8 years, 10 months ago
We have covered the hard core, robust kinetic engagement of the U.S. Marines in the Helmand Province in and around the city of Garmser, Afghanistan. The British drove them to the fight, everyone else watched and the Taliban died. But is this all there is to U.S. Marine style counterinsurgency? Not even nearly. Michael M. Phillips of the Wall Street Journal has given us a thinking man’s discussion of counterinsurgency in After Battle in Afghanistan Villages, Marines Open Complaint Shop.
During a month of house-to-house combat, First Lt. Steven Bechtel’s men fired about 500 mortar rounds at Taliban insurgents.
Now, he’s paying the price.
Just two days after the main Taliban force was routed, Lt. Bechtel put aside his weapons and opened what amounts to a wartime complaints desk in a mud-brick hut. The lieutenant and his men spend their time cataloging the destruction and issuing vouchers to compensate villagers for their losses, whether caused by U.S. missiles or Taliban grenades.
“We’re very sorry for the damage to your doors, but we had to make sure the Taliban didn’t leave any bombs or weapons inside,” Lt. Bechtel last week told Abdul Majid, a 70-year-old with a weathered face, a dense white beard and a cane made from a tree limb.
“It’s no problem,” Mr. Majid responded. “You’re paying for it.”
The First Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment was recently deployed to Afghanistan as part of a force, 3,000-strong, helping to turn the tide against a resurgent Taliban. What resulted was a conventional battle that raged through the villages and poppy fields of Garmsir District, a major waypoint for insurgents leaving safe havens in Pakistan, a sign of how far Western gains have slipped recently.
The fighting sent civilians fleeing into the surrounding desert. After the violence ebbed, the villagers returned, in many cases to homes cracked open by artillery, bombs, missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. Soon they were lined up at Lt. Bechtel’s door, testing the Marines’ ability to shift gears on the fly, from combat to the struggle for popular allegiance. Winning over the locals has always been a goal; now, it’s happening in double-quick time.
“It just switched suddenly one day,” says Lt. Bechtel, a soft-spoken 24-year-old from Naples, Fla., who decided in the eighth grade that he wanted to be a Marine. “All of the sudden there were civilians in the area.”
More than 200 villagers have applied for compensation already, and a vendor has set up shop outside the coiled razor-wire barrier selling cigarettes and soda to the petitioners. At the first coils, the villagers, all men or boys, must lift their shirts or robes to show that they aren’t wearing suicide vests. At the guard post, a Marine sentry pats them down before they’re allowed to approach the office.
The walls inside are adorned with posters of sumptuous feasts and the holy city of Medina. They’re property of the compound’s owner. The Marines commandeered the man’s residence during the fighting, and now scores of men from the battalion’s Alpha Company camp in his buildings and sandy yard, for which they pay the equivalent of $60 a month in rent. The troops promise to leave as soon as they have built a base of their own. But the owner comes by almost daily to demand his house back, or at least more rent.
The first time a villager comes to the complaint office, the lieutenant or his No. 2, Sgt. James Blake, a 25-year-old from Merrimack, N.H., jots down the claim on a piece of yellow legal paper. The petitioner takes the note to a Marine patrol in his neighborhood. The Marines verify the damage and send the man back to Lt. Bechtel.
At the second meeting, the Marines tally up the cost, using data on an Excel spreadsheet that the lieutenant, who majored in mechanical-engineering at Virginia Military Institute, compiled using prices gathered from the local market.
The Marines have a penchant for personal responsibility and equipment and ordnance accountability. Every round is intended to kill the enemy, and yet every round is tracked for its affect. Tear down a door? We pay. Kill a goat? We pay. Break a window? We replace it. And … we track it all in EXCEL. The same thing was done in Fallujah during Operation Alljah.
The tired and badly simplistic phrase “winning hearts and minds” should be forever forgotten in favor of what they Marines have done in Anbar, Iraq and Helmand, Afghanistan. It is about kinetics, security for the population, cultural understanding, family honor, property ownership, boundaries of behavior, and holding the terrain to ensure long term stability and governance.
Today’s warriors not only have to be qualified at warcraft, they must be warrior scholars, capable of cultural assimilation, at least pseudo-qualified in anthropology and psychology, and prepared for stability operations. And the Marines are not only up to the task, they are the best in the world.
Lastly, the WSJ article leaves this account with a caveat.
On a single day last week , the Marines pledged $12,100 in reparations. “I’d rather be shooting mortars,” says Sgt. Blake. “But I understand why we’re doing this, paying for the damage we caused. And I like helping people out as much as we can.”
Mr. Majid, the elderly petitioner, patted Lt. Bechtel on the shoulder and removed his own blue turban — gestures of gratitude — when offered 36,000 afghanis, or about $720, to repair his house and restore his fields. Afterward, he requested medicine for his headaches and help feeding his family. By the time he left, Mr. Majid had a new radio, a few packaged military meals, Tylenol for his head and antidiarrhea medicine for his grandson.
There’s one flaw in the Marines’ campaign. While they freely issue compensation vouchers, they don’t have any actual money to give out yet. The cash, the Marines tell the villagers, will be here on July 1. The date has already slipped once, from mid-June, and some people doubt they’ll ever see the money. “If we don’t pay them on the first,” Sgt. Blake said, “it’s going to be bad.”
You better believe it. The money had better be there because it affects the reputation of the U.S. Marines and the COIN effort underway in Afghanistan. Time for the DoD to “belly up to the bar.”