What Now Zad Can Teach Us About Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 9 months ago

We have been covering and analyzing U.S. Marine Corps operations in Now Zad, Afghanistan, for nine months, ever since our friend Major Cliff Gilmore (USMC) sent us a direct and unpublished report on his visit to Now Zad.  Three months ago we observed that Now Zad was abandoned, and questioned the strategic significance of holding it.  More than two months ago we got our answer: the Marines were working to shape the battle space by moving insurgents into disposable positions.

Insurgents are there even though the population isn’t.  There is major combat action in Now Zad as demonstrated by this video.  We discussed the fact that there aren’t enough troops to clear and hold, and as it turns out, Now Zad was being used as a place for R&R for insurgents.  Now this AP video gives us an even clearer description of the need for additional Marines.

This is simply remarkable.  Much of the time conducting counterinsurgency is devoted to extracting and isolating the insurgents from the population and protecting the population from violence from insurgents.  It is costly, requires patience, and is very expensive and inefficient.  But every once in a while the insurgents do us a favor and isolate themselves from the population.  These are the instances for which we pray.

Yet when the 2/7 Marines deployed to Now Zad in the spring only to find no noncombatants, it was as if an apology was necessary.  “They saw what they wanted to achieve but didn’t realize fully what it would take,” Task Force 2/7’s commander, Lt. Col. Richard Hall, said at the time. “There were no intel pictures where we are now because there were few or no coalition forces in the areas where we operate. They didn’t know what was out there. It was an innocent mistake.”

Mistake or not, the Marines hit a gold mine, with the possibility for significantly increased productivity in kinetic operations and kill ratio as compared to the alternative.  But while Now Zad is important enough to take, it isn’t important enough to hold significant portions or even kill all of the insurgents in the AO.  Why wouldn’t more Marines be deployed to the area to kill insurgents before they return to their own area of operations to wreak havoc?

Enter population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine.  Rather than seeing protection of the population as one potential line of operation or line of effort in the campaign, it is the sole focus of the campaign.  Rather than killing insurgents, we hear a constant parroting of the meme that for every insurgent we kill, greater than or equal to one insurgent pops up in his place (we’ll call this the dilemma).

Obviously we cannot deny that in some instances the dilemma presents itself, because denying it would be doctrinal stubbornness and inflexibility.  But also just as obviously, this does not obtain in every situation.  There were a huge number of indigenous insurgents killed in the Anbar Province, and if greater than one replaced every dead insurgent, the campaign wouldn’t be over.  While Captain Travis Patriquin was courting the tribes in Anbar, U.S. forces were targeting his smuggling lines by killing smugglers and shutting down his means of transit with kinetic operations.  In some cases, it would seem, nothing is a better inducement to negotiate than seeing dead friends and family members.

But the proponents of population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine, i.e., those who proclaim that it should be the sole focus of the campaign, have been so effective that the U.S. Marine Corps is apologizing for being deployed in an area of operations where they can kill the enemy unimpeded, and then refusing to deploy more Marines there because the population cannot be protected.

In fact, nothing would lead to better protection of the population than killing insurgents who will later go back to their area of operations and kill, maim, extort and threaten their own countrymen.  But our population-centric COIN experts are so blinded by ideological commitment to a set of axioms that they cannot see the value of kinetics even when the insurgents give us the option of doing it without even so much as a single noncombatant loss.

Doctrinal stubbornness and inflexibility.  It might just be our undoing.




You are currently reading "What Now Zad Can Teach Us About Counterinsurgency", entry #3241 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Marine Corps,Now Zad and was published June 30th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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