The Battle for Bomb Alley

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

Michael Yon authored a prescient article on Sangin entitled Bad Medicine, in which Yon was embedded with the British Army in Sangin.  It’s worth studying this piece again in preparation for an important report from the BBC.  Since the BBC doesn’t give embed code, it’s good that this piece is out on YouTube.  Thanks to Michael Yon for bringing this to our attention.  It’s well worth the twenty nine minutes you will spend watching this report.

The British enlisted men have fought bravely in Sangin and lost many men there.  But more than two years ago the British announced a plan to deescalate the violence against the Taliban.  There is little doubt that this plan dovetailed with the abandonment of the forward operating bases in and around Sangin.  Also in the Helmand Province, the British forces allied themselves with a shyster and con man named Mullah Abdul Salaam in Musa Qala.  He and his forces were supposed to go to arms against local Taliban when the fight for Musa Qala began by British and U.S. forces, and instead they screamed like little girls and ran for cover, making frantic calls for help to Karzai.

In fact, even recently the U.S. Marines and British Advisers have been at odds about how to approach the Helmand Province.  The U.S. Marines are intentionally taking a more aggressive approach in Sangin than the British, and their casualties show it.

Yon sent me a note praising the hard work of the Marines, but lamenting the fact that we’re taking the same soil twice, and paying dearly for it.  Yon is right, but this isn’t the only sacred soil stained by the blood of U.S. Marines that is being taken more than once.

Two years and eight months ago, the 24th MEU Marines went into Garmsir.  At great cost, the Marines killed some 400 Taliban fighters in and around Garmsir.  But the 24th MEU had to leave, and they turned over to the British.  One and a half years ago I was writing about the resistance a new deployment of Marines was finding in Garmsir.

This report is remarkable in that it could have been written exactly one year ago during the tenure of the 24th MEU in the Garmsir District in 2008.  During that operation, the U.S. Marine Corps had taken over from the British who were not able to force the Taliban out of Garmsir, and after a major gun battle took over the Garmsir area from the Taliban.  The primary concern of the residents during this operation was that the Marines would leave, allowing the Taliban to re-enter the district and punish those who had cooperated with the Marines.

The Marines turned operations back over to the British, who were then unable to maintain control of the Garmsir District, and now the U.S. Marines are back again in Helmand generally and Garmsir particularly.  It’s not that the British are unable to fight, but rather that they aren’t supplied well enough, equipped well enough or provided with enough troops (we might add that their officer corps seems mostly to be sidetracked and confused with a version of counterinsurgency doctrine taken from their experience in Northern Ireland).

In fact, the U.S. Marines are finding Taliban resistance even today in Garmsir.  So the hand-offs between forces go a long way back in the Helmand Province, and while there is no lack of bravery on the part of any of the forces who have had responsibility for Helmand, there is a difference in approach and continuity.  This has caused a sad state of affairs, with the spilling of blood and losing of limbs to take the same soil more than once.

This soil is now sacred to us, made so my the blood of the sons of America.  Tim Lynch has written me saying that he has seen first hand the progress the Marines are making in Helmand.  Tim says something that we have said before and with which we can all agree.

I tell you what. The Marines down south are making nice gains against the Taliban. They find them and kill them. These types of gains are not “reversible”. Might I suggest something crazy? Let’s emulate the marines on all levels of the playing field metaphorically of course. If someone shoots at us lets hunt them down and deal with them. Here is some more valuable ground truth, “Afghans respect strength”. We might have to wait two more years to implement this one.

Does this sound like Follow and Kill Every Single Taliban?  Yes, Tim is right, but here is my concern.  Recall the warning from the elder in Sangin near the end of the report above?  What did he say would happen when the Marines leave?  That’s right.  The Taliban would return.

Those who haven’t been killed will return.  If we play whack-a-mole counterinsurgency and merely squeeze them from one location to another, one safe haven to the next, we haven’t accomplished anything.  In Sangin and Garmsir, the Taliban returned.  The resistance we see today proves my point.  There is no debate, and the point cannot even be contended.  It simply must be accepted as axiomatic in this fight.

Thus I have advocated saturation of Marines (more troops) and chasing the enemy.  To fail to do so doesn’t just facilitate failure.  It desecrates what is now sacred soil.

Prior Featured: The Five Hundred Meter War

  • Rupert Fiennes


    You are are mistaken re “abandonment of the forward operating bases in and around Sangin”: the British had 22 patrol bases in Sangin when they turned it over to the Marines, and they had built them recently, see this link

    I suspect the USMC felt that this many patrol bases required too much static manpower, restricting mobile patrols. However, the aim of the game is dominance, and static positions can achieve that too, provided they are properly sited, although not patrolling as well would be insane. In this case, I suspect the USMC might have wanted to listen a little more :-)

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  • Paul Hewston

    I believe that the heavy engineer equipment in this report are my Son-in-Laws unit clearing the alleys and buildings. I’ll know more soon as he is due back soon. May god keep the troops safe.

  • Herschel Smith

    Oh dear. Rupert, you didn’t study the links or view the video report, did you? There were many FOBs and outposts “turned over” to the Marines from the British which were abandoned. The Brits also “turned over” Now Zad to the Marines, but were essentially non-existent there. Same for Garmsir after the Brits took turnover from the Marines after the 24th MEU. Same for Marjah.

    There was no “row” in the U.S. over the Marines not taking advice from British advisers. They did not, and still don’t. The only “row” is in your own mind (and apparently in the mind of the author of the article you gave us).

  • Sando

    I cringed when I saw the video. My stomach was in knots watching those Marines walk down that street knowing they were in an IED kill zone. I salute them all – Semper Fi.

  • Rick Keyes

    Here is a good article about Sangin to go along with this video.

    I found this on the Marine Corps Times site.

  • Rupert Fiennes

    Dear Herchel

    I watched the video report the old fashioned way: on the telly :-)

    No comment as to whether the patrol bases concerned were abandoned when they were turned over to the USMC, but it does appear that the latter are now re-occupying bases that were in use when the handover occurred, which was the point I wished to make.

    I didn’t make any comments about any “rows”; I linked to the article to provide evidence of the number of patrol bases that were in use at the time of the handover in Sangin. We could discuss Garmsir, Now Zad and even Basra until the cows come home, but I prefer to restrict comments to the subject in hand; honest!


  • Herschel Smith

    No Rupert. I’m clearly saying that I think that the COP was evacuated prior to turnover. Besides, turnover means a certain thing to the U.S. Marines. It means arrival of NCOs well prior to turnover, overlap in troop deployments, etc.

    But back to the main point, it’s a little silly to assert, in spite of continued disagreements between the Marines and the Brits, that the Marines wish they would have listened to their advisers. Clearly they don’t, or they would be listening now. If their minds change, they will begin listening. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

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  • Šťoural


    Sangin is a test of whether it is possible to reverse the gains the Taliban have made against British forces in Helmand Province. The Americans—the 1,200-strong Third Battalion, Seventh Regiment—have been entering Sangin since July and, fighting alongside 1,200 Royal Marines, appear to be making headway.

    But in a couple of months, the British will be gone, leaving the Americans to cover the same ground the U.K. struggled to control—with roughly the same number of troops.

    U.S. commanders praise the fighting prowess of British troops. But the Americans question the British decision to build 22 patrol bases in Sangin, a variation on the neighborhood-policing tactic used in Northern Ireland. Even some British wonder if they tied up too many combat troops just guarding the bases.

    British commanders have begun closing some patrol bases, although they say they haven’t yet decided whether building them was a mistake.

    U.S. Lt. Col. Clay Tipton, commander of Third Battalion, hit the ground with a more mobile strategy.

    The true test will come over the next two months, when the last Royal Marines leave Sangin to the U.S. Marines. Right now, the Americans just have to fight; they don’t have to manage relations with the local Afghan government, navigate tribal politics or promote economic growth.

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  • Šťoural

    Bad Medicine 2012,

    air assault Wushtan Area,former British FOB Wishtan abandoned 2010 and former USMC FOB “transitioned 2011 to ANSF”.Probably one mile from FOB Jackson(now FOB Sabit Qadam).

  • Šťoural

    Sangin,June 2012

    The explosions came from improvised explosive devices as Marines with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 6, moved supplies through the area. The supplies were needed to sustain the unit during combat operations, June 22 through 27.

    Charlie Co.’s Mobile Assault Platoon was the team tasked with the resupply mission. During the first day, they found or struck more than a dozen IEDs
    “That did require route clearance to push through a heavily IED’ed area,” Hansen said. “I believe we found and detonated 13 IEDs in about a 500-meter stretch of road trying to get our resupply in.”

    Although explosive ordnance disposal Marines destroyed some of the IEDs that were found, others were set off by vehicles driving over them. No Marines with Charlie Co. were killed in the blasts.

    Hansen says this wasn’t the first time his Marines have been in dangerous situations. He credits the successful resupply and combat operations to the Marines’ training.

You are currently reading "The Battle for Bomb Alley", entry #6233 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,Garmsir,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand and was published February 3rd, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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