Archive for the 'Marines in Helmand' Category



Lessons To Draw From Afghanistan (Or, How Obama Really Lost The Campaign)

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 4 months ago

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, writing for The Washington Post, excerpts his book, beginning his article with the following indictment.

The day after he arrived in Kabul in June 2009, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, gathered his senior officers to discuss the state of the war. They barraged him with PowerPoint slides — the frequency of Taliban attacks and their impact; the number of local security forces; and an evaluation of the Afghan government’s effectiveness in each province. The metrics were grim, the conclusion obvious: The Americans and their NATO allies were losing.

The part of the country that concerned McChrystal most was the city of Kandahar and the eponymous province that encompasses it. Founded by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., Kandahar city has long been the symbolic homeland of ethnic Pashtuns. In the 1990s, just as every other band of conquerors had done for the past thousand years, the Taliban used it as a springboard from which they captured Kabul and much of the rest of the nation. If the Americans were going to retake Afghanistan, they needed to start with Kandahar.

But the Pentagon had not sent most of the new U.S. forces that had arrived in Afghanistan to Kandahar. The first wave — a Marine brigade comprising more than half of the 17,000 additional troops President Obama authorized in February 2009 — had been dispatched to neighboring Helmand province, which McChrystal and his top advisers considered of far lower strategic significance.

“Can someone tell me why the Marines were sent to Helmand?” the incredulous McChrystal asked his officers.

The answer — not fully known at the time to McChrystal and his officers — would reveal the dysfunction of the U.S. war effort: a reliance on understaffed NATO partners for crucial intelligence, a misjudgment of Helmand’s importance to Afghanistan’s security, and tribal politics within the Pentagon that led the Marines to insist on confining themselves to a far less important patch of desert.

The consequences were profound: By devoting so many troops to Helmand instead of Kandahar, the U.S. military squandered more than a year of the war. Had the initial contingent of Marines been sent to Kandahar, it could have obviated the need for a full 30,000-troop surge later that year, or it could have granted commanders the flexibility to combat insurgent havens in eastern Afghanistan much sooner, allowing them to meet Obama’s eventual withdrawal deadlines without objection.

Instead, U.S. forces will begin heading home this summer with much of the east in disarray and security improvements in Kandahar still tenuous. Helmand is faring considerably better, but the gains there are having only a modest impact on Afghanistan’s overall stability.

Without the diversion into Helmand, U.S. troops could have pushed into more critical areas of the country before a clear majority of Americans concluded that the war was no longer worth fighting.

Analysis & Commentary

This is horse shit.  Obama and McChrystal have culpability, and we’ll get to that in a moment.  But the tale being spun here makes it sound like a few more sprinkles of magic counterinsurgency pixie dust and the whole thing would have gone much easier.  Perhaps unknown to many who didn’t follow the warp and woof of the campaign, this issue about why the U.S. Marines went to the Helmand Province is not a new debate.  Neither is the story that McChrystal was presented with the decision to send most of the Marines to Helmand as a fait accompli.  Logistical and institutional inertia made it impossible to change things.  Or at least, that’s the story.

Rajiv is telling a tall tale, and the issue was much more complicated than he hints.  I discussed this almost three years ago, and the same thing is true today that was true when I penned the defense of Marines in the Helmand Province.  McChrystal and the Pentagon were under the influence, even control, of the advocates of population-centric counterinsurgency.

Bring stability operations to the population centers, and good governance, goods, services, participation in government on the local level, redress of grievances, and so on, and it will render the outlier Provinces and lower population centers irrelevant, with insurgents unable to topple the central government from those far flung places.

But recall, this is the same Stanley McChrystal that allowed David Rodriguez to micromanage the Marines on their way through Marjah.  “Less than six hours before Marines commenced a major helicopter-borne assault in the town of Marja, Rodriguez’s headquarters issued an order requiring that his operations center clear any airstrike that was on a housing compound in the area but not sought in self-defense.”

Killing the enemy wasn’t a priority.  Rajiv even says so later in the article, exclaiming “the military’s counterinsurgency strategy was supposed to place troops near civilian population centers to protect residents from insurgents, not chase bad guys in the desert or remote valleys.”  But arguing for doing just that, I observed that the insurgents who destabilized Kandahar and other areas of Afghanistan came from Helmand, Kunar, Nuristan and other far flung places where we needed to chase and kill them.

In fact, the larger scale Marine Corps operations in Helmand were predated by intensive fights by the 24th MEU in Garmsir where they killed some 400+ Taliban fighters.  The hue and cry of the people at that time had nothing to do with wells, schooling, governance or anything of the sort.  “We are grateful for the security.  We don’t need your help, just security.”  Similar words were spoken at a meeting in Ghazni with the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: ““We don’t want food, we don’t want schools, we want security!” said one woman council member.”

Corporal William Ash, a squad leader from 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), along with a stray dog lead a patrol through a city in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. When the platoon moved into the area, they found two stray dogs, and each time the Marines head out on patrol the dogs are right at the Marines’ side.

In fact, I remarked at one point how ironic it was that McChrystal, who was so concerned about inadvertent casualties that his ROE wouldn’t even allow illumination rounds for night time combat, and who wanted separation of the insurgents from the population in order to engage, was so unpersuaded by the Taliban invitation to join them in a fair fight in Now Zad, where they had completely run off the population and were using the place as an R&R haven.

So did the Marines have enough men to engage Kandahar and Helmand at the same time in order to prevent having to play whack-a-mole counterinsurgency?  Recall that while I was the only blogger at the time covering and commenting on Now Zad that while the men there were losing legs, arms and their lives, living in hobbit holes two or three Marines to a hole, I could not recall any time in the last four years driving across Camp Lejeune when there were so many barracks being built, so many Marines in the states, and so many units living in multiple different locations on the base because there wasn’t enough housing for them in the same barracks.

Recall that I also said that there were Marines who had finished entire periods of enlistment who, while spending time on wasteful MEUs floating across the seas and stopping in every port to become drunk, had neither been to either Iraq nor Afghanistan in the entire four years.

Yes, there were enough Marines to have pulled this off.  A Regimental Combat Team or two could have locked down Kandahar like they did in Fallujah in 2007, conducted census operations, and found and killed the Taliban fighters.  Kandahar could have been essentially cleared with enough focus and effort.

But McChrystal’s strategy not only abandoned far flung Provinces to focus on population centers … leaving the roads to the insurgents just like the Russians did … it abandoned the Pech River Valley in Kunar and Nuristan, along with the entire Hindu Kush mountains.  Every military strategist now acknowledges that this was an error, and we are back into Nuristan.

But only for a while.  After all, we have given a date for withdrawal.  With obfuscation like Rajiv’s article, it’s easy to forget that the administration which began its tenure with a commitment to “the good war” saw that commitment evaporate in the face of hard questions.  What was an effective campaign slogan soon became a byline, and rather than meet the military needs for a full scale surge, we saw a half-ass surge that gave them only some of what had been requested.

At the same time, an end date was set, with the enemy now knowing just how long it would take to run out the clock.  Puerile national security advisers turned Afghanistan into the WTF? war, and men who gave so much in this awful region of the world now see no reason for the loss, and are simply happy to have brought their men home.

There were many mistakes in the campaign: a half-ass surge, a childish national security adviser, McChrystal having surrounded himself with juveniles, overbearing rules of engagement, under-resourcing, strategy that could have been created with a random number generator any given day, poor communication to the American people as to the reasons for the campaign, failure to hold Pakistan accountable for harboring the enemy, loving up on corrupt politicians like Hamid Karzai and his brother Wali Karzai, sending billions of dollars to enlarge and ensure the corruption, and on and on the list goes.

But pointing a finger at the hard work of the U.S. Marines in Now Zad, Musa Qala, Sangin, Garmsir and other places in Helmand isn’t just unfair.  It’s scurrilous and dishonest.   The administration bears the responsibility for the failure.  Campaign slogans aren’t just word games, they are promises to be kept by men in authority and power.  The Soldiers and Marines who have perished demand better of our leaders.

Concerning Marines Urinating On Dead Taliban

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 9 months ago

Most of the DoD establishment is outraged over the recently divulged incident of Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters.  Much of it is faux outrage, but these Marines won’t be very happy with the outcome of the inquiry.  Ever the one to point out the different standards for different people because of different political needs, I’ll mention that there is no way – no way – to square the burial of Bin Laden at sea with Islamic law (not that it really matters to me whether we followed Islamic laws concerning his burial; we could have treated him like they did Mussolini as far as I’m concerned — either way, he’s in hell.).  Additionally, the public display of Zarqawi’s bloodied and bloated body caused an outrage among Muslims across the world.  It’s okay to desecrate the dead as long as the DoD sanctions it.  It’s not okay to do it if you’re a Marine under fire in the Helmand Province.  Come back to me when you get some consistency.  Until then, I think I’ll turn my attention to other, more important things.

Speaking of Marines under fire, we should mention some recent heroics.

The secretary of the Navy next week will present the Navy Cross to the family of a Marine from Camp Pendleton killed while saving the life of other Marines in Afghanistan, officials announced Tuesday.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is set to present the medal Jan. 17 to the family of Lance Cpl. Donald Hogan in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton. The Navy Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor for combat bravery by Marines or sailors.

Hogan, 20, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, was killed Aug. 26, 2009, by a buried explosive device after pushing a Marine to safety and yelling warnings to other Marines. Hogan was on a walking patrol in Helmand province, long a Taliban stronghold.

According to the Navy Cross citation, Hogan spotted a trigger wire for a buried bomb and hurled himself into the body of the nearest Marine to push him away from the imminent blast.

Hogan then “turned in the direction of the Improvised Explosive Device and placed himself in the road so that he could effectively yell verbal warnings to the rest of his squad-mates. This desperate effort to warn the rest of the patrol bought the remaining Marines valuable seconds to begin moving away,” the citation reads.

And some recent heartbreak.

A Wilmington Marine has been seriously injured in Afghanistan.

According to a report from the Wilmington News Journal, Cpl. Josh Sams, 27, was on routine patrol Wednesday when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). He was taken to a hospital in Afghanistan where both legs were amputated above the knee.

Sams’ mother, Barbara Regan, told the Journal that Sams was serving his third and final deployment and scheduled to come home for good on Feb. 7.

Sams is currently at a hospital in Germany also suffering from a broken pelvis and arm. He is in stable condition and will hopefully return stateside by Tuesday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

He serves with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, H&S Company, Scout Sniper Platoon.

Sams is married to his wife, Lindsey, who lives in Jacksonville, N.C., where Sams is stationed.

Sams’ younger brother, Logan, died in an ATV accident in 2008.

Our men are still at war people.  Take a deep breath and recalibrate your perspective.

True Confessions of British Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 5 months ago

General Sir David Richards recently discussed the British experience in the Helmand Province, and he gave an interesting perspective to the British public.

Serious intelligence failures meant British commanders were unprepared for the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan as soldiers “turned up a hornets’ nest”, three of the country’s most senior military officers have said.

General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, told MPs the British had got involved in a very serious situation, adding: “War is a bummer.”

A failure of intelligence, notably about tribal loyalties and aggressive US operations, and ill-thought out attempts to eradicate the opium poppy harvest, combined to exacerbate an already dangerous situation facing the 3,000 British troops sent to Helmand by the Blair government in 2006, the officers said.

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Houghton, a widely respected general who, along with Richards, was interviewed by Cameron for the top military post, listed a number of problems that came together.

Britain’s military commitment to Iraq was higher than it was anticipated it would still be in 2006, and British troops arrived in May, “the natural start of the fighting season”.

The Taliban, at the time, encouraged the belief that foreign troops were out to eradicate the poppy harvest, a valuable source of income for local farmers. Some 200,000 labourers migrated from Pakistan to help with the poppy harvest, and some were happy to stay as “guns for hire”.

Houghton added that US troops had just engaged in “particularly kinetic” [aggressive] military operations at the time.

Moreover, at the behest of President Hamid Karzai, British troops were deployed to forward “platoon houses” in northern Helmand areas such as Sangin and Musa Qala. The soldiers turned out to be dangerously exposed and too few in number.

Assessing the list for a moment, the Brits did indeed deploy to hard area, the same areas that know a U.S. Marine presence right now.  There have not been enough troops, and the Brits certainly had a hard time of things in Helmand.  They didn’t have the necessary troops to cover the Province, and Taliban fighters had taken over Now Zad as an R&R area.  When the U.S. Marines arrived in Now Zad they brought two trauma physicians with them due to the severe injuries they sustained.  They routinely slept forward deployed in groups of two or three Marines in what they would later term as “Hobbit Holes” dug into the earth and other structures.  Now Zad was almost entirely outside the wire.

Yet the British Generals are hedging.  It wasn’t the lack of troops that lost Musa Qala.  It was the ill-conceived alliance with one Mullah Abdul Salaam.  But the most significant observation concerns U.S. operations, and the British regarded them as “particularly kinetic.”  A clearer statement is given to us by The Independent.

These included the Taliban’s portrayal of moves to eradicate opium plants as evidence that the UK forces wanted to destroy local farmers’ livelihoods, the appointment of a new provincial governor which destabilised the tribal balance, and previous intensive American military operations which “whipped up” the situation.

American military operations whipped up the situation.  This is an absolutely remarkable comment.  Just remarkable.  In Getting the Narrative Right on Southern Afghanistan I strongly criticized a strategic assessment conducted by Professor Theo Farrell of Kings College in London.  Being a classy fellow, Theo offered a clinical and unemotional response in the comments.

In my visits to Helmand, I have found differences of opinion – some expressed in strong terms – betw Brit and USMC officers. But I consider this entirely natural (indeed there are considerable differences of opinion w/in the Brit Army, as I expect they are w/in the US Army and USMC). So I don’t want to overplay these. The one general difference that I would draw out is over the pace of progress. Basically Marine commanders push the pace beyond that which the British consider sustainable and indeed desirable. Fast progress on the military line of ops is not sustainable in COIN if it outpaces too much the governance and development lines of ops.

I don’t think there is a ‘gov in a box’ theory of COIN. Basically, this term came from somewhere in ISAF command as part of a media spin which ultimately backfired. I believe that M4 was referring to the District Delivery Program, which was a GIRoA program to rapidly develop governance in 80 key terrain districts. 6 were selected for trial, 4 in Helmand. Nad-e-Ali was one of these, and it may be that Marjah was part of this package (as before Op MOSHTARAK, Marjah was actually part of Nad-e-Ali; it became a full fledged district afterwards). DDP has some promise. And the latest word I hear is that Marjah is looking pretty good. But the main point of my analysis, which I refer to in this interview, is that COIN takes time. The CLEAR can be done fairly quickly, as indeed the Marines demonstrated in Marjah. But the HOLD requires the slow building up, consolidation and/or improvement of governance, infrastructure and basic services. That stuff just can’t be rushed. You can’t fedex it in.

Let me also emphasise that I’m not saying for a moment that the Brits have all the answers or that they are somehow better at COIN than the US Marines. British Army officers are the first to admit now that they’ve much to learn from their American brothers in arms. And indeed, 52 Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade have only praise for the MEU (I think it was the 24 MEU) which provided critical support to Task Force Helmand in 2007-08. I spent some time with the 2/8 Marines in Garmsir in late 2009. As I emphasise in my report on Op MOSHTARAK for British Land Warfare Command, armies aren’t good or bad at COIN, commanders and units are. Anyway, my report can be downloaded from here.

I appreciate the professor’s good natured comments.  But I still think we’re missing each other’s point.  If Theo cares to elaborate further I welcome the correction or clarification.  As to the issue of “government in a box,” I simply cannot account for General McChrystal’s remark that Marjah was a “bleeding ulcer” just months (or weeks) after arrival of the Marines.  Only someone with a childlike belief in magic could possibly believe that the Marines could waltz into Marjah with a governor and make things okay.  Michael Yon also tells me that to a man, the British officers believe in the “government in a box” view of counterinsurgency.

But more to the point, I am not implying, nor would I imply, that the U.S. Marines are better at counterinsurgency than the British.  The U.S. Marines claim that they the greatest at everything, and cheaper and faster than anyone else, but that’s just propaganda and they say it all the time about everything.  Tactics are just that, and any army can be trained for tactics as long as they have high quality NCOs, and the British and Americans do have high quality NCOs.  Additionally, I know first hand that the U.S. Marines (whom I know) have the utmost respect for the Royal Marines, more so in fact than they do for themselves.  But who is better at tactics is irrelevant.  The aggregation of tactics does not make a strategy.

Speaking of the U.S. Marine presence in Garmsir (24th MEU), they did more than support a British operations.  They killed some 400 Taliban fighters, and in spite of complaints over the heavy kinetics by the British, turned over an AO back to the British that was relatively stable and free of Taliban violence.  When the Marines took Garmsir, the local elders were even courting the Marines and told them “if you protect us, we will be able to protect you.”

But upon returning to Garmsir and taking over from the British, they met stiff Taliban resistance.  The locals told the Marines that they wanted them to follow and kill every single Taliban fighter, but the U.S. Marines and the British are still significantly at odds over their approach to counterinsurgency.  The Marines made a conscious choice to be more aggressive than the British in Sangin, and the British advisers continue to counsel the same approach that the British took in Helmand.  They want the U.S. to “de-escalate” the situation.

The point has never gone to tactics and the ability to implement them.  There is a school of counterinsurgency that believes that until heavy kinetics has the insurgency on the run and effectively defeated, legitimate governance cannot exist.  The opposite school sees a more symbiotic relationship between actors and root causes in counterinsurgency.

It isn’t my intent to argue this disagreement in this article.  My point is that while the British may be the best and most staunch allies of the U.S., the perspectives concerning counterinsurgency, stability operations and irregular warfare couldn’t be more dissimilar.  I say again, for General Sir David Richards to remark that U.S. kinetic operations “whipped up” the situation is truly remarkable itself.  Just remarkable.

Getting the Narrative Right on Southern Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 6 months ago

The Small Wars Journal has an interview of Professor Theo Farrell and MG Nick Carter in which the following summary statement is provided:

There were very high hopes for Marjah. General McChrystal was looking for a ‘strategic accelerator’, something dramatic that would restore momentum to the ISAF campaign. He was looking in Helmand to inflict a strategic defeat on the Taliban, and to demonstrate the virtue of his new approach to local and home audiences. This explains the ill-advised term that there would be “government in a box” for Marjah, implying that shortly after the Marines pushed in, you would have a government established almost immediately. The Marines were perfectly on board with the idea that they could achieve such quick progress.

When the ISAF pushed in Marjah, they discovered a very different picture. What they expected to find in Marjah was a relatively wealthy population of mostly land owners, many involved in drug trade, but confident people with pretty good economic resources. And as long as you got them on board by demonstrating the virtues of the Afghan governance, they would help keep the Taliban at bay. What ISAF discovered was that those working the land were not owners but down-trodden tenants. Also the local infrastructure was far worse than anticipated. Thus the problem was twofold: first, it was going to take some time to deliver governance and improve infrastructure; second, it was very easy for the Taliban to intimidate the locals. So whilst the Marines cleared Marjah quickly, the hold proved more troublesome.

This is just horrible analysis.  Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez did indeed believe in the “government in a box” theory, but the U.S. Marines came from Anbar, Iraq.  They know exactly what it takes to effect counterinsurgency.  But Michael Yon tells me that to a man the officer corps of the British Army believes in the government in a box theory of counterinsurgency, probably leading in no small part to the friction between the Marines and their British advisers (it still isn’t clear to me why the Marines have British advisers).

A somewhat clearer narrative is emerging.  Our friend Gian Gentile argues that what’s happening in Helmand is different, and points to a “story running today by Rajiv C in the Washington Post on “progress” in South Afghanistan. His article to be sure shows that progress has been made, but it has come about at the barrel of a gun through death and destruction, and not through the winning of the trust of the local population. If there was any success in Vietnam during the latter years of that war with pacification it was from the same thing; combat produced massed movements of people from rural hamlets and villages into government controlled areas. But again the point is that persuading the people to side with the government and against the communist enemy never happened.”

Gian is referring to this report on signs of progress in Southern Afghanistan at The Washington Post.

SANGIN, AFGHANISTAN — Signs of change have sprouted this spring amid the lush fields and mud-brick villages of southern Afghanistan.

In Sangin, a riverine area that has been the deadliest part of the country for coalition troops, a journey between two bases that used to take eight hours because of scores of roadside bombs can now be completed in 18 minutes.

In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from U.S.-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them.

And in Arghandab district, a fertile valley on Kandahar’s northern fringe where dozens of U.S. soldiers have been felled by homemade mines, three gray-bearded village elders made a poignant appearance at a memorial service last month for an Army staff sergeant killed by one of those devices.

Those indications of progress are among a mosaic of developments that point to a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign: For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.

“We start this year in a very different place from last year,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.

The security improvements have been the result of intense fighting and the use of high-impact weapons systems not normally associated with the protect-the-population counterinsurgency mission.

In Sangin, Zhari and Arghandab — the three most insurgent-ridden districts in the south — the cost in American lives and limbs since the summer has been far greater than in any other part of the country. More than 40 Marines have been killed in Sangin in the past nine months, and three dozen more have lost both legs. The Army brigade responsible for Zhari and part of Arghandab has lost 63 soldiers since July.

Read the entire report.  The Marines have been learning their way through Sangin and other parts of Afghanistan, but they have been in Helmand a long time, and already had a bloody history in Now Zad by the time Marjah rolled around.  No Marine seriously believed that he could bring Shangi La to Helmand by toting along a governor to adjudicate disputes and get largesse.  Answering for why McChrystal and Rodriguez believed in the government in a box view of counterinsurgency is the same thing as answering why the British believe it.   But don’t drag the Marines into this dispute.  It isn’t their debate.  They do things differently.

But Rajiv’s account weapons not normally used in counterinsurgency is odd and inexplicable.  Remember Marine combat action in Fallujah?

It’s important to get the narrative right so that we know what worked and what doesn’t.  Making excuses for McChrystal’s “ill advised term” and blaming the U.S. Marines or some other exigency for Marjah or Sangin or some other part of Helmand isn’t adding anything to the discussion.  And connecting the use of heavy weapons with something other than counterinsurgency is selling a “bill of goods” to the reader.

The Battle for Bomb Alley

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 8 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

The Marines in Sangin

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 8 months ago

Tony Perry, who has become one of the most significant war reporters in the MSM, gives us this report on the Marines in Sangin.  I must quote a significant amount of it, point you to the source article for the rest, and then I’ll make a few observations.

Marines tell of snipers who fire from “murder holes” cut into mud-walled compounds. Fighters who lie in wait in trenches dug around rough farmhouses clustered together for protection. Farmers who seem to tip the Taliban to the outsiders’ every movement – often with signals that sound like birdcalls.

When the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, deployed to the Sangin district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province in late September, the British soldiers who preceded them warned the Americans that the Taliban would be waiting nearly everywhere for a chance to kill them.

But the Marines of the Three-Five, ordered to be more aggressive than the British, quickly learned that the Taliban wasn’t simply waiting.

In Sangin, the Taliban was coming after them.

In four years there, the British had lost more than 100 soldiers, about a third of all their country’s losses in the war.

In four months, 24 Marines with the Camp Pendleton-based Three-Five have been killed.

More than 140 others have been wounded, some of them catastrophically, losing limbs and the futures they had imagined for themselves.

The Marines’ families have been left devastated – or dreading the knock on the door.

“We are a broken-hearted but proud family,” Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly said. He spoke not only of the Three-Five: His son 1st Lt. Robert Kelly was killed leading a patrol in Sangin.

The Three-Five had drawn a daunting task: Push into areas where the British had not gone, areas where Taliban dominance was uncontested, areas where the opium poppy crop whose profits help fuel the insurgency is grown, areas where bomb makers lash together explosives to kill and terrorize in Sangin and neighboring Kandahar province.

The result? The battalion with the motto “Get Some” has been in more than 408 firefights and found 434 buried roadside bombs. An additional 122 bombs exploded before they could be discovered, in many instances killing or injuring Afghan civilians who travel the same roads as the Marines.

Some enlisted personnel believe that the Taliban have developed a “Vietnam-like” capability to pick off a platoon commander or a squad or team leader. A lieutenant assigned as a replacement for a downed colleague was shot in the neck on his first patrol.

At the confluence of two rivers in Helmand province in the country’s south, Sangin is a mix of rocky desert and stretches of farmland where corn and pomegranates are grown. There are rolling hills, groves of trees and crisscrossing canals. Farmers work their fields and children play on dusty paths.

“Sangin is one of the prettier places in Helmand, but that’s very deceiving,” said Sgt. Dean Davis, a Marine combat correspondent. “It’s a very dangerous place; it’s a danger you can feel.”

Three men arrived in Sangin last fall knowing they would face the fight of their lives.

1st Lt. John Chase Barghusen, 26, of Madison, Wis., had asked to be transferred to the Three-Five so he could return to Afghanistan.

Cpl. Derek Wyatt, 25, of Akron, Ohio, an infantry squad leader, was excited about the mission but worried about his wife, pregnant with their first child.

Lance Cpl. Juan Dominguez, 26, of Deming, N.M., an infantry “grunt,” had dreamed of going into combat as a Marine since he was barely out of grade school.

What happened to them in Sangin shows the price being paid for a campaign to cripple the Taliban in a key stronghold and help extricate America from a war now in its 10th year.

When Lance Cpl. Juan Dominguez slipped down a small embankment while out on patrol and landed on a buried bomb, the explosion could be heard for miles.

“It had to be a 30- to 40-pounder,” Dominguez said from his bed at the military hospital in Bethesda, Md. “I remember crying out for my mother and then crying out for morphine. I remember them putting my legs on top of me.”

His legs were severed above the knee, and his right arm was mangled and could not be saved. A Navy corpsman, risking sniper fire, rushed to Dominguez and stopped the bleeding. On the trip to the field hospital, Dominguez prayed.

“I figured this was God’s will, so I told him: ‘If you’re going to take me, take me now,’ ” he said.

His memories of Sangin are vivid. “The part we were in, it’s hell,” he said. “It makes your stomach turn. The poor families there, they get conned into helping the Taliban.”

Like many wounded Marines, Dominguez never saw a Taliban fighter. “We don’t know who we’re fighting over there, who’s friendly and who isn’t,” he said. “They’re always watching us. We’re basically fighting blind.”

His mother, Martha Dominguez, was at home the night of Oct. 23 when a Marine came to her door to tell her that her son had been gravely injured. She left her job right away and rushed to his bedside in Bethesda. She’s never been far away since.

When Dominguez’s father, Reynaldo, first visited the hospital, he was overcome by emotion and had to leave. “Mothers are stronger at times like this,” Martha Dominguez said.

Juan Dominguez has since been fitted with prosthetic legs and a “bionic” arm and is undergoing daily therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He and his girlfriend have broken up.

“She wanted someone with legs,” his mother said.

When he’s discharged, Dominguez wants to return to Deming to be near his 8-year-old daughter, who lives with his ex-wife, and open a business painting and restoring cars.

But his immediate goal is to be at Camp Pendleton, in uniform and walking on his prosthetic legs, when the battalion returns in the spring.

By some accounts, no district in Afghanistan is outpacing Sangin in “kinetic activity,” military jargon for combat.

“Sangin is a straight-up slug match. No winning of hearts and minds. No enlightened counterinsurgency projects to win affections,” said Bing West, a Marine veteran who was an assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan. “Instead, the goal is to kill the Taliban every day on every patrol. Force them to flee the Sangin Valley or die.”

Read the rest at the link.  This is a gripping tale of brave Marines in a fight for their lives.  Perry – whom I will always stop to read – sadly lists the Marines who have perished in this particular fight.

Kinetic activity is preceding reconstruction, as it must, but take note again of this important statement: Dominguez never saw a Taliban fighter. “We don’t know who we’re fighting over there, who’s friendly and who isn’t,” he said. “They’re always watching us. We’re basically fighting blind.

I know that I have debated others over the notion of a large versus a small footprint in Afghanistan, and I have also agreed to the idea that the support to infantry ratio is far too high, in Afghanistan and everywhere else.  But if we’re losing men to unseen fighters, if we’re not in the homes of the folks, if we’re not setting in place roadblocks, if we’re not taking census, if we don’t know the people we are aiming to secure, and not seeing the enemy we are supposed to kill, then there simply aren’t enough Marines in Sangin.  Period.  Further debates are meaningless and irrelevant.

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating.  When we waste time and resources throwing billions of dollars at wasteful MEUs for Marines to go to every port city in the Mediterranean and Israel to get falling down drunk, pretending that we are actually going to conduct large scale forcible entry on a near-peer state, while fellow Marines get their legs blown off in the Helmand Province, we have a moral problem.  No, not a morale problem – a moral problem.

U.S. Marine Corps Small Unit Maneuver Warfare in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

I have previously discussed the notion of offensive posture in small unit maneuver warfare in Afghanistan.

In Odd Things in Counterinsurgency after detailing a Marine unit’s all-day efforts to locate a local elder’s home in order to befriend him (when in fact neither he nor his people wanted him to be located), I observed the following:

This effort is misplaced.  It would have been more effective to kill insurgents, make their presence known, meet villagers, find weapons caches, question young men, and interrogate prisoners (or potential prisoners).  They have given no reason for this tribal leader to ally himself with the Marines.  The Marines haven’t yet shown that they are there to win.  When the Marines get the Taliban on the defensive, the tribal leader will more than likely come to the Marines rather than the Marine searching him out.

The next patrol should focus on those fighters who were setting up the ambush.  Send a few Scout Snipers that direction.  Flank the insurgents with a squad or fire team, and approach the area where these men are supposed to be doing their nefarious deeds.  Find them, kill them. Do this enough and the Marines won’t have to search out the leaders.  Then it will be time to sit down and drink tea.  This is the recipe for success.

In the same province there is another example to study.

PressZoom) – NAWA, Afghanistan (Oct. 21, 2010) — The men of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, have spent enough time in Afghanistan to understand some of the workings of the Taliban presence there.

There’s no denying they’re fighting a crafty enemy. Combatants will usually engage the American and Afghan forces from a well-concealed position, and then dispose of their weapons as they flee. They don’t stay for long-drawn out battles.

They shoot and run.

And so during Operation Black Tip, Oct. 14, India Company saw much of what they’ve grown accustomed to — shooting and running. Except this time, it was a little different.

When Sgt. Bryan Brown’s squad started taking fire, they were the ones who ran. They ran toward the bullets. They ran to the enemy’s position to take away his ability to flee.

“It’s always impressive to see Marines running toward fire,” said 1st Sgt. William Pinkerton, the India Company first sergeant.

Not that the enemy didn’t try to run away, but a well-placed sniper team left them with limited escape options. The snipers suspect they killed one enemy combatant and wounded another, Pinkerton said.

The Marines are growing in their application of small unit tactics in the Helmand Province.  Not long after I observed that a different approach was needed the Marines showed that they were adapting to their environment.

Tim Lynch gives us yet another great example of the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. Marine Corps small unit maneuver warfare in Afghanistan.

The 2nd Battalion 6th Marines is currently responsible for the southern, central and some of the northern portions of Marjah which is actually a series of villages organized around a gigantic grid of canals which were built by US AID back in the 60’s.  They are expanding their control block by block by spreading their Marines out into platoon and squad size outposts from which Marines foot patrol constantly.  The villains still offer battle but only on their terms which means they will fire on a patrol only when they have set up IED’s between their positions and the Marines.  When the Marines came back to Afghanistan in 2008 the Taliban had forgotten that they were not like other infantry.  The Marines maneuver when fired upon closing with and destroying those stupid enough to take them on.  After getting mauled time and again the Taliban learned to use small arms fire to augment IED blasts in an attempt to lure aggressive Marines into mine fields full of more improvised explosive devices.  Now the Marines maneuver to fix and then swarm with other units coming in from a different direction or with precision fire from drones.  To facilitate this they establish multiple small postions – partrol from them constantly and then push out to establish more small bases once the area they are working comes under their control.

This is outstanding reporting and analysis by Tim.  He has titled his post “Healing Ulcer” (so much for General McChrystal’s stupid notion of Marjah being a bleeding ulcer).  The entire Helmand Province is tough, and Sangin is especially tough right now.   A year ago and two years ago it was Now Zad.  But the Marines must have time and the commitment of the brass and the country – and more troops – and they will succeed and prevail.  They are the best troops in the world at small unit maneuver warfare, and their efforts in Helmand prove that once again.

U.S. Marine Corps Combat Action in Sangin

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

From NPR:

The first time U.S. Marines went on patrol from this base in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban were ready. The militants shot and killed a 21-year-old lance corporal just 150 feet from the perimeter.

The Marines patrolling through the green fields and tall mud compounds of Helmand province’s Sangin district say they are literally in a race for their lives. They are trying to adjust their tactics to outwit Taliban fighters, who have killed more coalition troops here than in any other Afghan district this year.

“As a new unit coming in, you are at a distinct disadvantage because the Taliban have been fighting here for years, have established fighting positions and have laid the ground with a ton of IEDs,” said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “You have to evolve quickly because you have no other choice.”

[ ... ]

“We kind of snuck our nose in the south to see what the south was about and we found out real quick that you don’t go south unless you have a lot of dudes,” said Sgt. Adam Keliipaakaua, who was leading the patrol.

[ ... ]

The Marines now have a better idea of where they will be ambushed around their base and have doubled the size of their patrols to increase the amount of firepower they can direct toward the Taliban. On Thursday, the Marines killed 15 militants in an hourlong firefight, according to NATO.

Those who patrol through the main bazaar in the district center now know to look to the skies. They said the Taliban often fly white kites over the local mosque to signal the presence of the Marines.

The Taliban like to attack using so-called “murder holes” — small holes carved into strong mud walls that allow the insurgents to shoot without exposing themselves …

To avoid walking into a firefight, the Marines look to see whether kids are around. Their absence could mean an impending attack, but the Taliban also use children as spotters, so the tactic isn’t foolproof.

“A little kid will run around the corner and run back, and a minute later you are being shot at,” said Keliipaakaua.

But the threat of an ambush pales in comparison to the biggest danger lurking in Sangin and much of Afghanistan: the scores of IEDs buried in roads, trails, compounds and even canals. Many are largely constructed out of wood or plastic, making them very difficult to detect.

Three days after Ceniceros was killed, another member of 3rd Platoon, Cpl. David Noblit, stepped on an IED in a compound located in dense vegetation across the street from Patrol Base Fulod. Noblit survived the explosion but lost both his legs (for a discussion of Ceniceros, see portions of the article edited for length).

The battalion has been hit with about 40 IED attacks and has found more than 100 other bombs before they exploded.

“You want to vary up your routes to go where the enemy doesn’t expect you to travel,” said Esrey, 33, of Havelock, North Carolina. “I can walk through water ankle-high, but the bad guys probably know that’s where I want to go, so I want to go somewhere the water is chest-high.”

But the Taliban are always watching and adapting as well. One of the last Marines from the battalion who was killed stepped on an IED buried underwater in a canal.

“The tactics keep changing because they’re smart and they watch us,” said Esrey. “They don’t have TV here. We’re their TV.”

Analysis & Commentary

First, spotters and signalers are a common problem with the Taliban, as they were in Ramadi, Iraq.  They have not been dealt with as harshly as I have recommended.  A spotter or signaler is no different than a combatant, and they were treated as combatants by Marines in Iraq whether they held a weapon or not.  Then again, dealing with the spotters as I have recommended (and the Marines actually did in Iraq) would require a change to the rules of engagement.  Our generals are smarter than those successful Marines in the Anbar Province, and so we don’t do things like that anymore.

Second, having a “lot of dudes” is the equivalent of my recommendations in previous coverage of Marine combat action in Sangin.  There are many locations in Afghanistan that need attention and additional troops, from the Paktika province to Kunar and Nuristan, and indeed, the whole Pech River Valley area.  The border needs more mentored ANP, and even the North is coming under increasing Taliban attention.

I have made no secret of my full court press for more troops.  But in this case, the U.S. Marines have the Helmand Province, and it makes no sense to have Marines on MEUs pretending that they are going to conduct a major, full scale, water-borne amphibious assault against some unknown (or non-existent) near-peer enemy while their brothers lose their legs in Afghanistan.  In fact, I would suggest that it is immoral to send Marines into harm’s way without the requisite support and manpower.  The support and manpower exists.  It’s currently located at Camps Lejeune and Pendleton preparing to board amphibious assault docks and waste millions of dollars floating around the seas and stopping at every port so that Marines can get drunk.  We can do better than that for the Marines under fire in Afghanistan.

Finally, it makes sense to fight the Taliban where they are.  If we don’t they will simply relocate to the areas we are trying to secure (such as Kandahar) and fights us there.  It is conducive to minimum noncombatant casualties to conduct combat operations in Sangin rather than in Kandahar if possible.

U.S. Marines More Aggressive in Sangin Than British

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

From the Los Angeles Times:

SANGIN, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Marines who recently inherited this lush river valley in southern Helmand province from British forces have tossed aside their predecessor’s playbook in favor of a more aggressive strategy to tame one of the most violent places in Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders say success is critical in Sangin district — where British forces suffered nearly one-third of their deaths in the war — because it is the last remaining sanctuary in Helmand where the Taliban can freely process the opium and heroin that largely fund the insurgency.

The district also serves as a key crossroads to funnel drugs, weapons and fighters throughout Helmand and into neighboring Kandahar province, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban and the most important battleground for coalition forces. The U.S.-led coalition hopes its offensive in the south will kill or capture key Taliban commanders, rout militants from their strongholds and break the insurgency’s back. That will allow the coalition and the Afghans to improve government services, bring new development and a sense of security.

“Sangin has been an area where drug lords, Taliban and people who don’t want the government to come in and legitimize things have holed up,” said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The unit took over responsibility for Sangin in mid-October nearly a month after the British withdrew.

That withdrawal — after more than 100 deaths over four years of combat — has raised concerns among some in Britain about the perception of U.S. Marines finishing a job the British couldn’t handle. Many claimed that happened in the Iraqi city of Basra in 2007.

U.S. commanders denied that’s the case in Sangin and said the withdrawal was just the final step in consolidating British forces in central Helmand and leaving the north and south to the Americans. Sangin is located in the north of the province.

But one of the first things the Marines did when they took over Sangin was close roughly half the 22 patrol bases the British set up throughout the district — a clear rejection of the main pillar of Britain’s strategy, which was based on neighborhood policing tactics used in Northern Ireland.

The bases were meant to improve security in Sangin, but the British ended up allocating a large percentage of their soldiers to protect them from being overrun by the Taliban. That gave the insurgents almost total freedom of movement in the district.

“The fact that a lot of those patrol bases were closed down frees up maneuver forces so that you can go out and take the fight to the enemy,” Morris said during an interview at the battalion’s main base in the district center, Forward Operating Base Jackson.

As Morris spoke, the sound of heavy machine gun fire and mortar explosions echoed in the background for nearly 30 minutes as Marines tried to kill insurgents who were firing at the base from a set of abandoned compounds about 500 feet away.

The Marines later called in an AC-130 gunship to launch a Hellfire missile, a 500-pound bomb and a precision-guided artillery round at the compounds, rocking the base with deafening explosions that shook dirt loose from the ceilings of the tents. Tribal elders later said the munitions killed seven Taliban fighters.

The battalion has been in more than 100 firefights since it arrived, and the proximity of many of them to FOB Jackson illustrates just how much freedom of movement the Taliban still have in Sangin.

The Marines have worked to improve security by significantly increasing the number of patrols compared to the British and by pushing into areas north and south of the district center where British forces rarely went. That process started when the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment deployed to Sangin in July and fought beside the British until the current battalion took over.

Even though the battalion has slightly fewer forces than the 1,200-strong British Royal Marines unit that was here previously, commanders say they have been able to step up the number of patrols because they have far fewer Marines stuck guarding bases.

But some analysts have speculated that the coalition would need at least one more battalion in Sangin if it wanted to clear and hold the whole district. Some Marines said privately that more forces would be necessary, especially in the Upper Sangin Valley where coalition troops had not gone in years until recently.

The battalion’s current area of operations is roughly 25 square miles and contains a mix of lush fields around the Helmand River, dense clusters of tall mud compounds and patches of barren desert. It contains some 25,000 people, but many of Sangin’s residents live outside the area in which the Marines operate. The entire district is roughly 200 square miles, and district governor Mohammad Sharif said it houses about 100,000 people.

The battalion has gotten help from a pair of Marine reconnaissance companies operating in the Upper Sangin Valley and a company of Georgian soldiers based on the West side of the Helmand River. There are also several hundred Afghan army and police in Sangin, but they are fairly dependent on the Marines for supplies and logistics.

In addition to conducting more patrols, the Marine battalion has adopted a more aggressive posture than the British, according to Afghan army Lt. Mohammad Anwar, who has been in Sangin for two years.

“When the Taliban attacked, the British would retreat into their base, but the Marines fight back,” said Anwar.

Insurgents fired at members of 1st Platoon, India Company, during a recent patrol near the battalion’s main base, and the Marines responded with a deafening roar of machine gun fire, grenades, and mortars. They also tried to launch a rocket that turned out to be a dud.

“The Taliban like to engage us, and I like to make it an unfair fight,” said India Company’s commander, Capt. Chris Esrey of Havelock, North Carolina. “If you shoot at us with 7.62 (millimeter bullets), I’m going to respond with rockets.”

But Taliban attacks have taken their toll. Thirteen Marines have been killed and 49 wounded since the battalion arrived. Most of those casualties have come from IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, that the insurgents hide in compounds, along trails and in dense fields where they are hard to detect.

Analysis & Commentary

The point of citing this report is not for embarrassment of the British forces, and regular readers know that full well.  But there are a few common themes from this report with my own advocacy over the last several years.

First, take measure of what I have noted concerning the British philosophy of counterinsurgency, namely that its roots and doctrinal basis comes from a locale which had basically the same religious roots, the same general heritage, a shared dedication to Western values, and an institutionalized security apparatus – Northern Ireland.  Of course, this was nothing like Basra, and even less like Afghanistan.  The officer corps of the British Army took this doctrine into Basra, and lost (as my coverage conclusively demonstrates).

They took this doctrine into Sangin (and much of Helmand), and in the main weren’t successful.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with the bravery of the enlisted man, as I have discussed.  It has to do with an officer corps which cannot escape the gravity of its own narrative, taken exclusively from Northern Ireland.  For a much better model to follow, the British could have chosen to follow their work in Malaya (See Karl Hack, “The Malayan Emergency as Counterinsurgency Paradigm,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 2009.  Thanks to Colonel Gian Gentile for pointing out this fine study to me.).  The problem is one of leadership, not the ability to follow or follow up.

Second, note that this approach (i.e., the more aggressive stance by the U.S. Marines) requires force projection, and among other things, this requires troops.  More are needed, and unless U.S. leadership is willing to stand in the gap and advocate the same thing, the strategy is hopelessly mired because of under-resourcing.

Finally, note that the more aggressive stance yields immediate fruit, at least among the indigenous forces.  The ANA naturally takes heart when they see the enemy being dealt a significant blow.  Nothing is better for morale than success.

Marines Live Hard Life in Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
4 years ago

From Todd Pitman:

MARJAH, Afghanistan — In the first two months of a seven-month tour, US Marine Corporal Chuck Martin has been in 16 firefights.

The 24-year-old native of Middletown, R.I., has done laundry twice, mailed five letters, and received two. He has spent 378 hours on post and 256 hours on patrol. He has crossed 140 miles of thorny bomb-laced farmland and waist-high trenches of water on foot.

Along the way, he has ripped eight pairs of pants, ruined two pairs of boots, and downed 1,350 half-liter bottles of water. His platoon has killed at least eight militants in battle and nine farm animals in crossfire. The rugged outposts he has lived in have been shot at 46 times.

“Tiring would be the best word to describe it,’’ Martin said, summarizing his time so far in the insurgent-plagued southern Afghan district of Marjah. “There’s no downtime. It’s a constant gruel.’’

Martin’s list, stored on spreadsheet on his laptop, offers a snapshot of American military life in this rural battle zone, where a new generation of young service members are growing up thousands of miles from home.

Since arriving in mid-July, personnel from the Second Battalion, Ninth Marines’ Echo Company have spread out across 13 small, austere outposts in northern Marjah, a vast patch of fields and ancient hardened mud homes without running water or electricity that one company commander likened to “200 B.C.’’

At one outpost called Inchon, a droning generator provides power for iPods and laptops loaded with movies, and just two lights — one for the Americans, the other for their Afghan counterparts. Service members have knitted together several shaky chairs from the metal fencing of discarded Hesco barriers.

At many bases, Marines sleep outside on cots inside hot-dog shaped mosquito nets. There are no toilets and no showers. Troops bathe with water warmed by the afternoon sun. Fleas are such a problem, many Marines have taken to wearing flea collars made for cats or dogs around their wrists and belts.

“It’s definitely a culture shock,’’ Lance Corporal Benjamin Long, 21, of Trussville, Ala., said of life for incoming Marines. “Some people come here and they think we’re living like cavemen.’’

Todd paints an effective picture of the hardships endured by the Marines in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.  The Soldiers in Korengal lived an equally hard existence, as do some of the Soldiers elsewhere in Afghanistan.  But in a tip of the hat to large population centers, far too many Soldiers live in huge FOBs rather than connected with the population.

In order to find and kill the insurgents, Soldiers and Marines must be spending the majority of their time with the people amongst whom they hide.  There is no downtime for the Marines.  Neither can there be any for other participants in Operation Enduring Freedom, whether infantry, logistics, or vehicle and aircraft maintenance.  Downtime comes after the deployment.


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