Quantico, Virginia (AFP) Feb 28, 2009
The young officers in the US Marines sent here to prepare to lead troops into combat say they are eager for duty in Afghanistan, the war that President Barack Obama has made his priority.
"I am sure everyone will go there sooner or later," said Lieutenant Steven Morris, 34, wearing desert camouflage as he watched his fellow marines warm up in the morning cold before combat training.
Obama, calling Afghanistan the central front in the fight against terrorism rather than Iraq, has approved the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to take on Taliban insurgents, including 8,000 marines.
"The amount of combat decreased in Iraq and that's a good news story," said Colonel George Smith, commander of "The Basic School" for marine officers in Quantico, Virginia.
"I think the marines want to go where the fight occurs. There is going to be more fighting in Afghanistan than there currently is in Iraq," Smith said.
Every new marine officer passes through the elite Quantico school, and after six months of intensive training they take command of a 50-member platoon.
Behind the colonel, on a dry stretch of ground dotted with old tanks and plastic targets riddled with bullet holes, dozens of marines rehearse an attack on an "enemy" force amid the clatter of simulated gun and mortar fire.
"Our training remains the same whether they are going to Iraq or Afghanistan, or any part of the world," said the colonel, citing the traditional focus on weapons, tactics and leadership.
"The fundamentals remain the same," he said.
Once they finish at Quantico, the marines undertake training more tailored for their next destination: counter-insurgency warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq.
Lieutenant Paul Rivera Perez, after 10 years in the corps, has already seen action in Iraq, but "Afghanistan is where I want to go."
And he added with a smile, "I like the medal" awarded to Afghan veterans.
Whether motivated by the September 11 attacks or the need for a secure job amid a dire economic crisis, a wave of volunteers are applying to join up with the marines and the other armed services.
In January alone, 3,720 young Americans enlisted in the US Marines, 300 more than the corps hoped to recruit.
"I fully anticipate to be deployed," said Peter Metzger, a former lawyer and now a marine lieutenant, wearing a bullet-proof vest over his uniform.
After Metzger got his law degree, he expected to be in the courtroom working on trials.
"It turned out that I was in an office, writing briefs for federal court or for partners," he said.
"Every night, I was watching the news, seeing people who would make a real sacrifice for their country. It was important for me to be part of my generation's effort. So I called a marine recruiter."
After they finish their simulated combat, the officers move on to martial arts. The marine version is a menacing mix of several disciplines, using knives, guns, clubs and bare hands.
Four black-belt instructors offer an intimidating demonstration -- thrusting knives just millimeters from the face. In the flash of a second, an opponent is disarmed and thrown to the ground.
The marines at the Basic School are ready for Afghanistan, said spokesman Commander Jeffrey Landis.
"Marines are not necessarily designed for sustaining a transitional operation," Landis said, a reference to Iraq where about 20,000 marines are stationed in the relatively peaceful province of Al-Anbar.
"We are more designed for routing an insurgency. So by design the Marine Corps is a better fit for what's going on Afghanistan.
"Stabilization efforts are more of an Army thing."
earlier related report
In Pakistan, for the government to concede victory to Islamist extremists, along with a license to impose Shariah law in the Swat Valley, Pakistan's favorite tourist destination, was the line of least resistance. With little hope for material improvement over a lifetime, the average Pakistani is quickly seduced by what he or she hears in the mosques on Fridays and on some 50 television channels about the wicked imperialists -- the United States, India and Israel -- and their plans to either harm or destroy Islam.
An alarming number of Pakistanis believe that Sept. 11, 2001, was a plot engineered by a CIA-Mossad-RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India's main intelligence agency) conspiracy designed to provide the imperialists with a gigantic provocation that then justified war against Afghanistan's religious dictatorship. Now almost daily, Pakistanis hear news about a U.S. unmanned Predator attack in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that killed innocent civilians. There is a seemingly endless parade on local TV news of dead Pakistanis, victims of a Predator missile fired by remote control from the control cockpit on the ground in Nevada.
Pakistani TV is to news what bumper stickers are to jihad. If there were Oscars for self-delusion, Pakistanis would sweep the field. Some 1,500 people a year in recent years have been killed by suicide bombers and other acts of terrorism. Every major city has been victim of suicide violence. Recruiting teenage boys for trips to another world is the easy part.
The pro-American stance of the civilian government, led by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, is understandably unpopular among the masses. Virulent anti-Americanism took root with the U.S. failure to come to Pakistan's aid during the Bangladesh crisis in 1971. This was when Pakistan lost half its country. And this was also the loss that convinced the Pakistanis they should give top priority to the development of a nuclear weapon, which, in turn, provoked the United States into imposing tough diplomatic, economic and military sanctions.
The 20 percent of Pakistanis who are the Western-oriented, educated class are not hostile to America, simply uneasy with a relationship that has led to U.S. bombings in FATA and an Afghan war that is spreading without any end in sight. They also can see that their own fragile democracy appears to be heading back to a military takeover. The army is anxious to stay out of politics, but Zardari's inexplicably harmful actions may leave the army no choice.
Zardari suddenly imposed federal rule -- i.e., his own -- on Punjab province and dismissed its provincial government, which followed a Supreme Court ruling that disqualified from public office his principal opponent, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now the country's most popular political leader, as well as Sharif's brother Shahbaz, the province's chief minister.
Punjab is Pakistan's political heartland and the largest of its four provinces. Lahore, the provincial capital, is also Pakistan's cultural center. And this latest opportunity for settling scores in the streets erupted as top Pakistani and Afghan officials met in Washington with their U.S. counterparts to put the relationship on a sounder basis -- with $7.5 billion over five years for non-military aid and $1 billion to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in FATA.
Pakistan asked the United States to turn over control of the unmanned drones that are bombing Taliban and al-Qaida targets in FATA. With Pakistan Muslim League partisans of the two Sharif brothers battling Zardari's Pakistan People's Party supporters in the streets of Lahore, all bets were off again as the country's two leading political figures side-slipped back to the 1990s. This was when their political parties kept toppling each other until army chief Pervez Musharraf staged a coup in 1999 -- and dispatched Nawaz Sharif into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Once again, Nawaz Sharif and Zardari were fighting, not for good governance, but for political survival. Obama administration calls for more decisive action against Islamist extremists suddenly appeared to be the least of their concerns.
Several Washington think tanks rushed into publication with agendas, as army chiefs and foreign ministers from Pakistan and Afghanistan huddled in Washington for a series of trilateral and bilateral meetings with U.S. counterparts. Engineered by Ambassador at Large Richard Holbrooke and CENTCOM commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, the meetings were designed to hammer out a common strategy to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and take down its safe havens, along with al-Qaida's, in FATA.
As Zardari himself put it recently, "We (the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) are losing the battle." There was little trust among the four and little agreement on what the final objective should be in Afghanistan. It was now Obama's War and could become Obama's Vietnam.
Law enforcement sources in the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province told us the Swat Valley surrender to Islamist extremists could embolden them to seize government offices and police stations in Peshawar and then battle it out against the army, which would quickly tire of killing civilians. After the Swat accord on the imposition of Shariah law, the army that had been fighting religious zealots for a year went back to its barracks.
Much also depends on the Taliban's military plans for the spring and summer. A "Tet-type" offensive against two or three large Afghan towns simultaneously, even if successfully repulsed, would kill what little public support still exists in NATO Europe for staying the course 5,500 kilometers "out of area." A NATO withdrawal, leaving the United States alone to fend off the Taliban, would 1) kill NATO and 2) give al-Qaida manna from Allah. What it will do to Barack Obama's congressional majority in the 2010 election cycle is still anyone's guess.
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