By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 29, 2009 - Any gains in Afghanistan will be tied to the coalition's ability to tighten control of the Pakistan border, the top Marine officer said today. In a briefing to Pentagon reporters, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway said his 8,000 Marines deploying to southern Afghanistan this spring face "tough days ahead."
Southern Afghanistan is adjacent to a wide-open border with Pakistan, with many unrestricted crossing points. Neither the Afghan nor Pakistani border police have sufficient manning there, Conway said.
"We can and will eventually run up the victory pennant in Afghanistan, but without eliminating sanctuary across the border, the bad guys will simply come back, as they did in 2003 and 2004," Conway said.
Conway has met three times with the chief of the Pakistani army, who has expressed concerns over an influx of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan. Conway said the Pakistani general is concerned that forces going into the south could cause a refugee problem that Pakistan is ill-equipped to handle, and that the Taliban could be forced out of the south and onto supply lines that Pakistani forces are trying to protect.
The U.S. general said it remains unclear how Pakistan will deal with the internal threat posed by Taliban and al-Qaida presence.
"How they deal with that is going to be, I think, very important and pretty educational for us all over the next few weeks," Conway said.
Defense leaders have voiced approval of recent Pakistani military action against the increasingly emboldened Taliban forces there, and have offered additional support if Pakistan's government will accept it. Still, Conway said, his Marines will follow through on their planned push in the south, working to stamp out the Taliban and cut off its funding provided by illegal poppy production in the region.
"We've got to do what we've got to do in the south," he said. "And there will be pond rings coming off of that that I think we're going to have to adjust to."
Southern Afghanistan produces of most of the poppy grown in the country. Estimates widely vary, Conway said, but up to $400 million in drug production money is making its way to Taliban funding. Military officials recently authorized U.S. forces to destroy drug-related facilities that have known connections with the Taliban.
But, Conway said, fighting the drug production must take on a more holistic approach that gives the farmers an alternative to their poppy cash crop.
"I mean, otherwise, we're going to be creating Taliban if we simply take away the ability of a man to feed his family," Conway said.
The general, who recently returned from a visit to the country, said programs to combat drug production need to be expanded. The programs need to include alternate seed crops, education for farmers and infrastructure so that the farmers can move their crops to market, he said.
Some of that is in place now, he added, but not on a large enough scale to deal with the size of the drug production problem. And, Conway said, more help is needed from NATO partners and civilian agencies.
As the drawdown of forces in Iraq continues, Conway estimated there eventually may be as many as 18,000 Marines in Afghanistan. About 2,000 Marines are in the south now, and about 500 more serve in embedded training teams with the Afghan army and police.