Marines Continue Heavy Engagements in the Helmand Province

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 2 months ago

U.S. News & World Report recently had a very important update on the 24th MEU in the Garmser area of operations. The entire report is well worth reading, but several paragraphs will be given below as very much related to things we have discussed in our coverage.

Many of the men here are not new to combat. The 24th MEU fought during the toughest years of the insurgency in Iraq, where urban street battles in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi “were like getting into a fistfight in a phone booth,” recalls 1st Lt. Tom Lefebvre, a Weapons Company platoon leader. During its 2004 deployment to Fallujah and then in Ramadi from September 2006 to May 2007, the battalion weathered brutal attacks on a daily basis. Soon after the unit’s tour was extended to nine months from six as part of the surge, the marines began to see progress. “It wasn’t a matter of if you thought you were making a difference,” says Cpl. Scott Oaks of Stewartville, Ala. “You could see a difference.”

Here, they are not so sure. They have watched British colleagues fight to retake from the Taliban some of the same hills where old British forts from colonial-era campaigns in the 1800s still stand. Since 2006, control of this town has changed hands three times. Marines say that they are willing to do the hard fighting to clear out the area again. But, they occasionally wonder, to what end—and at what cost? “I’ve got no problem going after the Taliban,” says Weapons Company 1st Sgt. Lee Wunder. “But we’d all like to see, for all our effort and hard work, when we leave that there is someone to backfill for us” …

Because they thought it would be a quick operation, Alpha Company marines traveled light, carrying only bare essentials on their backs. They each filled CamelBaks with the equivalent of 54 water bottles each for the first three days. Many left even sleeping bags behind. With food and ammunition, gear for each gi weighed an average of 125 pounds, minus the body armor …

In May, Weapons Company was ambushed by Taliban forces and pinned down in the 90-minute firefight. “We didn’t think they’d pour it on like that,” says Abbott. “It was one of those things where they just keep turning the volume up, and it was getting louder and louder. There were 30 minutes when we were full-bore reloading,” he says. “The next morning, we were like, ‘How the hell did we survive that?’ ” …

Troops here debate what is worse—repelling groups of Taliban fighters with good command and control in Helmand or the asymmetrical guerrilla hit-and-run attacks they weathered in Ramadi. “In Iraq, it was just a guy and a couple of his buddies. These guys are better,” says one marine. “We saw more RPGs here in the first two days then we’d ever dreamed of in Iraq.” They also miss air conditioning on foot patrols in Iraq. “We’d stop in a house and get to watch Spaceballs in Arabic,” adds Cpl. Richard Fowler wistfully.

Here, too, the mud brick walls that surround homes—and that Taliban fighters use for protection—have proved disconcertingly resistant to U.S. artillery. Alpha Company has also discovered textbook trenches and fortified bunkers—some booby-trapped—in and around the compound that it took over after a recent battle with local Taliban. Marines are relieved, though, that they are able to more freely use air support in this rural area and that they haven’t come across the sheer volume of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that they encountered in Iraq. But they also fear that the use of roadside bombs is on the rise …

… since their arrival, they have been struck not only by the ferocity of the fighting but by the immense poverty they have encountered. In Fallujah and Ramadi, families had tables and china cabinets and televisions, the marines note. “You look at these areas, and there is just nothing,” says Oaks. The literacy rate in many villages is in the single digits. “Education here is just way too low, and even if you’re just talking about bringing in electricity, it’s going to take years and years and years.”

This report should be studied by every counterinsurgency practitioner and authority in the country. There are so many nuggets of gold that we cannot possibly hope to flesh out all of the lessons. But there are a few recurring themes here at The Captain’s Journal.

First, note that the Marines are asking for the same thing we have asked for here at TCJ. If we are going to commit troops and sustain casualties, then the bloody ground become sacred. It runs against honor for fallen Marines to allow terrain – physical and human – to be retaken by the enemy. The Marines want someone to fill in for them upon their departure, and not troops who wish to negotiate with the Taliban, run to the nearest FOB, and be inhibited by their ROE when faced with fire fights. The Marines want replacements who can hold the terrain.

Second, notice the battle space weight, something we have discussed in painful detail in our coverage of body armor. As we have argued before, the solution is not to give up protection, but to spend the necessary dollars to design lighter weight SAPI plates (as well as lighter weight field equipment).

Third, notice that just as we observed in the kinetic engagement in Wanat in which nine U.S. soldiers perished, the Taliban have not only become accustomed to the use of standoff weapons such as roadside bombs, but have taken to direct military confrontations via fire and maneuver. They are well trained and are becoming bolder. So much for the notion (proffered early in the year by Army intelligence – and which we disputed) that there wouldn’t be a spring offensive.  The Pentagon should listen to TCJ rather than their own intelligence.

Fourth, note the increased use of air power because of the lack of urban terrain, one of the positive things about being out of cities.

Fifth and finally, note the intensive nation-building that the Western world will have to sustain in Afghanistan before it is even up to par with Iraq. This is indeed a long term commitment.




You are currently reading "Marines Continue Heavy Engagements in the Helmand Province", entry #1218 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) 26th MEU,Afghanistan,Marines in Helmand and was published July 29th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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