4 years, 3 months ago
In a sad for the U.S. Marine Corps, four Marines have perished in Afghanistan. Lamenting their deaths and praying for their families is appropriate, but it’s also important to note the circumstances surrounding this incident.
Four U.S. Marines died Tuesday when they walked into a well-laid ambush by insurgents in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province. Seven Afghan troops and an interpreter for the Marine commander also died in the ambush and the subsequent battle, which lasted seven hours.
Three American service members and 14 Afghan security force members were wounded.
It was the largest number of American military trainers to die in a single incident since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
The battle took place around the remote hamlet of Gangigal, in a valley about six miles from the Pakistani border, after local elders invited the U.S. and Afghan forces for a meeting.
American officers said there was no doubt that they’d walked into a trap, as the insurgents were dug in at the village, and had preset their weapons and their fields of fire.
Again, this is a sad day for the Marines, but I sense that there is more here than casualties. Or better said, there is more here than a mere tactical or intelligence failure. I fear that we are attempting to win hearts and minds without the necessary concomitant force projection. We all know that the Anbar experience will not directly apply to Helmand, or Kunar, or anywhere else for that matter. But if we can look past that nuance we can learn from the campaign for Anbar and what lessons it might have for us in Afghanistan.
Recall the example of Abu Ahmed and Al-Qaim.
The 40-year-old is a hero to the 50,000 residents of Al-Qaim for having chased Al-Qaeda from the agricultural centre where houses line the green and blue waters of the Euphrates.
In the main street, with its fruit and vegetable stalls, its workshops and restaurants, men with pistols in their belts approach Abu Ahmed to kiss his cheek and right shoulder in a mark of respect.
It was not always this way.
He tells how one evening in May 2005 he decided that the disciples of Osama bin Laden went too far — they killed his cousin Jamaa Mahal.
“I started shooting in the air and throughout the town bursts of gunfire echoed across the sky. My family understood that the time had come. And we started the war against Al-Qaeda.”
It took three battles in the streets of Al-Qaim — in June, in July and then in November 2005 — to finish off the extremists who had come from Arab countries to fight the Americans.
Abu Ahmed, initially defeated by better equipped forces, had to flee to the desert region of Akashat, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Al-Qaim. There he sought help from the US Marines.
“With their help we were able to liberate Al-Qaim,” he said, sitting in his house with its maroon tiled facade.
This alliance between a Sunni tribe and American troops was to be the first, and it give birth to a strategy of other US-paid Sunni fighters ready to mobilise against Al-Qaeda.
It resulted in the Sunni province of Al-Anbar being pacified in two years.
The US military, which since it led the Spring 2003 invasion of Iraq had sought to control the frontier with Syria, found in the men of Abu Ahmed an auxiliary force completely au fait with all the routes used by the smugglers.
And while Abu Ahmed has been able to receive the homage and rewards which are seen as his right as a warlord, he is very aware that the current calm is a fragile one.
“I’ve drawn up my will several times,” he said. “I expect to die.”
The myth has it that Ramadi and Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was the first such instance of coupling of Marines and indigenous fighters. It wasn’t. The myth also says that we finally awoke and attempted to court the friendship of the local sheiks. Maybe there is an element of truth to that in certain parts of Anbar (not in Fallujah at any time, and not in Haditha), but the initial seeds of the awakening had to do with the indigenous fighters observing that the Marines had force projection and were willing to use it.
Granted that there is a huge difference between Anbar and the Kunar Province where Marines are embedded with the Afghan National Army. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The ANA isn’t ready, there aren’t enough Marines, and the locals take advantage of Marines who are implementing counterinsurgency tactics taken directly from FM 3-24.
This was my fear – that counterinsurgency tactics advocated in FM 3-24 would become so religiously ingrained into the thinking of the armed forces that they would believe that it applies in any situation and without the necessary force projection to back up the nice intent.
Carrots and stick, folks. All carrots and no sticks makes for brave warriors who perish on the field of battle because the local fighters have little to fear – not because of our own warriors, but because of the lack of resourcing and tactics being implemented.
It now appears that this may be yet another example of a rules of engagement problem.
GANJGAL, Afghanistan — We walked into a trap, a killing zone of relentless gunfire and rocket barrages from Afghan insurgents hidden in the mountainsides and in a fortress-like village where women and children were replenishing their ammunition.
“We will do to you what we did to the Russians,” the insurgent’s leader boasted over the radio, referring to the failure of Soviet troops to capture Ganjgal during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.
Dashing from boulder to boulder, diving into trenches and ducking behind stone walls as the insurgents maneuvered to outflank us, we waited more than an hour for U.S. helicopters to arrive, despite earlier assurances that air cover would be five minutes away.
U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren’t near the village.
“We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today,” Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, 37, said through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter’s repeated demands for helicopters.
Four U.S. Marines were killed Tuesday, the most U.S. service members assigned as trainers to the Afghan National Army to be lost in a single incident since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Eight Afghan troops and police and the Marine commander’s Afghan interpreter also died in the ambush and the subsequent battle that raged from dawn until 2 p.m. around this remote hamlet in eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border.
Three Americans and 19 Afghans were wounded, and U.S. forces later recovered the bodies of two insurgents, although they believe more were killed.
The Marines were cut down as they sought cover in a trench at the base of the village’s first layer cake-style stone house. Much of their ammunition was gone. One Marine was bending over a second, tending his wounds, when both were killed, said Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, 21, of Greensburg, Ky., who retrieved their bodies.
I said it would happen, and only recently “officials” have admitted that the new Afghanistan ROE have opened up new space for the insurgents. Now it has cost the lives of four more U.S. Marines. How many more Marines will have to die before this issue is addressed? The new ROE should have been dealt with as a classified memorandum of encouragement and understanding to consider holistic consequences of actions rather than a change to formal rules by which our Marines and Soldiers are prosecuted by courts. Yet the damage has been and continues to be done by poor decisions at the highest levels of leadership.
Damn the ROE.