U.S. Marines and British Advisers at Odds in Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

From Rajiv Chandrasekaran with The Washington Post:

U.S. Marines and British civilian advisers are waging two wars in the hilly northern half of Helmand province: They’re fighting the Taliban, and they’re quarreling with each other.

The disagreements among the supposed allies are almost as frequent as firefights with insurgents. The Americans contend that the British forces they replaced this spring were too complacent in dealing with the Taliban. The British maintain that the Americans are too aggressive and that they are compromising hard-fought security gains by pushing into irrelevant places and overextending themselves.

“They were here for four years,” one field-grade Marine officer huffed about the British military. “What did they do?”

“They’ve been in Musa Qala for four months,” a British civilian in Helmand said of the U.S. Marines. “The situation up there has gotten worse, not better.”

The disputes here, which also extend to the pace of reconstruction projects and the embrace of a former warlord who has become the police chief, illuminate the tensions that are flaring as U.S. forces surge into parts of southern Afghanistan that had once been the almost-exclusive domain of NATO allies. There are now about 20,000 U.S. troops in Helmand; the 10,000 British soldiers who once roamed all over the province are now consolidating their operations in a handful of districts around the provincial capital.

The new U.S. troops in the south are intended to replace departing Dutch soldiers and relieve pressure on under-resourced and overburdened military personnel from Britain and Canada, where public support for the war has fallen even more precipitously than in the United States. But the transition entails significant new risks for U.S. forces, who are now responsible for more dangerous parts of the country.

To the south of Musa Qala, U.S. Marines are in the process of moving into Sangin district, where more than 100 British troops – nearly one-third of that country’s total war dead – were killed over the past four years. Senior Marine officers initially resisted being saddled with the area, which they dubbed “the killing fields,” but they relented after pressure from top U.S. commanders.

The influx also has elicited conflicting emotions from coalition partners. British and Canadian officers say they didn’t have the manpower or equipment to confront a mushrooming insurgency by themselves, but they also cringe at the need to be bailed out by the United States.

“There’s a mix of relief and regret,” said a British officer. “We’ve spilled a lot of blood in Sangin and Musa Qala, and we’re quite frankly happy to leave those places, but we don’t want this to look like another Basra,” referring to the southern Iraqi city that U.S. and Iraqi forces had to rescue after it was seized by militias upon a British pullout in 2007.

Analysis & Commentary

But it does indeed look like another Basra.  Let’s take a stroll down memory lane for a moment.

At home, Britons were stunned by the graphic footage of their soldiers being assaulted in a city thought to be “safe,” especially in comparison to the blood-soaked urban areas of the Sunni Triangle which dominate news coverage emanating out of Iraq. The violent imagery was only the latest and most troubling indication of the British military’s failure in Basra and its environs, a disastrous turn of events which seemed unthinkable two years ago, when British troops were welcomed into Basra with relatively open arms.

The root of this failure stems from the very strategy that was once lauded as the antidote for insurgent violence. Known as the “soft approach,” the British strategy in southern Iraq centered on non-aggressive, nearly passive responses to violent flare-ups. Instead of raids and street battles, the British concentrated on building relationships with local leaders and fostering consensus among Iraqi politicos. In Basra, the British were quick to build and expand training programs for a city police force. As a symbol of their faith in stability-by-civility, the British military took to donning the soft beret while on patrol, avoiding the connotations of war supposedly raised by the American-style Kevlar helmets.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, this “soft” approach seemed remarkably successful, especially when juxtaposed with the chaos that had engulfed other parts of Iraq. Basra seemed to adapt relatively well to the new order of things, with little in the way of street battles or casualties. Both the British and American media — ever-ready to point out the comparable failures of American arms — energetically hailed the peaceful and stable atmosphere in Basra as a significant indicator of the virtues of the British approach, upholding it as the tactical antithesis to the brutal and aggressive Yanks. The Dallas Morning News reported in 2003 that military experts from Britain were already boasting that U.S. forces in Iraq could “take a cue from the way their British counterparts have taken control of Basra.” Charles Heyman, editor of the highly-respected defense journal Jane’s, asserted: “The main lesson that the Americans can learn from Basra and apply to Baghdad is to use the ‘softly-softly’ approach.”

The reporting also featured erudite denunciations of the rigid rules of engagement that governed the United States military, while simultaneously championing British outreach. Ian Kemp, a noted British defense expert, suggested in November 2004 that the “major obstacle” in past U.S. occupations and peacekeeping efforts was their inability to connect with locals due to the doctrinal preeminence of force protection. In other words, had Americans possessed the courage to interface with the Iraqi, they might enjoy greater success.

It did not take long before the English press allowed the great straw man of a violent American society to seep into their explanations for the divergent approaches. The Sunday Times of London proclaimed “armies reflect their societies for better or for worse. In Britain, guns are frowned upon — and British troops faced with demonstrations in Northern Ireland must go through five or six stages, including a verbal warning as the situation gets progressively more nasty, before they are allowed to shoot. In America, guns are second nature.” Such flimsy and anecdotal reasoning — borne solely out of classical European elitist arrogance — tinged much of the reporting out of Basra.

AS A RESULT OF THE EFFUSIVE media celebration, even some in the British military began believing their own hype, with soldiers suggesting to reporters in May 2003 that the U.S. military should “look to them for a lesson or two.” As a British sergeant told the Christian Science Monitor: “We are trained for every inevitability and we do this better than the Americans.” According to other unnamed British military officials, America had “a poor record” at keeping the peace while Basra only reinforced the assertion that the British maintain “the best urban peacekeeping force in the world.”

Continuing with the state of affairs in Basra after the application of such a soft approach:

Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of The Times of London recently returned (in 2007) from a visit to Basra, his first since 2003. He says in 2003, British soldiers were on foot patrol, drove through town in unarmored vehicles and fished in the waters of the Shaat al Arab on their days off. He says the changes he saw four years later are enormous.

“Nowadays all troop movement in and out of the city are conducted at night by helicopter because it’s been deemed too dangerous to go on the road and its dangerous to fly choppers during the day,” he says.

Beeston says during his latest visit, he noticed a map of the city in one of the military briefing rooms. About half of the city was marked as no-go areas.

British headquarters are mortared and rocketed almost everynight.

This is indicative of many parts of southern Iraq, says Wayne White, a former State department middle east intelligence officer. White says the south is riddled with rival Shiite groups vying for power, and roving criminal gangs because there’s nothing to stop them.

“There’s virtually nothing down there in the way of governance that answers to Baghdad in an effective way,” White says. “There are mayors, there are police but in many cases these people have no loyalty to Baghdad, operate along with the militias, have sympathy with them.”

The British efforts were roundly criticized by residents of Basra as well as the ISF, and British forces ultimately had to retreat under the excuse that it was the very presence of the British themselves that was causing the violence (there is no better way to end a war than to withdraw out of the fight, or so the British convinced themselves).

Recall also that the British made that awful deal with Mullah Abdul Salaam in which he was supposed to bring his fighters to Musa Qala to help retake the city from the Taliban (in exchange for governorship of the city).  All Salaam ended up doing was sitting in a house ten miles away screaming like a little girl for Karzai to come and rescue him when the fight started .  The British are as hated in Musa Qala for this fiasco as they were in Basra.

To be sure, the British enlisted men are as faithful, loyal and brave as any troops in the world.  It is their senior leadership, their officer corps and their counterinsurgency doctrine that is causing the problems.  And I am told that to a man, the British officers believe in the government in a box theory of counterinsurgency, even after such a notion failed in Basra, Musa Qala and then finally in Marjah.

Finally, the reason that the U.S. Marines have British advisers in Helmand isn’t clear.  The continued presence of them will only cause continued conflicts.  The U.S. Marines have their own brand of counterinsurgency, and it worked in the Anbar Province of Iraq.  In fact, small wars is a specialty of the Corps, and perhaps the British advisers could take back a thing or two from the Marines to their own command.

In closing, it’s also very disturbing that the British have lost or allowed to get stolen 59 Minimi machine guns.  That’s right.  Read and believe.

Serious questions are being asked about a cover-up by commanders in Helmand after the 59 Minimi machine guns were not reported missing for almost a year. The theft was revealed only when American forces recovered two of the guns following a battle with the Taliban.

He has ordered an inquiry into why enough weapons to equip an infantry battalion could go missing without anyone noticing or being informed.

The light machine guns, which can fire 1,000 rounds a minute, were flown from Britain to Camp Bastion in Helmand last October. They were then transported overland to British forces operating at Kandahar airfield but it is believed the convoy was either ambushed or the weapons were illegally sold. No one realised or reported that they had gone missing until last month, when American forces operating in southern Afghanistan discovered two of the guns, whose serial numbers matched those stolen. Defence sources have described the incident as a “terrible embarrassment for British forces”.

“We have no evidence that they have been used against British forces but clearly it’s an alarming situation,” said one defence source.

A Royal Military Police investigation has been under way since the end of last month. Dr Fox was said to be “livid” and “hit the roof” when told about the incident.

“Alongside the official investigation, he has ordered a wider review of how weapons are transported and is asking some serious questions over how this happened,” an MoD source said. “It’s astonishing that 59 machine guns went missing last year and no one realised it for months.”

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, who was told about the incident this week, is said to be furious that the weapons were allowed to be taken by the insurgents and, potentially, could have been used against British troops.

A review of transport practices is irrelevant.  A time of prayer, a bit of seriousness and a good house cleaning is in order for the MoD and the British Army.

  • anan

    One of the largest contributions of the Marines was training and advising 1st and 7th IADs. These IADs in turn inspired the rest of the ISF to improve their performance. Similarly the Marine mentored Al Anbar provincial IP proved to be among the best in Iraq.

    In Iraq, the worst of all of the first 10 IADs was 10th IAD. The British mentored 10th IADs. The two worst provincial IP in all 18 Iraqi provinces were Basrah and Maysan provincial IP. Again both British mentored.

    This is why so many Iraqis and so many ISF and Maliki were so irate at the Brits.

    However, in Helmand, so far 215th ANA Corps and Helmand provincial AUP are proving successes, knock wood that it stays that way.

    Do you have any thoughts on how the Marine ANSF advisors are getting along with the British ANSF advisors? How are both of them getting along with the Georgian, Danish, Estonian and Bahrainian ANSF advisors in Helmand?

  • bob sykes

    The extent of the rot in the British military is dismaying. It extends even to their navy, which is being down-sized to irrelevancy.

    This is very important to American strategic planning, because we have always assumed that the Brits were a reliable, competent ally. Events have proven both assumptions to be egregiously incorrect.

    So, do we have any allies we can depend upon? The French may be more reliable and competent than the British, although they have their own agenda. The Japanese are committed to homeland defense. Do they have any power projection capability?

    It is very disquieting to think that we are totally alone.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    I don’t think it’s a simple as the Marines had good students in Anbar, and the Brits had bad ones. In fact, the ISF in Anbar were routinely not trusted by the Marines and told to go home. They worked more closely with the IPs, but only after extremely heavy kinetics for about 2.5 years.

    Basra was chaos because the Brits let it devolve to such a state. Bad actors were everywhere, from Anbar to Basra. The Marines did it right, the Brits did it wrong, and even some of the British officer corps sees it that way – at least, the ones who are more honest.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article3061763.ece

  • anan

    Captain, is there a difference between battlegroup leader Marines and ETT/civil affairs Marines?

    Think the Marine ETTs were far better than the British ETTs in 10th IAD and Basrah/Maysan provincial IP. The Marines ETTs actually embedded inside their ISF. Lived with them, ate with them, did joint planning and joint operations, accepting all the risks of the ISF. The Marines seemed better at understanding and bonding with their ISF at a personal level. The Marines were also more personally invested in the success of their advisees.

    But still, it is stunning how badly the Brits messed up 10th IAD and the Maysan/Basrah provincial IP.


You are currently reading "U.S. Marines and British Advisers at Odds in Helmand", entry #5441 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Britain,British Army,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand and was published September 7th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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