Following the Marines Through Helmand III

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 4 months ago

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit patrolled the southern Afghanistan village of Hazarjoft on May 21. The unit is planning to move on in the next few weeks. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Report

For two years British troops staked out a presence in this small district center in southern Afghanistan and fended off attacks from the Taliban. The constant firefights left it a ghost town, its bazaar broken and empty but for one baker, its houses and orchards reduced to rubble and weeds.

But it took the U.S. Marines, specifically the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, about 96 hours to clear out the Taliban in a fierce battle in the past month and push them back 10 kilometers, or six miles …

The marines’ drive against the Taliban in this large farming region is certainly not finished, and the Taliban have often been pushed out of areas in Afghanistan only to return in force. But for the British forces and for Afghan residents, the result of the recent operation has been palpable …

Major Neil Den-McKay, the officer commanding a company of the Royal Regiment of Scotland based here, said of the U.S. Marine’s assault: “They have disrupted the Taliban’s freedom of movement and pushed them south, and that has created the grounds for us to develop the hospital and set the conditions for the government to come back.” People have started coming back to villages north of the town, he added, saying, “There has been huge optimism from the people.”

For the marines, it was a chance to hit the enemy with the full panoply of their firepower in places where they were confident there were few civilians. The Taliban put up a tenacious fight, rushing in reinforcements in cars and vans from the south and returning again and again to the attack. But they were beaten back in four days by three companies of marines, two of which were dropped in by helicopter to the south east …

Marines from Charlie Company said the reaction from the returning population, mostly farmers, has been favorable. “Everyone says they don’t like the Taliban,” said Captain John Moder, 34, commander of Charlie Company. People had complained that the Taliban stole food, clothes and vehicles from them, he said …

The U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeill, had a checklist of tasks around the country for the 3,200 marines when they arrived in March. But the majority of them have spent a month in Garmser after changing their original plan to secure a single road here, when they realized how important the area was to the Taliban as an infiltration and supply route to fighters in northern Helmand Province.

“This is an artery and we did not realize that when we squeezed that artery, it would have such an effect,” said First Lieutenant Mark Matzke, the executive officer of Charlie Company.

The whole area was unexpectedly welcoming to the U.S. forces, and eager for security and development, Moder of Charlie Company said.

“Us pushing the Taliban out allows the Afghan National Army to come in,” he said. “This is a real bread basket here. There’s a lot of potential here.”

This southern part of Helmand Province, along the Helmand River valley, is prime agricultural land and still benefits from the grand irrigation plan started by U.S. government assistance in the 1950s and 1960s. It has traditionally been the main producer of wheat and other crops for the country, but in 30 years of war has given way to poppies, providing a large percentage of the crop that has made Afghanistan the producer of 98 percent of the world’s opium.

The region has long been an infiltration route for insurgents coming across the southern border with Pakistan, crossing the border from Baluchistan via an Afghan refugee camp, known as Girdi Jungle, notorious for its drug smuggling and gun running.

The Taliban, and the drug runners, then race across a region known ominously as the desert of death until they reach the river valley, which provides ideal cover of villages and greenery.

With such a large area under their control, they were able to gather in numbers, stockpile weapons and provide a logistics route to send fighters and weapons into northern Helmand and the provinces of Kandahar and Uruzgan beyond.

The Taliban, who kicked out villagers and took over their farmhouses, sometimes even bringing their families from Pakistan to join them, were joined by Arabs and Pakistanis, Den-McKay said.

“The majority of elements in this area are Arab and Pakistani, and the locals detest them,” he said. Some of the Arabs were specialist trainers and some young jihadists from different countries. The commanders were Iranians, which shares a border with Afghanistan to the southwest, as well as Saudis and Pakistanis, he asserted …

The local people complained that the Taliban taxed them heavily on the opium harvest. They demanded up to 13 kilos of opium from every farmer, which was more than the entire harvest of some, so they were forced to go and buy opium to meet the demand, said one farmer Abdul Taher, 45.

“We had a lot of trouble these last two years,” said Sher Ahmad, 32.

His father, Abdul Nabi, the elder of a small hamlet in the village of Hazarjoft, a few miles south of Garmser, said: “We are very grateful for the security. We don’t need your help, just security.”

Villagers were refusing foreign aid because the Taliban were already infiltrating back and threatening anyone who took it, said Matzke, the first lieutenant of Charlie Company …

But the bigger test will come in the next few weeks as the marines move on, the Afghans take over, supported by the British, and the Taliban try to blend in with the returning population and orchestrate attacks, as everyone here expects them to do.

Analysis & Commentary

Take particular note of the words of town elder Abdul Nabi: “We are grateful for the security.  We don’t need your help, just security.”  Similar words were spoken at a meeting in Ghazni with the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: ““We don’t want food, we don’t want schools, we want security!” said one woman council member.”

Again, similar words were spoken upon the initial liberation of Garmser by the U.S. Marines: “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.”

The narrative emerging is not one of largesse, roads, education, crop rotation, irrigation and all of the other elements of the soft side of counterinsurgency.  To be sure, these elements are necessary and good, but sequentially they come after security.

But the Marines are leaving to pursue the wish list of accomplishments while in Afghanistan.  Garmser, it is already known, will see the Taliban again.  Why the British believe that without the Marines they can hold the terrain is not clear.  Without the continuation of force projection there is no difference between the campaign now and two months ago.  Effecting the conditions for security doesn’t happen instantaneously.

Whack-a-mole counterinsurgency was fought in Iraq prior to the surge, and much of it unsucessfully.  Will the same mistake be repeated in Afghanistan?



  • Warbucks

    Herschel,

    The scope of your website is staggering in its coverage. If you ever find the time or resources to included detailed maps embedded in your articles I personally would find that of great assistance.

    Warbucks

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    I would like to do more maps, and others have recommended this same thing. Frankly, the multimedia aspect of blogging is the most challenging (in terms of time). For instance, it looks appealing to the eye and informative to see a map of a certain area in Pakistan or Afghanistan aligned left, caption underneath and text beside it, and so on. All of that requires putting the right coding into the post, along with finding good maps. Finding good maps of Pakistan has been difficult. Also, when I do include maps or pictures, there is always the fight to get the right actual size (and file size) so that it doesn’t look grainy. In short, it’s a lot of work compared to simply blogging. I can write four or five paragraphs (or even an entire post) in the time it takes to work through some of the issues. Also, compare that with the fact that I would like to drop more articles out on the web site, and it becomes a competition for time. It would be fun and I would certainly do it if I could make a living at this, but since I have a day job ….

  • trollsmasher

    Gentlemen et al.
    The Marines know leaving this are will be a mistake the NATO commander should be pushing forces forward but will not or cannot. This will be a shame. The Marines will kill Taliban until the cows come home but what good will it do? NADA Zip Zilch. As Churchill said we put them on the beach expecting a wildcat and got a cow or something to that effect. I just do not think that our NATO allies with exceptions of course want to risk it. Leave it to the bloody American’s. Sorry this topic really gets me going.
    Regards

  • Aercdr

    The joke that we used to make in Brussels is that NATO stands for Needs Americans To Operate. The fact that the EU has deployed more forces to Kosovo than Afghanistan is unfortunate. The good thing is that the Brits, Canadians and others have begun traveling to Regional Command – East, which comes under CJTF-101. In RC-E we have found the right formula of using kinetic operations to separate the enemy from the population and then use our expertise in governance and reconstruction to enable the Afghans to start managing things on their own.

    A good example is the success we have achieved in Nangarhar and Khost provinces, or the success that we are achieving in Konar, the most dangerous place in Afghanistan. (God Bless the Marines, but say a prayer for the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd ABCT – Task Force Bayonet under Col. Chip Preysler, or the Band of Brothers of TF Currahee under Col. Pete Johnson at FOB Salerno in Khost .) By striving for the right balance across all lines of operation including civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams, we have made a profound difference.

    We don’t get much press, and that press that we do get focuses on the effects of the terror tactics that our enemy (the term Taliban has less meaning, particularly in the east) have been forced to employ. That said, 20 years from now, people won’t discuss COIN in terms of the Malaya Emergency, but what the US has done right in the east.

    Pakistan remains a problem. Having been rocketed from the other side of the border I can tell you that we need to engage Islamabad more closely on a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, the Administration has long taken a pro-Musharaff stance that destroyed what little credibility that we had in Pakistan in the first place.

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You are currently reading "Following the Marines Through Helmand III", entry #1113 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Marines in Helmand and was published May 27th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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