WASHINGTON, July 8, 2009 – The commander of a U.S. Marine brigade in southern Afghanistan is cautiously optimistic at progress made in the first week of an offensive there, but says more Afghan forces are needed.

“We’re still very early into this operation. … [I’m] very cautiously optimistic that things have gone well,” Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said in a conference call from Marine Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province with reporters at the Pentagon.

Some 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan security forces launched the ongoing Operation Khanjar, which translates to Strike of the Sword, in the Helmand River valley on July 2, marking the biggest military offensive since President Barack Obama announced a new Afghanistan strategy in March.

As the operation got under way last week in the early morning hours, the brigade of Marines fanned across the area with the intent of overwhelming opposing forces and saving civilian lives, Nicholson said. Many Taliban fighters fled as the security forces appeared, some leaving behind caches of weapons and bomb-making materials.

“What we have found here is that in some areas, there’s still some fighting going on. But in large part, the enemy has not resisted too strongly,” Nicholson said, adding that the deployment of forces almost mirrored a Marine amphibious landing in terms of size and speed.

About two months ago, Nicholson said, he received help from Gov. Gulab Mangal of Helmand province in locating key areas to target during the operation. At the Nicholson’s request, the governor also provided a list of local elders who young Marine officers could contact upon arrival in areas that traditionally have been Taliban strongholds.

Anticipating that local residents would be curious about the Marines’ intentions, Nicholson established a requirement: Company commanders must hold a “shura,” or meeting, with local elders within one day of arriving.

“The focus of this operation from the very beginning has been on the people, not the enemy,” the general said. “And I know that may sound very strange, and I got some raised eyebrows, even with talking to Marines. On the way, we’ll take care of the Taliban. But get to the people.”

About 150 local elders gathered today to watch the Helmand governor raise a flag above a centuries-old castle in the area’s southernmost town of Khanishin. Nicholson characterized it as an “Iwo Jima” moment for Marines who earlier had rid the town of Taliban militants, and now looked on as the national banner rose.

“This is a Taliban iconic town that has fallen to the government,” Nicholson said. “There were tears in [the governor’s] eyes today, and I think everyone there was moved.”

But despite early signs of progress, Nicholson said, he has too few Afghan forces supporting his mission.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t have enough Afghan forces, and I’d like more. You know, imagine right now I’ve got 4,000 Marines in Helmand, with about 600 [to] 650 Afghan forces. Imagine if I had 4,000 Marines with 4,000 Afghan forces.

“It would not even be comparable to this — even [given] the relative success that we’ve had over these first seven days,” he said, noting that plans call for adding more Afghans to the fight.

Nicholson characterized Afghan troops as “force multipliers,” since they wield a range of capabilities that complement U.S. forces.

“[Afghan forces] understand intuitively what’s going on in an area that we’ll just never get, no matter how much cultural training our guys get,” he said. “So they are absolutely essential.

“They can see guys on the street, and they can tell you that this guy’s not a local, that he’s not even an Afghan,” he added. “So it takes away the enemy’s ability to hide, which is just one more of a series of compelling reasons why we’ve been so insistent for more Afghans.”

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