3 years, 5 months ago
From Tony Perry of the L.A. Times:
Hundreds of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers descended on a nearly empty city in southern Afghanistan on Friday to cut off supply routes for Taliban fighters who have taken refuge in the area.
The troops want to starve out the insurgents holed up around Now Zad, which was once a vibrant city of 30,000 but now is a virtual ghost town because years of fighting.
The assault in Helmand province, named Cobra’s Anger, may prove to be a warmup for a larger, more complex and more dangerous assault on Marja, a town to which many Taliban fighters and narcotics middlemen fled after Marines descended on nearby villages this summer.
In Now Zad, Marines had to contend with roadside bombs that Taliban militants buried in anticipation of the Americans’ arrival. Even more such bombs are expected to await troops in Marja.
“Marja is that last major sanctuary in Helmand province, the last place where the enemy has freedom of movement,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. “We’re going to take that away from him.”
Nicholson compared the prospective battle in Marja to the fight in late 2004 to clear barricaded insurgents from the Iraqi city of Fallouja.
But Marja is split up by irrigation canals that will make moving troops and vehicles difficult. A vigorous house-to-house assault by Marines on a town also would raise the specter of civilian casualties, an issue that has strained relations between Western forces and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Still, Nicholson said, the only issue is when Marja will be emptied of insurgents. No timetable has been announced.
In Now Zad, Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment, based in Twentynine Palms, and the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, based in Okinawa, Japan, met only light opposition, which may not be the case in Marja.
No Marine casualties were reported in the first stage of the Now Zad assault. Some of the troops descended on key supply routes via the Marines’ tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft.
Commentary & Analysis
In order to place this operation in context, note that I have been covering Now Zad for one year and two months, ever since our friend Major Cliff Gilmore, USMC, sent his first update (published only at TCJ). I have also been demanding more Marines for Now Zad for about that long.
Eight months ago I asked very directly: Now Zad is currently abandoned. Perhaps someone in the chain of command could drop by and explain the strategic and/or tactical significance of patrolling and holding an abandoned town. Do we intend to secure it, rebuild it, and repopulate it with the original citizens?
Within two weeks I got my answer via DVIDS: ” … the Marines had proactively conducted combat operations in Now Zad’s District center daily in order to shape the battlefield by moving insurgents into disposable positions.” But is this really what was happening?
When the Marines figured out that the civilian population had been evicted and that Now Zad was inhabited only by insurgents, they all but apologized that there was no Afghan National Police there to train, and no population to protect. They were left with the only thing they could do, attempt to battle the insurgents.
The Marines were undermanned, and thus they and the Taliban fought each other to a stalemate. Now Zad was so dangerous that the unit deployed there was the “only Marine unit in Afghanistan that brings along two trauma doctors, as well as two armored vehicles used as ambulances and supplies of fresh blood.” Many of the Marines found themselves living in hobbit holes at night in order to stay alive.
U.S. forces had the perfect opportunity in Now Zad, i.e., to battle an insurgency which had taken to using Now Zad as an R&R area after having evicted the population. In other words, we could battle the insurgency without having to worry about harming noncombatants. But rather than sending more Marines to Now Zad, we left units like 2/7 Golf Company there to fight the Taliban to a draw, because there was no “population to protect.”
This is population-centric counterinsurgency run amuck. Jules Crittenden has a good synopsis of reactions across the web, including from J.D. Johannes who doubts the value in this operation because anvil and hammer operations rarely succeed in counterinsurgency. He recommends census taking and other related actions. True enough, gated communities, databases and census taking has worked at other times (although combined with heavy kinetics).
But his objection still misses the point about Now Zad. We have become strategically so blinded by the doctrines of population-centric counterinsurgency that we couldn’t decide to send troops to defeat a non-trivial number of enemy fighters because there was no population to protect. Instead, we allowed them to escape to Marja where it will likely be more difficult and perhaps even among the population where the rules of engagement will prevent kinetics if it is possible that noncombatants might be in the vicinity.
Our doctrines have made it more dangerous for the population and left an enemy behind that will kill and maim more Marines, and while the U.S. Marine Corps has had visions of Expeditionary Units dancing in its head, Corporal Matthew Lembke lost his legs, and then his life.
Now Zad, having taken the lives and legs of so many Marines, is a missed opportunity. Perhaps its lessons will be learned for the next operations, including in Marja. Now Zad will be re-populated, and enough forces will have to be garrisoned there to prevent the return of the Taliban. But the Taliban have slipped the noose, and they will live to kill another day. Little has been gained in spite of the bravery of the Marines who have battled the insurgents there over the past year, and that’s sad.