these guys have the guts.”

Capt. Mark Reel from Norfolk, Virginia, a civil affairs officer, said more troops mean nothing unless they can give local Afghans a sense of perceived security.

“They have to believe they are more secure. You get thousands of troops on some of these bases here, but what are they really doing? The troops just have to get out there.”

The reason the surge worked in Iraq, he said, is because troops were able to get into the field and make Iraqis feel safer.

“The additional forces will allow us to partner with even more units of the Afghan army and police and deliver even more relationships with those local influential leaders who may be sitting on the fence,” said Col. David Haight, commander of Task Force Spartan, which has about 4,000 troops in Wardak and Logar provinces.

Commanders say a troop surge which began in January dramatically improved the security situation in the two strategic provinces, located at the gates of Kabul.

Gallahue, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 2-87th Infantry Regiment, said he and other officers from across eastern Afghanistan were “optimistic” following a briefing by the top U.S. commander in the country, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He quoted McChrystal as saying Obama’s speech provided “clarity, capability, commitment, confidence.”

Gallahue, of Frankfort, Kentucky, said the focus should not be on an 18-month timeline but rather “the conditions that will exist at that time.” He conceded that the Afghan police especially needed “a great deal of effort.”

In the United States, battle-weary troops and their families braced for a wrenching round of new deployments to Afghanistan, but many said they support the surge as long as it helps to end the 8-year-old conflict.

Marines and their families interviewed by The Associated Press in Jacksonville, North Carolina, near Camp Lejeune, felt a mix of fresh concerns and renewed hopes. The Marine Corps base could supply some of the first surge units by Christmas.

“All I ask that man to do, if he is going to send them over there, is not send them over in vain,” said 57-year-old Bill Thomas of Jacksonville, who watched Obama’s speech in his living room, where photos of his three sons in uniform hang over the TV.

One of his sons, 23-year-old Cpl. Michael Thomas, is a Marine based at Camp Lejeune. He’ll deploy next year to Afghanistan.

An ex-Marine himself, Thomas said he supports Obama’s surge strategy. But he shook his head when the president announced a 2011 transition date to begin pulling out troops.

“If I were the enemy, I would hang back until 2011,” Thomas said. “We have to make sure that we are going go stay until the job is done. It ain’t going to be as easy as he thinks it is.”

The idea behind Obama’s troop buildup is to provide enough extra security for a period of time to give the Afghans a chance to build up their government and security forces. Asked how the U.S. and international forces will prevent another resurgence of militant violence once the foreign forces leave, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in the country, said that insurgents can’t afford to leave the battlefield while the ranks of trained Afghan forces swell.

“It makes it much more difficult for the returning insurgents to contest that,” McChrystal said.

Military officials say the Army brigades most likely to be sent as part of the surge will come from Fort Drum in New York and Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Marines, who will be the vanguard, will most likely come primarily from Camp Lejeune.

As the wife of a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, Jamie Copeland said she wished the war “would be over and done with.”

Copeland’s husband, Sgt. Doug Copeland, is already scheduled to return to Afghanistan later this fall. She hates to see him go — he just returned from his last seven-month tour in August — and miss more time with their 1-year-old son. But she also conceded that American forces need more help fighting Taliban insurgents.

“We need to be in Afghanistan,” said Copeland, 24. “Our Marines are getting slaughtered out there. I would say we need more out there. Iraq is done.”

At the John Hoover Inn, a bar in Evans Mills, N.Y., near Fort Drum, a dozen soldiers watched the speech on a large-screen TV, drinking beer out of red cups. When Obama announced the troop increase, only one cheered, and the rest remained silent. They continued to play darts while the president was speaking.

“I’m just relieved to know where we’re going,” said Spc. Adam Candee, 29, of Chicago.

Theresa McCleod said she worries what Obama’s plans might mean for her husband, a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum. She said he’s already done a long combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving her to care for their three children.

“First he was supposed to be pulling everyone out, and now all the sudden he’s throwing everybody back into Afghanistan and it’s like nobody can really make up their minds,” McCleod said of Obama.

Associated Press Writer Kevin Maurer reported from Jacksonville, N.C. Ted Shaffrey at Fort Drum, N.Y., Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga. and Kristin Hall in Clarksville, Tenn., contributed to this story.

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