PBS News Hour November 26, 2001
SENDING IN THE MARINES
JIM LEHRER: For analysis of the military situation in Afghanistan: Retired Marine General Richard Neal, former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps and deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. That command is responsible for running the current military campaign in Afghanistan. And John Pike, founding director of globalsecurity.org, a study group that focuses on security and military issues.
Well, General, there's an old Marine Corps saying that the Marines have landed, the situation is well in hand. Does that apply in this case?
Difficult helicopter maneuvers
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: It appears so, so far, Jim. Really been enthusiastic with the results heretofore. They flew off to Pelalu, as you know, and they went about 300 miles in, almost 400 miles. Landed, had a little trouble because of some dust storms but got into the landing strip that was there on their helicopters deployed and are setting up camp as we speak.
JIM LEHRER: Explain to us just how difficult a maneuver that is, to go 300-400 miles in helicopters and land that way. That's not a routine procedure, is it?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: No, it's not. Although the Marines that are associated with the Marine expeditionary unit, the aviation combat element which is a segment of that group, they practice routinely aerial refueling and going great distances but not of the magnitude that we saw occurred on Sunday evening.
JIM LEHRER: How many troops on a helicopter on average?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: About 35. Combat loaded.
JIM LEHRER: They fly in groups of how many?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Well, they used I think a six-ship formation and took in six CH-53 Echoes from the Pelalu into the objective area.
JIM LEHRER: Lehrer: And this area... You heard what... We all heard what Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers said about the mission of the Marine Corps. Anything you would add to that as to why these Marines were put in there yesterday and today?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Well, I think he probably covered the bases, possible blocking positions as a resource should the Northern Alliance need some help -- I think also to set the conditions for perhaps humanitarian assistance later on as the situation settles. I think they could also be used to assist the Special Operations Forces for going after their suspects connected with al-Qaida and also bin Laden himself.
So I think, you know, the Special Operations Forces and the Marine forces have worked together before even during this war. So I think this is going to... This is just another step in trying to free up some of those Special Operations Forces because it will give them a forward operating base from which they could also use some of the resources.
Why there? Why now?
JIM LEHRER: John Pike, what would you add to that as to the point of why the Marines and why now and why in this particular place?
JOHN PIKE: Well, why in this particular place, this is obviously the Taliban stronghold. This is obviously a place where you would expect to find significant concentration of al-Qaida.
JIM LEHRER: They're what, 20 miles from...
JOHN PIKE: They're just outside of town - a dozen miles. It's unclear exactly where it is, but it's...
JIM LEHRER: We wouldn't tell anybody if we knew, but somewhere in that area.
JOHN PIKE: But it's very close. Why now? I think a couple of reasons. The air campaign is clearly drawn down to combat potential of the Taliban so that American forces can get up close without fear of a massive counterattack.
JIM LEHRER: Also they could fly those helicopters. How high were those helicopters off the ground once they got over --
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: I would assume they came as low as they possibly could and just hugged the earth, the nap of the earth line they call it, using the terrain to their advantage and bringing themselves in there.
JIM LEHRER: And feeling confident that there was nothing on the ground that the Taliban could throw at them.
JOHN PIKE: Well, that there was probably nothing on the ground. The big advantage, of course, is that I think the word "forward" because the United States has had these forward operating locations and bases in Pakistan for over a month now. Special operations units have been flying from those, but it's a difference between having to take a several-hour helicopter ride to get to the scene of the action and being there within ten minutes. That I think is the key advantage in this case.
JIM LEHRER: And I interrupted you a moment ago. What else do you, in terms of why, and why the Marines? Why are the....
JOHN PIKE: Well, the Marines give you a lot of capabilities. One of them is that the Marines are special operations capable so they're going to be able to do many of the things that the Rangers have been doing.
JIM LEHRER: Like what?
JOHN PIKE: The direct action, duel raid on a suspected hiding place of al-Qaida. One of the differences between the Rangers and the Marines though is that the marines are expeditionary. It's a completely self-contained unit that has its own support capabilities so they would be able to provide all of the base security, get everybody fed, make sure that everybody has a place to sleep in the Rangers don't have an organic capability to do.
JIM LEHRER: For how long can they do that, General?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: The Marine expeditionary units have 15 days of sustainment capability with them. They really have the advantage of they could flow-if the commander in chief, General Franks, so determined-they can flow their maritime position forces into the region and that would give them an additional 30 days, probably about 45 days of supply in addition to the 15 days they carry with them. That's the real advantage that they bring. The expeditionary nature, as John correctly pointed out, it gives them this ability to get on the ground with a small footprint, a footprint of their own design and then they have their own aviation combat element, which includes fixed wing because of the Harrier.
JIM LEHRER: The Harrier is, explain what a Harrier is.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: That's the vertical take-off jet that...
JIM LEHRER: Like a helicopter or at least it lands and takes off like a helicopter but flies like a real airplane.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: The British used those extensively before we did.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Yes, they do. It almost makes you think once we bring the V-22 online you can just see...
JIM LEHRER: That's the Osprey, which is what the controversy is about.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: That will give you significant capability.
Relevancy of Marines' training
JIM LEHRER: Help us understand also what these Marines have been trained to do that is specifically relevant to their mission now in Afghanistan.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Well they have a six-month work-up. During that work-up, they have done all kinds of raid-type packages. They have people that are special operations certified -- the hostage takedown. They have shooters that go through extensive shooting drills.
JIM LEHRER: Snipers?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Yes, sir, those come with the package. They have demolition folks and engineers that travel with them. They have about a series of 24 different missions that they can do from rescue of individuals to rescues of pilots. I think the beauty is that they bring both the air, the ground, the combat surface support all in a tight package.
JIM LEHRER: John Pike, everybody was saying today.all the pundits were saying today that this marks a dramatic new dimension in the US military effort in Afghanistan. Do you agree?
JOHN PIKE: Well it certainly marks a transition in the visible level of American presence on the ground in Afghanistan. I think, however, it's a natural evolution of the military build-up, the concept of operations, the scheme of maneuver that has been unfolding over the last six weeks or so. Certainly the United States has had people on the ground throughout Afghanistan over the last month. Certainly Americans, Army Marines, have been in forward operating locations since the beginning. What is happening though is that you have a large presence, very close to the center of gravity of the Taliban. In that sense I think it is a departure, particularly since it's such a visible one.
JIM LEHRER: And also they hadn't been there, you know, but a few hours and they're on the attack.
JOHN PIKE: They're already getting emerging targets. It sounds like perhaps the Taliban trying to counterattack coming out in the open.
JIM LEHRER: Does this mean a more...well, you did say it. The more visible part of the ground action on the part of the United States. Up till now, the whole thing has been we don't want to talk about it, we don't want to show you anything. Now that's going to be different.
JOHN PIKE: Well, part of it now is that the United States now has more fire power on the ground. One of the real challenges with the Rangers and the other Special Operations units is that they are very light - really don't have the sort of heavier ground equipment, the heavier firepower that the Marine Corps is able to bring into play, and consequently, they're a lot more dependent on stealth and secrecy than the Marines.
Potential for casualties
JIM LEHRER: Now, General, the other part of this, the president said it himself today, that this also marks a more dangerous phase in this war. There's going to be casualties now. Explain that.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Well, I think what he meant was, and I wouldn't dare to put words in his mouth, but the potential for casualties are obviously there because you've got more forces, larger concentrations of forces that make for a target opportunity for the Taliban. But, you know, one of the war-fighting functions that the Marine Corps practices all the time is force protection. They have taken that in the development of their plan. They took that into consideration and developed the plans accordingly. Yes, there's risk associated with it, but they have mitigated that risk through the use of the resources that they have.
JIM LEHRER: What's your view of that, John Pike? Are we now...everybody's been saying from the very beginning that this could get...this could be extremely difficult, extremely dangerous before this war is over. This is when it first began. I don't mean since...
JOHN PIKE: I mean, yeah, it is going to continue to be very difficult and very dangerous. As we've seen with Kunduz, it's not clear where the Taliban and al-Qaida elements disappeared from up there. You've had this prison uprising in Mazar-e Sharif, apparently one CIA field operative injured, perhaps another one had been killed a couple of weeks ago.
JIM LEHRER: That has not been confirmed.
JOHN PIKE: Not confirmed.
JIM LEHRER: Right, right.
JOHN PIKE: Wouldn't expect it to be confirmed.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
JOHN PIKE: But this is certainly not the most risky strategy that the United States could have adopted. If the United States had wanted to, we could have dropped an airborne brigade on to this airfield a month ago and had this...
JIM LEHRER: How big is a brigade?
JOHN PIKE: That'd be about 5,000 guys.
JIM LEHRER: 5,000 people, compared with about a thousand Marines that will go in, yeah.
JOHN PIKE: Could have done that a month ago. It would have been higher risk, greater risk of casualties. So this is far from the riskiest approach that the US could take.
JIM LEHRER: General, what did you make of that uprising at that prison at Mazar-e Sharif?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: You know what I've read, Jim, it's kind of strange. Some have written that it was caused by the introduction of western journalists that were there to interview some of the Taliban inmates, and that this triggered a reaction to those journalists, as, "These are part of the infidels that we've been fighting for and have taken an oath to go after." I think the second thing is, is to try and embarrass the Northern Alliance and the western nations by saying, "you said you had us prisoners and in control, and here we are, you know, we can kind of call our shots when we want. Yes, we pay the price and we're willing to pay that price." Very interesting.
JIM LEHRER: But also there was suggestion today that the Taliban... That the Northern Alliance did not do a very good job of frisking these people or disarming these people when they arrested them.
JOHN PIKE: Evidently there were problems there, but I think that this point is very well taken, that over the last week or so it has been much easier to recolor large parts of the political map of Afghanistan than it has been to actually get physical control of a lot of these combatants, and there's probably many weeks of hard operations ahead.
JIM LEHRER: And speaking of that, I know that you're limited, both of you are limited to what you would say even if you knew it, and I won't hold you to it, whatever you say, but starting with you, John, is the introduction of these Marines the beginning of what could be a major introduction of US forces on the ground or is it just... Is it just another small phase?
JOHN PIKE: Well, my assumption is, looking at American military operations over the last couple of decades, that at some point by next spring the United States is probably going to have, I don't know, 10,000 troops in the theater, 10,000, 15,000. That generally seems to be the level of American military presence that you get just after the fighting stops. How long that build-up is going to take, where they're going to get introduced, when, I think it's too soon to say. I would certainly expect to see another couple of battalions of Marines in the theater before the end of the year, some additional mountain divisions as well.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add or subtract to that, General?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: I think John is mostly correct. I don't see this as the first step in a significant buildup of US forces on the ground. I don't think that's quite necessary. I think the Northern Alliance has done a credible job with the able assistance of the United States Air Force and Marine and Navy air, and I think by introducing US forces here, we might be seeing a new phase where, in fact, we are setting the conditions for the post- fight, where we have to take care of displaced persons, refugees, start doing some humanitarian work, and start doing some rebuilding efforts.
JIM LEHRER: And to keep the winners from fighting each other.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Yes. That might be more true than we care to say.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you, gentlemen both, very much.
Copyright © 2001 MacNeil-Lehrer Productions. All Rights Reserved.