8 years, 11 months ago
This is the sixth in a series following the U.S. Marines through the Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit try to take shelter from a sand storm at forward operating base Dwyer in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan Wednesday, May 7, 2008. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
The Marines are continuing their success in the Garmser area of the Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
KABUL–American jarheads are either prudently pacifying a swath of Helmand province or kicking out the doors and ratcheting up the insurgency.
Depends on whom you ask.
From the distance of the capital, it’s impossible to confirm anything firsthand. But the commander of the 24th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit came all the way to Kabul yesterday, both to proclaim initial combat success and to quash reports of extensive hardship visited upon a fleeing populace.
According to Lt.-Col. Kent Hayes, the known scorecard reads thusly: Marine casualties: 0. Civilian casualties: 0. Displaced persons: “Very, very few.”
Those citizens, Hayes adds, were already on the move when Marines set out to clear key transit routes – for arms and fighters crossing over the border from Pakistan, just to the south – in Garmser district. “I can’t even speculate as to the reason why, or where they went. I can tell you that they have not been leaving from any area that we have control over.”
While Hayes wouldn’t give out Taliban body counts from the past fortnight, the provincial governor puts the figure at 150, most of them allegedly foreign fighters.
Hayes merely agrees not to quibble with that.
“As practice, the Marines don’t use that as our way of determining success. We judge our success by what our mission was. The bottom line is, we fight them, we defeat them.”
British troops, who have charge of Helmand under the International Security Assistance Force – Canadians next door in Kandahar – had not been able to secure that area.
The U.S. Marines, 2,400 strong and many of them battle-hardened from combat in Iraq, were recently parachuted in at the urging of NATO, desperate for fighting-capable reinforcement.
… the Taliban are shoving back hard, which is a rarity since the insurgents avoid conventional confrontations, unable to counter heavy weapons and supporting air strikes.
“They are consistently engaging us in small numbers. It’s just continual, constant contact. And we’re defeating them. What we have set out to do, we have accomplished.”
No Afghan troops have been involved in this mission.
Hayes insists the effectiveness of the aggressive American approach is already evident on the ground. “We have seen that they are starting to have trouble reinforcing and getting arms.”
Intelligence gathered, some of it from Afghan military authorities, indicates the Taliban are pulling in their own reinforcements from other districts, perhaps other volatile southern provinces, maybe inadvertently easing the threat in places such as Kandahar, though this remains to be seen.
“Because we’ve seen fighters coming in from other areas, the rest of Helmand, rather than from just around Garmser, that is telling us about the success we’re having, that we are affecting and disrupting them,” said Hayes. “We are defeating the enemy when they oppose us and, when they reinforce, we’re defeating them as well.”
Garmser has long been used as a planning, staging and logistics hub by the neo-Taliban. Choking off Garmser is the Marines’ mission, though some diplomatic – even military – observers have questioned the long-term impact of a muscular offensive that alienates the local population …
There is no indication how long this Marine-led operation will last or how far south the Taliban will be chased.
“This is the start,” said Hayes. “We started in Garmser. As far as ending it, I will tell you that it’s not time-driven. We will leave Garmser at the time and place of our choosing.”
Analysis & Commentary
As a brief comment on the method of transport of the Marines to the theater and then to Helmand, they did not parachute in. The unit is not airborne (except for MARSOC).
As we previously noted, the caterwauling about the aggressiveness of the Marine operations is expected and will subside when the success of the mission becomes apparent. Regarding the history of success, it is too easy to forget who pacified the Anbar Province.
It is a very positve sign that the Taliban are deploying forces to Garmser to assist in their defenses, and it casts light on the propaganda recently spewed by the Taliban concerning this operation, proving it to be lies.
The Taliban have suffered their first major loss in this year’s offensive, but they are putting on a brave face, even spinning the setback as a triumph in their broader battle against foreign forces in Afghanistan …
The Taliban … claim the loss of one base is not critical, and anyway, for NATO to hold on to its gain it will have to commit thousands of troops to the outpost, which is located in the inhospitable desert, if it is to effectively guard the lawless and porous border through which the Taliban funnel men, arms and supplies.
It doesn’t help the Taliban if the Marines are generally confined to this area of operations if they too are so confined because they have decided that Garmser really does play an important role in their plan. In other words, the Taliban are as tied down as the Marines, and in this case they are losing.
The report of Taliban moving fighters into this area is confirmed by other accounts.
Maj. Tom Clinton Jr. said the Marines would be in Garmser for several more weeks. It means the Marines might not take part in an operation that was planned in another southern province this month.
“The number of fighters that stood and fought is kind of surprising to me, but obviously they’re fighting for something,” Clinton said, alluding to poppies. “They’re flowing in, guys are going south and picking up arms. We have an opportunity to really clear them out, cripple them, so I think we’re exploiting the success we’re finding.”
U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said he needs three more brigades — two for combat and one to train Afghan soldiers, roughly 7,500 to 10,000 additional soldiers.
When the Marines eventually leave Garmser, any gains the 24th has made could be quickly erased unless other forces from NATO or the Afghan government move in.
“We can’t be a permanent 24/7 presence. We don’t have enough men to stay here,” said Staff Sgt. Darrell Penyak, 29, of Grove City, Ohio. “We would need the ANA (Afghan army) to move in, and right now the way we’re fighting, there’s no way the ANA can come in. They couldn’t handle it.”
Afghanistan’s army and police forces are steadily growing, but are still not big — or skilled — enough to protect much of the country. Spokesmen for both forces said they were not aware of plans to send forces to Garmser.
Col. Nick Borton, commander of British forces in the southern part of Helmand, recently visited U.S. positions in Garmser, where he told the Americans he’d be happy if they stayed on.
“If they’re here for only a short time, we can’t build very much off that,” he said. “Their presence for a few days doesn’t really help us.”
A representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm, told Marine battalion commander Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson that “people lose faith if you pull out.”
The next day, at a meeting of Marines and Afghan elders, the bearded, turban-wearing men told Marine Capt. Charles O’Neill that the two sides could “join together” to fight the Taliban. “When you protect us, we will be able to protect you,” the leader of the elders said.
This last paragraph is stunning. Note well how closely what the Afghan elders said matches professional counterinsurgency doctrine. “When you protect us, we will be able to protect you.” This statement comes from the elders very soon after operations by the Marines, and it is indicative of pregnant possibilities.
Yet the Marines must leave, presumably to conduct other kinetic operations elsewhere in Afghanistan. The force size is not large enough, and it seems doubtful that the British will be able to hold the terrain once the Marines leave.
This most recent account of the Marines in Helmand breathes life into a languishing campaign with rapid and remarkable success, but it also shows the need for force projection and properly resourcing the campaign. Taking the terrain will help little if we cannot hold it, and leaving will possibly hurt counterinsurgency efforts when the Taliban re-enter the town and kill those who have cooperated with the Marines. Taking the terrain next time may not be so easy.