Marines Meet Taliban Resistance in Garmsir

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago

The Washington Post has an update on Operation Khanjar, specifically Marine Corps operations in the Garmsir District.  Most of the article will be reproduced followed by some brief commentary.

Marines pushing deep into a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province battled insurgents in a day of firefights around a key bazaar Sunday, as an operation designed as a U.S. show of force confronted resistance from Taliban fighters as well as constraints on supplies and manpower.

Insurgents at times showed unexpected boldness as they used machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to fight the advancing Marine forces. Although the Marines overpowered the Taliban with more sophisticated weapons, including attack helicopters, the clashes also indicated that the drive by about 4,500 Marines to dislodge the Taliban from its heartland in Helmand is running up against logistical hurdles.

The firefights erupted a day after the Marines raided Lakari Bazaar in Garmsir district, a market that the Taliban has long used to store and make weapons and drugs, as well as to levy taxes on civilians. The Taliban until now had free rein in the area because there had been virtually no Western or Afghan government presence.

“This has been their turf for a long time, and now we are in here, invading their space,” said Capt. John Sun, Fox Company commander, at his makeshift headquarters in a fabric stall inside the bazaar. “The bazaar was a huge financial and logistics base for the Taliban, and they want to get that back.”

The Marine advance began Friday when Fox Company, a unit of roughly 200 Marines, traveled in open-back trucks on a grueling, overnight journey east and south through the desert to avoid routes implanted with bombs. The Taliban has littered the main routes in Garmsir with roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices or IEDs, forcing U.S. commanders to bar most travel by military vehicles on those roads. The number of IED attacks in southern Afghanistan has surged 78 percent over the past year, with much of the increase in Helmand.

Arriving at Lakari Bazaar at daybreak Saturday for the raid, the Marines went door to door, using explosives, rifles and axes to break into each store.

“Breaching!” yelled Lance Cpl. Travis Koehler, 21, of Fountain Valley, Calif., as he shot off a lock with his MK-12 marksman’s rifle and kicked open the door for a team of Marines to enter. “All clear!

Afghan soldiers advised by British troops searched the market and together with the Marines uncovered mortars, grenades, ammunition, and thousands of 100-pound bags of opium poppy and bomb-making materials, as well as facilities where the bombs and drugs were produced. They found tax receipts and recruiting leaflets calling on young men to join the Taliban and kill British and U.S. troops.

“The bazaar has been used by the Taliban as a staging area, weapons cache and profit base,” by taxing local vendors, Sun said.

The Taliban had left the market before the raid, however, and only a handful of shopkeepers were around, leaving it deserted but for a few cats and donkeys.

Late Saturday, Sun received word that the Taliban was regrouping in a nearby village across a canal to the west. At 3 a.m. Sunday, he launched 2nd Platoon, which includes dozens of Marines, on a foot patrol to investigate. At about 8, the patrol moved into an open field, where it was ambushed by Taliban fighters positioned in two tree lines to the south and east.

When Taliban fighters fired the first shot with an AK-47 assault rifle, Sgt. Benjamin Pratt thought one of his Marines had discharged a round accidentally, he recounted. “Hey, who shot?” he called back to his squad. But within seconds, the men realized they were under fire.

“Where is the . . . fire coming from?!” shouted Lance Cpl. James Faddis, 21, of Annapolis, Md. Faddis, in his first firefight, was the M-240 machine gunner for a weapons team that had advanced farther across the field than any other Marines and initially took the most direct fire from Taliban rifles and machine guns. Bullets were cracking around their heads and kicking up dust nearby.

“Get your gun up!” yelled Cpl. Jonathan Kowalski, 25, of Erie, Pa., ordering the Marines to fire toward the tree line to the south, where he saw muzzle flashes and Taliban fighters in dark dishdashas running between positions.

The insurgents began firing mortar rounds, honing their aim until one landed just 150 yards from the Marines. The Marines called in mortars of their own, which were fired from the bazaar onto the tree line, causing a few minutes’ lull in the fighting.

Faddis and his team scrambled and crawled to a better position, but on the way Kowalski dropped his radio. So he and the other machine gunners had to shout to the infantrymen to indicate they could move forward.

Sgt. Deacon Holton bounded into the soggy field along with Cpl. Clayton Bowman and other Marines, running and slipping through knee-deep mud saturated from recent irrigation.

As the Marines maneuvered, a Huey and a Cobra attack helicopter flew in low overhead, circling above to spot the fighters. Capt. Brian Hill, the forward air controller, put on a bright orange panel and wore it like a cape to identify the Marine position.

Often Taliban fighters flee when helicopters arrive, Sun said, but this time they stayed, and attempted to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at one of the aircraft. The Huey made two strafing runs with its Gatling guns over the tree lines, while the Cobra fired missiles, finally ending the firefight. The helicopter crew spotted at least two dead Taliban fighters.

Although the Marines asked to pursue the Taliban fighters south, more senior commanders denied the request. Sun said he thinks the problem was a lack of helicopters to provide air power and to evacuate any possible casualties, as well as roads that had not been cleared of bombs.

“Due to the limited numbers of helicopters available, it would not have been in our best interest to get decisively engaged,” Sun said. In addition, moving south would leave the bazaar open to attack, he said.

But some Marines voiced disappointment at not being able to track the Taliban, saying that decision may have allowed the insurgents to stage fresh attacks on the bazaar later in the afternoon. Faddis, Kowalski and their machine-gunning team were on guard duty in a mud-brick structure in the market that had a window facing fields to the south when shots broke out from a nearby compound. Faddis spotted a target and fired back. “They’re moving out of the compound!” one Marine yelled, unleashing another volley of machine-gun fire.

The gun battle was complicated by the presence of women, children and shepherds in adjacent fields. Having staked out a claim in Lakari Bazaar, Sun said, the question remains whether his company should continue to hold this relatively strung-out position or pull back, knowing such a move would allow the Taliban to return, at least temporarily. “That’s a dilemma,” Sun said.

Analysis & Commentary

We’ll cover two main points.  First, this report is remarkable in that it could have been written exactly one year ago during the tenure of the 24th MEU in the Garmsir District in 2008.  During that operation, the U.S. Marine Corps had taken over from the British who were not able to force the Taliban out of Garmsir, and after a major gun battle took over the Garmsir area from the Taliban.  The primary concern of the residents during this operation was that the Marines would leave, allowing the Taliban to re-enter the district and punish those who had cooperated with the Marines.

The Marines turned operations back over to the British, who were then unable to maintain control of the Garmsir District, and now the U.S. Marines are back again in Helmand generally and Garmsir particularly.  It’s not that the British are unable to fight, but rather that they aren’t supplied well enough, equipped well enough or provided with enough troops (we might add that their officer corps seems mostly to be sidetracked and confused with a version of counterinsurgency doctrine taken from their experience in Northern Ireland).

Second, as we have discussed with respect to the new ROE for Afghanistan, civilian casualties are strictly forbidden.  But the reluctance to chase the Taliban may prove to be the undoing of the operation.  Separating the insurgents from ther population and killing them is the ultimate goal, and when they run we must give chase because they have abandoned their main protection.  This may mean engagement in distributed operations and thus sustaining increased risk because of lack of rapid support for the chasing troops.  But we must not allow the desire to protect the population from clouding the other line of operation – killing the enemy who is the group who endangers the population to begin with.  We must remember our lines of effort and lines of operation.

  • Warbucks

    Captain, Is there any way to identify “enemy escape routes” and then cut them off at the pass with high speed air transport, while chasing them to the escape route? You know, like the “Highway of Death” scenario but on a smaller scale.

  • crm114

    The difficult part in doing as you say, Warbucks, is exactly the same reason the Marines were unable to perform tactical expoitation of the enemy after pushing them out of the town: not enough helo’s. Doing what you say would require more helo’s in country (which are probably being sent over with the new “surge” troops into Afghanistan). Alternatives to this are to either put isolated teams in the mountain passes and simply snipe at the enemy Taliban as they egress from the fight or to mine the passes like what Delta wanted to do at Tora Bora when they were chasing bin Laden.

    Either of the two options I just described, however, can be too dangerous for personnel or could in fact be counter-productive for the overall campaign. You put teams, squads, platoons, whatever you want in those isolated mountain passes without a way to get to them quickly (like with helo’s), then you have teams that might get cut off and possibly annihilated. The Taliban are not stupid, they are the masters of prepping and executing an ambush. If you don’t believe me, just google the words “Taliban Ambush” and you’ll get the point.

    The reason you cannot just mine or booby-trap escape routes is the same reason you aren’t supposed to use mines in the first place- civilians. They walk up and down those same goatpaths and mountain passes that the enemy uses, and if you put someone or something there that kills the wrong person, then all the village down the road hears is that Coalition forces murdered their own, regardless of the reason. Doing that erodes civilian confidence in the Coalition and by extension, the national government. Doing that increases greatly the chances that you’ve in fact added more fighters to the enemy’s ranks, not subtracted them. This is especially true with Afghan/Pashtun tribes.

    It is unfortunate, but in a way it’s better to let a few fighters get away and focus on the village, as proper counter-insurgency tactics are actually population-centric, not enemy-centric. Building infrastructure, getting the people to trust you, and making them understand that the few guys you let go are not going to come back in the middle of the night and slit their throats for helping us. Personally, I’ll take a stable village that doesn’t welcome the Taliban over worrying about the enemy leftovers. If you did your job right, the leftover fighters will get turned in by a population that trusts you.

    It’s even more important in Hemland, where poppy growth is very common and the population is very Taliban-friendly.

  • crm114

    Also, I should mention that as someone who has participated in combat operations in Iraq, that possible routes of egressing are one of the things you consider when performing a raid, and the Marines in this article knew exactly where the enemy was moving to, they were simply denied permission to pursue them.

  • Herschel Smith


    Thanks for helping out with the discussion. You’re suggesting either distributed operations, or rapid air transport with helos.

    I think that the Marines are generaly averse to DO, and even Scout Snipers and Recon tend to only gather intelligence for the larger units.

    Helos is another issue. The Brits are VERY low on helos, and I know that the U.S. needs them as well.

  • crm114

    I think personally that the MC’s mentality is not accustomed to DO, I’ll give you that much. The training they’ve been engaged in basically since WWII has rarely been meant to kill an insurgency as opposed to killing an ENEMY combat force. Example would be OIF I versus what you have now. Even though the Marines developed a Counterinsurgency Doctrine that was heavily integrated into the modern version used all around the services (much of which was actually developed a century before during the Philippine Insurrection from 1898-1904). If you ask me, no one service really has a perfect DO mentality, even though it’s not from a lack of trying. The Marines, I know have at least a DO program on a Platoon level, say one per division. This worked wonderfully with 1/3MAR in Afghanistan a couple of years ago. I believe 1/5MAR had a similar unit in Iraq, but I think the results from that were not as good (which makes sense because that type of DO really doesn’t work too well in build up areas). I can’t speak too much on what I know about the other services.

    As per better helo support, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. If you can’t get rapid support out to the Marines or soldiers out in those passes then it really doesn’t matter how good they are, you’re going to lose some of them. Of course weather is another devil in the details. Basically you need both more robust air capabilities (especially with the use of drones to cover passes we can’t have a physical presence in). You could use a Hellfire missile in those passes if you can get what they call positive ID on exactly whom you’re shooting at. Of course Afghanistan is a much larger country, and that’s a lot more ground to cover. Obviously the hope is as assets come back from Iraq that they can brush the dust off of them and get them ready for Afghan ASAP.

  • Herschel Smith

    I think that either the Marines or Army are certainly capable of DO, and the MC had a number of snipers in the Anbar Province in groups of two, normally complaining because they wanted to ditch their body armor. Small units such as a squad or platoon would typically take a Scout Sniper or Recon to his location and pick him up several days later in Fallujah in 2007. I am unaware of sending units as small as a fire team out to do anything.

    But the main reason that the MC doesn’t normally do DO is because the Commandant has said so. It’s a tactical decision made way above the pay grade of COs. I suppose it has to do with the risk assocaited with DO, along with the notion that the idea behind deployment of MC units however large or small is force projection. This is an important concept in understanding DO. I don’t think one can understand why the Marines do what they do without understanding show of force.

    I had asked one particular Marine upon return from Fallujah in 2007 if the population (and insurgents) wouldn’t see a squad delivering a Scout Sniper to a rooftop in the middle of the day, and then avoid that area because of the sniper. He responded, “So what? If you pacify an area because they know you’re there, haven’t you achieved your goal?”

    The answer is yes, at least for the moment.

  • crm114

    As per your mentioning of inserting snipers in small pairs in Iraq, by and large that policy underwent serious review after we lost a fireteam in Ramadi in 2005 because of exactly that sort of thing. That doesn’t mean that your elite units do not still engage in that sort of practice, but there is a very different set of circumstances between both Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in Afghanistan with the limited availability of helo support at certain times, which makes immediate reinforcement of clandestine units a very dangerous item.

    Also the terrain in Afghanistan is totally different than that of Iraq. As we speak, there is a troop presence in Iraq of at least 130,000 to be compared with barely 60,000 (roughly 90,000 if you count coalition troops) in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is also much larger and it has far more difficult terrain and weather (snow is particularly rare in Iraq). Naturally force-to-area saturation is another major difference in this case as well. In one way your mentioning at the end of a Marine talking on this is apt, the more troops you have around, the less likely the enemy is to remain and fight them. I guess my point is that DO is only as useful as their ability to stay alive in remote passes against ambushes of Taliban perhaps outnumbering them ten-to-one. I also understand that losing people is a fact of war, but losing them unnecessarily is that thing that quagmire campaigns are made of.

    That’s very interesting that you mention a Marine returning from Fallujah in 2007, because that’s exactly when I returned from there as a Marine, myself. Specifically in mind I can recount to you as many as five instances where inserting Marines into the city (day or night) was nearly impossible to do so without being compromised after at most 12-24 hours. You take a house over and harden it up, you have to deal with the family and that means either detaining them or kicking them out. You kick the family out of their own house, they have to stay somewhere and they usually talk to their friends as to why they aren’t in their house. After some time, we purposefully inserted units into the city, not with the intent to actually interdict insurgent traffic, but many times it was simply done to pick a fight. Many of the firefights in the north and central part of the city, particularly around the al-Asqua Mosque, were particularly difficult to perform, my company alone lost four very good Marines within just a few blocks of that area.

  • Herschel Smith

    I cannot comment smartly on the Northern half of Fallujah, only the Southern half (and down through the Euphrates River valley area), and your impressions of the condition were exactly the same as my own individual’s impressions, at least early in the operation (April 2007), and certainly around the industrial area. By late summer things had changed, and significantly so by October.

    I would like to see some of those 130,000 troops sent to ‘Stan.

  • crm114

    You have a very good point. I have friends who were in the unit that relieved us, and it was definitely a problem until about halfway through when the Sunni Awakening started taking hold. You have a good point in the second part of your comment as well, except I’d like to se 160,000 troops there, not 130,000.

  • Herschel Smith

    Not so much awakening and Shiekhs, but Muktars or block captains, heavy kinetics early on, gated communities, biometrics, etc.

  • crm114

    Read the article. It applies to cities, not so much in the country. Afghanistan is far more extreme on it’s tribal base.

  • Herschel Smith

    Not quite sure what you’re saying. The discussion thread evolved into a conversation about Fallujah circa 2007. Your comment that later 2007 Fallujah had been turned by the awakening wasn’t correct, as I pointed out in the post on Operation Alljah. The link on it was not intended to have anything to do with Afghanistan.

  • crm114

    It was merely an observation, not criticism. You can dismiss that if you want.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marines in Helmand and was published July 22nd, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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