The Long Term Counterinsurgency Work in Marjah

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 5 months ago

From Financial Times:

Tracing his finger over a map of Marjah, Lance Corporal Paul Horchler sketched the route ahead. He would lead his marines along a canal, past the spot where a buried bomb had exploded the day before, then down a track nicknamed “ambush alley”.

His patrol was almost guaranteed to succeed. Either the Americans would have a chance to ask the locals where the Taliban were, or the insurgents would reveal themselves by shooting at them. Whatever happened, they stood to learn.

After trudging for an hour down a path flanked by fields and scattered adobe houses, seemingly deserted in the midday heat, the marines found a man willing to talk. He said he had seen four Taliban fighters at a nearby bazaar 30 minutes earlier.

“The Taliban, they’re probably watching us. I guarantee they are watching us,” said Lance-Corporal Monty Buchanan. “Whoever’s in the area will decide what they want to do, if they want to hit us or not.”

This is the daily grind faced by US marines in Marjah almost five months after they seized the town in Nato’s biggest operation of the nine-year Afghan war.

The offensive in southern Helmand province was billed as a centrepiece of General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of pouring in US forces to protect the population from insurgents, but the climate of fear remains palpable.

Even before the general’s forced resignation last month over the publication of a Rolling Stone article in which he and his aides poured derision on the Obama administration questions were growing about the strategy.

General David Petraeus, who assumed command of the international force in Afghanistan on Sunday, is a leading US theorist in countering guerrilla warfare and has pledged continuity in strategy, although he has not ruled out adjusting its implementation.

L Cpl Horchler’s four-hour ramble past lavender fields and sunflowers outside Marjah was a lesson in the difficulties not only of separating the population from the insurgents, but in telling them apart. Many fighters operate within their communities, rendering the distinction even less clear.

Most of Marjah appeared to have deemed it too hot to be outside when the marines and Afghan soldiers set out into what felt like an immense vista for such a small patrol to cover; one that afforded almost infinite hiding places.

Marines who seized Marjah from the Taliban in a blaze of publicity are now facing almost daily ambushes staged by attackers skilled at burying home-made mines or hiding them under bunches of dried poppy stalks.

The patrol flinched when a rat-tat-tat echoed across a field like the sound of distant machinegun fire: it turned out to be a creaking water pump. Moments later, L Cpl Horchler, 22, aimed his rifle at what appeared to be a figure traversing a distant sand dune on a motorbike, suspecting he might be a Taliban spotter. The man vanished over the ridge.

A gunshot snapped the air and again the marines started. One of the Afghan soldiers had fired a warning to halt a minibus they wanted to search. A patch of disturbed earth on the track prompted a diversion for fear it concealed a bomb.

The informant’s compound felt safer than the road, although not much. One of the Afghan troops urged L Cpl Horchler to interrogate the owner of the shop where the insurgents had been seen. He refused, loathe to risk endangering his source.

L Cpl Horchler’s men returned to base unscathed, but a second patrol would be attacked on the same route a few hours later by insurgents armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

As Lance Corporal Mark Reno, 23, said: “I’m sure we’ve shaken hands with them on a daily basis and not even known who they were.”

Analysis & Commentary

In McChrystal Calls Marjah a Bleeding Ulcer, I laid out some hard questions for my readers.

Did General McChrystal not cover the basics of classical counterinsurgency doctrine with his civilian bosses?  Did he or any of his reports mislead the administration into believing that Marjah or any other town in Afghanistan would be pacified in 90 days?  Did he or his reports – or anyone in the administration – really believe that this government ex machina we brought to Marjah would work?

It now appears that the answers to the first two questions above is no, and the answer to the last one which is yes.  The surprise at how long Marjah is taking betrays an actual belief that they could shout presto, clap their hands and make Marjah safe, secure and serene.

Forgotten are the long years of counterinsurgency work to win the Anbar Province, and in its place was substituted bare, unsubstantiated doctrine.  That there was surprise among McChrystal’s staff and the Pentagon is a pointer to harder points that need to be made; they see the world in a childlike fashion.

If nothing else comes from the Rolling Stone expose on McChrystal and his staff, we learn about the immaturity of McChrystal’s staff and even McChrystal himself.  The false beliefs concerning Marjah are in the books, but one example (out of many) comes to us by way of anecdote.

Even in his new role as America’s leading evangelist for counterinsurgency, McChrystal retains the deep-seated instincts of a terrorist hunter. To put pressure on the Taliban, he has upped the number of Special Forces units in Afghanistan from four to 19. “You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight,” McChrystal will tell a Navy Seal he sees in the hallway at headquarters. Then he’ll add, “I’m going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though.” In fact, the general frequently finds himself apologizing for the disastrous consequences of counterinsurgency. In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.

Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

We have discussed the issue of a campaign against high value targets conducted by SOF.  I don’t believe in it.  I don’t think it works to curtail the insurgency.  But besides considerations of the utility of the strategy (and it is a strategy, not a tactic), there is the issue of maintenance of troop morale.  McChrystal set up a military cultural milieu in which direct action kinetics was relegated (or reserved) to SOF, while the so-called general purpose forces were essentially told to be policemen, and given rules of engagement that are more restrictive than those for police departments in the U.S.  Nothing McChrystal could have done would have worked so thoroughly to bust troop morale.

McChrystal’s vision is why he worked so poorly with the Marines and within the context of the MAGTF.  The Corps doesn’t buy into McChrystal’s bifurcation, and (properly) wants more control of goings-on within their battle space than McChrystal was willing to give them.  I gave Tad Sholtis (McChrystal’s PAO) multiple chances to say something – anything – positive about the MAGTF and the job the Marines were doing in Helmand.  No such praise came, and my communications with them were marked mostly by lip biting and equivocation.

I don’t know what the era of Petraeus will bring, and if he doesn’t immediately press authority down the chain of command, unshackle the enlisted men, reduce the rules of engagement with the enemy, ban PowerPoint presentations, unleash air power, get Soldiers off of the several huge bases they’re on, press for more distributed operations, and give commanders complete control over their battle space, then we will lose.  Either way, for the last year, the children have been in charge.



  • DesertPete45

    Excellent again Captain!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! As redeployement date approaches I am more disgusted than ever with all of these girly men panty wastes McChrystal, Petraeus, Jones, Mullen, Gates and of course bho!!!!!!!!!!!!!! These bastards are hanging our fighting men out to dry. Victory according to the coward in chief is not a word he feels comfortable with. Put his ass on the firing line and let’s see if he is comfortable with the word “VICTORY”.

  • TSAlfabet

    A heartfelt thanks to the Marines in Marjah, looking to engage the enemy.

    I have to say, though, that the remark by L.Cpl. Reno is disturbing. He observes that they have likely been shaking hands with at least some of the insurgents without knowing who they were.

    Well, to echo something the Captain wrote on a number of prior occasions I am sure, when does the census operation start?

    If we are ignorant about who is Taliban and who is not, the population needs to be catalogued and then sorted out accordingly, including biometrics if possible. If we could do this in Iraq in far more urban environments, it ought to be particularly effective in A-stan where there is far less mobility among the population.

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » General Rodriguez Explains Marjah()

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You are currently reading "The Long Term Counterinsurgency Work in Marjah", entry #5164 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,General McChrystal,Petraeus,Special Forces and was published July 5th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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