Marines shifting bases in Nawa to Afghan control, but what's next?

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Lt. Col. Jeffrey Holt, the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, points out sites to Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn III from the roof of the Nawa district Governor's Center on Oct. 28. (Photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga/Marine Corps)

For months, Marine leaders in Afghanistan have cited the district of Nawa as an example of what the Marine Corps can accomplish in Helmand province. Home to about 80,000 people along the Helmand River, it has improving security and a stability that is still sorely lacking in other districts.

Now, with the traditional Afghan fighting season coming to a close, the Corps is beginning to transfer bases in Nawa to Afghan control, the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported yesterday. It’s the first district in Helmand in which it has been possible since a buildup of forces began last December.

The move raises some interesting questions.

For one, if Nawa is improved, will there be pressure in Washington for the Corps to reduce its forces in southern Afghanistan? There are still plenty of other areas that presumably could use additional forces, considering the continued attacks that Marines face in Marjah, Sangin and other violent districts.

Second, how much help will Afghan forces in Nawa need? Marines with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, will remain nearby to serve as the cavalry and as advisers. It’s the Afghans who need to prove they can protect their own turf, though.

Last week, Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of 1st Marine Division (Forward), said he viewed Nawa as a “mature” district, but that Marine leadership didn’t want to rush the transition.

“We’re not in a hurry at this point to  — you know, diminish the security forces there,” he said, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon from Afghanistan. “We have been more and more increasing the viability of the Afghan forces within Nawa, in particular. 

“There we had a strong army unit that’s doing well.  We had some difficulty with the leadership in the police there.  We were able to make that change, and now the new district chief of police is doing tremendous work and mobilizing that force and kind of filling the gap that was there.”

The situation is worth monitoring, especially early in 2011.

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I’m a senior writer with Marine Corps Times, covering ground warfare, manpower, weapons acquisition and other beats. I embedded in Afghanistan in spring 2010, and plan to return at least once in 2011.

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