The Marines Must Hold Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 4 months ago

Spencer Ackerman points to a Washington Post article on the paucity of Afghan National Army troops and lack of viable Afghan National Police in recent Marine Corps operations in the Helmand Province.

“Six, you’ve got six,” Marine 1st Lt. Justin Grieco told his military police training team, counting the handful of Afghan police officers present for a patrol in this volatile region of southern Afghanistan.

The men filed out of the dusty compound gate into the baking afternoon sun. On the patrol, U.S. military police officers outnumbered the Afghans two to one — a reflection of the severe shortfall in Afghan security forces working with Marines in Helmand province.

President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan is heavily dependent upon raising more capable local security forces, but the myriad challenges faced by mentors such as Grieco underscore just how limiting a factor that is — especially in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.

The extent of the push by 4,500 Marines into Taliban strongholds of southern Helmand will be determined, to a degree, by whether there are enough qualified Afghan forces to partner with and eventually leave behind to protect Afghan civilians. Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the Marine forces here, said urgent efforts are underway to dispatch additional Afghan forces to Helmand.

But here in Helmand’s Garmsir district — as in much of the south — Afghan forces remain few in number, as well as short of training, equipment and basic supplies such as fuel and ammunition. Some Afghans quit because they are reluctant to work in the violent south; others are expelled because of drug use. The Afghan troops here, heavily dependent on Western forces, are hesitating to take on greater responsibilities — and, in some cases, are simply refusing to do so.

The Afghan National Police officers mentored by Grieco’s team, for example, are resisting a U.S. military effort to have them expand to checkpoints in villages outside the town center of Garmsir as the Marines push farther south, taking with them the Afghan Border Police officers, who currently man some of those stations.

Without the Marines, we cannot secure the stations,” said Mohammed Agha, deputy commander of the roughly 80 Garmsir police officers. “We can’t go to other villages because of the mines, and some people have weapons hidden in their houses. We can’t go out of Garmsir, or we will be killed.”

Spencer goes on to observe that:

So the operation was planned months ago and yet the Afghan security forces and civilian officials needed to follow on the Marines’ gains nevertheless appear to be absent or incompetent …

Now perhaps there’s furious behind-the-scenes negotiation to enlist more Afghan support. Indeed, if part of the point of the Helmand operation is to demonstrate to the Afghans — civilians and insurgents alike — that there’s a capable counterinsurgency strategy in place, it would hardly make sense to focus just on the clearing aspect of the strategy.

Spencer is knowledgeable on Afghanistan, so his surprise at the lack of viable ANA and ANP is surprising.  The statements in bold above should be considered in the context of the previous data we have gathered:

Afghan villagers had complained to the U.S. Marines for days: The police are the problem, not the Taliban. They steal from villagers and beat them. Days later, the Marines learned firsthand what the villagers meant.

As about 150 Marines and Afghan soldiers approached the police headquarters in the Helmand River town of Aynak, the police fired four gunshots at the combined force. No larger fight broke out, but once inside the headquarters the Marines found a raggedy force in a decrepit mud-brick compound that the police used as an open-pit toilet.

The meeting was tense. Some police were smoking pot. Others loaded their guns in a threatening manner near the Marines.  The U.S. troops ousted the police two days later and installed a better trained force they had brought with them on their recently launched operation into southern Helmand. The original force was sent away for several weeks of training the U.S. is conducting across Afghanistan to professionalize the country’s police.

And more data:

“The police are just worthless,” fumed Fulat Khan, 20, when Haight said his troops were backing up the local cops. “Anytime there is a fight in the community, the police just laugh and watch it. We need an organization or a number we can call so somebody can come here and help us.”

Add to this the problem that the ANA are drug-addicted and incompetent (it has been estimated that the ANA would lose as much as 85% of their force if drug testing was implemented), and the problem is that no matter how furiously we negotiate or gather qualified and competent ANA or ANP, there are none to be had.  Obama’s exit strategy which relies on very rapid functional turnover to Afghan forces is doomed to failure if pressed without any modifications.  The ANA won’t be ready until years down the road (2014), if then.

There is no tactical or logistical failure in the Helmand operations.  It’s not that we simply failed to deploy the ready-made ANA and ANP to Helmand along with the Marines so that they could hold terrain that the Marines take.  This meme is getting tiresome, and it’s time that CENTCOM acquiesce to the truth.  It is that the Marines are in it for the long haul, just as it was with Anbar.  There are no ANA or ANP to whom we can turn over.  The Marines must hold Helmand.

  • TSAlfabet

    As Steve Pressman says over at his blog, it’s all about the tribes in A-stan.

    Let the Marines do what they proved extremely adept at in Anbar: forging strong and flexible relationships with local tribes/elders/sheiks and using the Commander’s discretionary fund to empower the tribal leaders to hand out jobs and recruit local fighters who can secure their own villages from the Taliban.

    As time goes on, no doubt some of these local, tribal militia ( “Sons of Afghanistan” ?) can be trained up to do local police work— supplying more local jobs and injecting money into the local economy and giving yet more incentive for the locals to keep out the Taliban who have little or nothing to give to the people except death threats.

    Obviously, the critical point is to convince the tribal leaders that the U.S. is going to back them up and be there for the long haul– central government be damned if necessary– and that means the rapid reaction forces necessary for the locals to call upon if they face a concerted Taliban attack. Maybe this is one way to “stretch” the number of available Marines, by clearing an area, forging the local tribal agreements and then move the Marines on to the next trouble spot with a focus on air mobility and rapid response time.

    Is this stuff really beyond the comprehension of CENTCOM or the NSC?

  • crm114

    I agree totally with TSA. Helmand (all of Afghanistan outside of the cities, and not even always then) is all about the tribes. Your putting Anbar next to Helmand is pretty interesting when you consider that Helmand is only 42% the size of Anbar, and yet has 117% of the population, that means you have to grab every village and force these jokers out into the hills and hit them with careful raids and UAV strikes- keep them out of the villages at all costs.

    The problem with this is numeric, you don’t have nearly enough Marines (or anybody for that matter) to get everything done that you need. Lacking ANA and ANG is symptomatic of the thinking under the Rumsfeld tenure for both Iraq and Afghanistan, not enough time was spent training competent and proficient forces to take over in the wake of coalition success.

    You’re also right in the fact that the tribes don’t trust the central government worth a darn, it’s pretty bad when they trust Infidels (however well armed) over their own politicians. Stabilizing the local leaders is paramount if you expect to have any security outside of Kandahar/Kabul.

    One program the Marines did in Vietnam (and not without a lot of success) was CAP platoons. Basically you took a squad of Marines and had them train local villagers to fight the Viet Cong. The program was noteworthy in the sense that it made good usage of manpower and enabled locals to repel intimidation/murder campaigns. Of course Vietnam had more of a village mentality as opposed to tribal affiliations (unless you were in the Cambodian highlands). Perhaps a similar program would work better in Afghanistan, if they don’t have one already. This program, as it was originally used, does not guarantee you the humble, competent force with universal training and equipment to hold their own against hundreds of Taliban, but it does help keep the smaller bands away and is a valuable source of HUMINT.

    This of course is all academic until you can get enough troops and supporting assets into place to make this plan work. I see there being some static between the Secretary Gates and Jim Jones. My guess is that if it comes to anything, Gates will win out if he wants more troops. Similarly very few more troops will be coming after we reach 68,000 if Iraq takes a dump.


You are currently reading "The Marines Must Hold Helmand", entry #3464 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghan National Army,Afghan National Police,Afghanistan,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand and was published July 28th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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