Archive for the 'Marines in Helmand' Category

Marines in Marjah Face Full Blown Insurgency

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 7 months ago

Lance Cpl. Wesley Samuels, of Winter Haven, Fla., with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines’ Echo Company, fires at Taliban insurgents during as gunbattle in Marjah, Afghanistan.

AP reporter Todd Pitman and I have exchanged e-mail before during his embeds in Ramadi.  He felt at the time that a comment he left here at TCJ might have gotten him into trouble with AP for potentially representing formal AP position.  Hopefully this was an earlier time and a different atmosphere, before AP learned the value of interacting with the new media.  Or have they?  Does AP still cling to its policy of disallowing any copying of text into posts?  In either case, while AP might have poor policies, Todd Pitman is a very good reporter and his most recent article provides anecdotal accounts and some analysis of the situation the Marines face in Marjah.

MARJAH, Afghanistan — The young Marine had a simple question for the farmer with the white beard: Have you seen any Taliban today?

The answer came within seconds — from insurgents hiding nearby who ended the conversation with bursts of automatic rifle fire that sent deadly rounds cracking overhead.

It was a telling coincidence — and the start of yet another gunbattle in Marjah, the southern poppy-producing hub which U.S. forces wrested from Taliban control in February to restore government rule.

Eight months on, the Taliban are still here in force, waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.

As U.S. involvement in the war enters its 10th year, the failure to pacify this town raises questions about the effectiveness of America’s overall strategy. Similarly crucial operations are now under way in neighboring Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace.

There are signs the situation in Marjah is beginning to improve, but “it’s still a very tough fight,” said Capt. Chuck Anklam, whose Marine company has lost three men since arriving in July. “We’re in firefights all over, every day.”

“There’s no area that’s void of enemy. But there’s no area void of Marines and (Afghan forces) either,” said Anklam, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “It’s a constant presence both sides are trying to exert.”

That day, militants in his zone of operations alone had attacked Marines in four separate locations by mid-afternoon.

[ … ]

… the end of Taliban control in Marjah has sown the seeds of an entrenched guerrilla war that has tied down at least two U.S. Marine battalions and hordes of Afghan police and army troops.

The result, so far at least: Residents say the town is more insecure than ever.

[ … ]

Coalition forces are also trying to win over the population by organizing the delivery of solar panels to businessmen, and refurbishing shops, wells and mosques, Anklam said. But residents are weary: One Marine simply trying to give away a lollipop to children at a checkpoint tried three times before finding one who would take it.

Todd includes this nugget of gold.

Anklam has spread the Marines of Echo company as much as possible. The squads are now based at 13 small outposts — twice as many as in July. As a result, Marines say that although firefights occur daily, violence has decreased overall.

Several observations are in order.  First, to say that the insurgency has “tied down” ANA and ANP probably embellishes what they have accomplished, which has been problematic at best (as we have discussed many times in the ANA and ANP categories).  It is the Marines who are being tied down.  The ANA is at the very best being mentored by the Marines, at the worst are high on opium or hashish.

Second, as if we needed any more indication that the British notion of the government in a box doesn’t work, Todd’s article should be about the last nail in the coffin of that debacle of a strategy (and make no mistake about it, we brought this “government in a box” to Marjah at the behest of the British, in a tip of the hat to their approach to COIN).

Finally, notice what the Marines are doing.  A single company is spread out at 13 outposts.  A single infantry company.  This is remarkable.  It’s a tribute to the tactics employed by the U.S. Marines, and should be an embarrassment to the folks who spend all of their time at FOBs, including the SOF boys with ZZ Top beards wearing backwards ball caps and T-shirts who ride to the fight in helicopters and bed down back at the base after a hot meal and shower.  They are adding  nothing to the campaign.

It isn’t the work of the U.S. Marines that is in question.  Given time, they will win.  The questions are: (1) do they have it, (2) will we give them the resources, and (3) will we get out of the way and let them do what they have to do?

Counterinsurgency: Let’s Drink Tea Later

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 8 months ago

Canadians are running into cultural issues in Kandahar.

The Pashtun people of southern Afghanistan have a saying: “He is not a Pathan who does not give a blow for a pinch.”

“Nang” and “badal” — honour and revenge, respectively — trump even the holy book of the Qur’an for many Pashtuns, and so it is with caution that Canada sends its troops to live among them as part of its widening counter-insurgency strategy in Kandahar province.

It’s widely understood that, as the proverb suggests, a Pashtun (or Pathan) man will respond aggressively to even the most minor slight, extracting revenge to defend the honour of himself and his family. Those considered friends and guests are protected and respected with the same zeal.

“Respect and honour is very important to them,” said Capt. Paul Stokes, a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment battle group currently in Kandahar.

Canadian soldiers bound for Afghanistan are taught about the different tribal and family affiliations that have affected the tides of war in the region for generations. They’re warned of the sometimes primitive living conditions and taught a few words of Pashto. Some even carry well-thumbed phrasebooks.

But nothing can entirely prepare them for the experience of living among the locals, Stokes said. “You can teach it in class, but you don’t appreciate it until you see the differences and experience it.”

Canadian soldiers currently live and work among Afghan police and soldiers and live in or near small villages, venturing out every day to try to forge trust within the local population.

They attend elaborate community meetings, known as shuras, where the pace is plodding and the casual drift of time can prove a challenge for military-minded westerners like Stokes.

“The western culture is a very fast-paced culture, with emails and TV. We want to get to a meetings and get right to the heart of the matter. That’s not the way it is (in Afghanistan),” he said.

“You go there, you have tea, you have coffee, you have food, you may have an entire meal and talk about your families and friends, and then — whether it be 15 minutes later or an hour later — you get to the heart of the discussion.”

Capt. Ashley Collette has travelled to Third World countries before, so the living conditions she and her platoon found in the village of Nakhonay were less of a shock to her than to some of her colleagues.

Life in the village in Panjwaii, southwest of Kandahar city, has more benefits than drawbacks, but it has not been without its challenges, she said.

“The experience itself of living right alongside the locals is one that I’d argue you can’t really prepare yourself for. It’s a unique experience in itself,” Collette said.

Being unable to speak the language is also a problem.

Of course being unable to speak the language is a problem, just as are poor translators.  And true enough, little contributions to the population are a good thing.  In Fallujah 2007 there was a problem with feral dogs (packs of dogs would literally attack Marine patrols as well as the population).  In addition to what the Marines did to the population (e.g., heavy policing, kicking doors in, etc.), one thing they did for the population was to perform patrols with the sole purpose of getting the feral dog population under control.  They accomplished this in short order.  The people of Fallujah appreciated this.

But one thing that the Marines didn’t do was change their behavior.  In spite of the Iraqi cultural revulsion at dogs, the Marines had theirs – both bomb sniffing and adopted dogs – the adopted dogs helping in locating and warning indications of feral dogs packs.  The Marines projected forces regardless of cultural morays, and the tea-drinking came later when the population decided that the Marines would win.

The Marines are taking turnover of Sangin from the British, and there is mixed reaction.

… tribal elder Muhammad Khan says British troops were mindful of local culture, and treated people well.

”The former infidels [British] were better than these new ones [Americans],” said Mr Khan.

“Britons were respectful of our culture and traditions. They wouldn’t search someone on a motorcycle with his wife in the back seat.

”But American troops don’t care. They stop us and search both man and his woman. This is what we know of Americans.”

A number of residents have reservations about the arrival of US forces.

Gul Muhammad, from Sangin town, said: ”I liked the way British soldiers conducted operations.

“After they were attacked, they would go to the exact house and target the very attacker without harming others.”

Another resident expressed his concerns about civilian casualties.

”Americans behave differently,” said Aazar Gulalai. “They attack indiscriminately and target everybody in the vicinity after they are targeted by the Taliban, or suffer casualties in a mine explosion.

”All of them shoot at us. They all target us. We and the Taliban become the same for them after they are attacked.

”We are civilians. We don’t have any animosity with the Taliban, or government.”

Sangin is one of the most heavily populated districts in Helmand, with a population of around 150,000.

But a number of people left the town of Sangin in recent years as a result of fighting. One of them, Abdul Wali, hopes that he will be able to return home soon.

”We left Sangin because of continual attacks and fighting,” says Abdul Wali. “I hope Americans will bring security with them and schools will be opened.”

Over the past few months, Americans have already taken on security responsibility for many other districts in Helmand, including Nawa, Garmsir, Marjah, Khanshin and Nawzad.

A number of people in these districts claim that British forces failed to bring security there because they did not want to risk fighting the Taliban.

”Americans are serious,” says Muhabbat Khan, a resident of Nawa district. “Security is much better now here. The British were only concerned about their on security.

”British troops couldn’t handle casualties. They used to retreat all the time and this would further embolden the Taliban.”

A few residents of Sangin expressed hope that Americans would bring not only security to their district, but much needed development and jobs for the people.

Several observations are in order.  First, the British can certainly take casualties, and their bravery is not in question.  What the example of Musa Qala showed us is that the British approach to counterinsurgency is different because of their officer corps.  Two years ago the British enacted their plans to deescalate the violence against the Taliban.  The rest, they say, is history.

But more to the point, the counterinsurgency reactionary would study this report and decide that it’s time for cultural re-education.  Send the Marines to more PowerPoint presentations, and make sure that they have all of their cultural I’s dotted and T’s crossed.  To the Marines in Anbar this was irrelevant, and it should be irrelevant to the Marines in Helmand.

Returning to the first report about the high sounding Pashtun traditions of honor, it wouldn’t appear that their honor isn’t so great that they would forbid the Taliban from ruling them with a heavy hand and purvey death to the insurgents.  Indeed, the population in Sangin wants it all too.  They want security and then jobs, but they have no animosity towards anyone.

Regardless of their lack of animosity, they will be forced to choose sides, and they will contribute to their own security or they will have none, from either the Marines or the Taliban.  They can drink tea later.  There is work to do first for everyone involved.

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

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 8 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.

Marjah: A Cautionary Tale and Lessons for the Future

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 9 months ago

From Global Post:

The American soldier standing guard at the main intersection in Marjah looked hot and tired. Sweat and dust covered his face and uniform as he sought shelter from the burning sun under a tree. Even his nametag was obscured by the dirt.

As an Afghan reporter approached, the soldier stiffened visibly. But when shown the journalist’s identification, he relaxed and even smiled a bit.

“We have lost our credibility here,” he said, explaining his initial hostility. “Even small children to whom I offer candy are Taliban spies. We have to be suspicious.”

The soldier would not say any more, or even give his name.

Marjah, the focus of a much-hyped battle just a few short months ago, said to herald “the turning point of the war,” is now a dangerous and volatile place.

As the U.S. Army weighs the pros and cons of conducting a similar effort in Kandahar, a much larger and more difficult target, the Marjah operation provides a cautionary tale for those who think that military offensives can bring stability to the Taliban heartland.

Marjah may never have deserved its exalted status: a small patch of desert containing at most 50,000 inhabitants, it was the target of Operation Moshtarak, which began on Feb. 13. More than 15,000 soldiers from the U.S., British and Afghan armies took part in the offensive against at most 2,000 Taliban. Within weeks the Marines declared victory.

It was not until a few months later that the serious cracks in the arrangement became too apparent to hide. The “government in a box” promised by Gen. Stan McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, did not bring the stability and peace it was supposed to.

Instead, district governor Haji Mohammad Zahir could not establish rapport with the local population and was quietly removed in mid-July. The Taliban, far from “melting away” as expected, stood their ground and began to mount terror operations against the local population.

By July, conditions had deteriorated to the point that residents were afraid the district was about to fall once again to the Taliban.

“It is like Doomsday,” said Haji Abdul Samad, a shopkeeper in Marjah. “The bullets drop like rain from the sky. I have not been able to go to my shop for 10 days. Cattle and sheep are dying. There is no humanity here, no kindness.”

The main bazaar in Marjah, Loya Charahi, is almost deserted. Only a handful of the hundreds of shops are open; the intersection looks as it did in the early days of the operation.

“The Taliban has warned us not to open our shops,” said Gul Ahmad, whose store remains shuttered. “There are more and more of them and they are very cruel. If I open my shop, they will beat me to death. Perhaps they are trying to demonstrate their power, or perhaps they just want to show that life is not normal in Marjah.”

[ … ]

Jabir, a police officer in Marjah, who also uses only name, is afraid that Marjah could soon fall again to the Taliban.

“We cannot patrol on our own, but go with the Americans,” he said. “The Taliban are very bold and very brave. They have new weapons and they conduct more than 10 attacks every day in Marjah. It is horrifying.”

The situation is untenable, he insisted. “Everything has changed here,” he said. “We are afraid of every farmer, and see Taliban fighters behind every tree.”

If you can get past Jean MacKenzie calling U.S. forces in Marjah Soldiers instead of Marines, there is some useful perspective in this report.  As if to unnecessarily repeat ourselves or lay the painfully obvious out all over again, this stupid idea of a government in a box that McChrystal and Rodriguez thought would work is a fool’s errand.  I am also told that the British officers to a man believe in the “government in a box” strategy.  In spite of the continued questioning of whether Marjah deserved the effort put into it, if the Taliban are there and can be found and killed, it’s worth it.  But instant government from a military magician yelling ‘presto’ won’t do the job.

Second, recall that the Taliban who eventually found themselves here began in other parts of Helmand, including Now Zad, Gamrsir, and so forth.  They don’t belong here.  That is, they don’t have families in Marjah – or at least, if they do, until now they have been wandering troublemakers.  It’s been a while since they have been in Marjah in force because they haven’t had to be.  Yet they have the population eating out of their hands.  They have been quite successful with their tactics of intimidation, an outcome I forecasted.  They don’t have to be the sons of families in Marjah.  Their intimidation is enough.

Third, the ANA and ANP is nowhere near ready to take over from the U.S., and won’t be in a year.  They can’t even summon the courage to patrol alone.

Fourth, the Marines need to know who is in Marjah and why.  They need to look into the eyes of every inhabitant, be inside every home, take every fingerprint and scan every iris.  Their patrols need to be ubiquitous, day and night, and they don’t need to wait on the ANA or send them into the homes first.  They need to proceed with door kicking in the middle of the night if that’s what it takes, they need to project force, and they need to do it beginning now and carrying on until every last insurgent has been captured or killed.  Killed is better than captured given the poor state of the Afghanistan system of “justice” (i.e., catch and release).

In short, the Marines have lost their way.  The Marines are out of their element, doing things that don’t come natural.  McChrystal had persuaded (or ordered) them to adopt the British way of doing things (and to some degree supported by elements within the U.S. Army), the same strategy that lost Basra.  The Marines need to look into their past, their recent past, and return to the things they were doing in the Anbar Province.  They need no classes to remember.  It’s organic, it’s something inherent to the Corps.  It will appear too brutish to some of the brass who has lost their way, and it will make others deride them as knuckle draggers and mouth breathers.  That’s because they don’t know that the Marines know more than they do and know how to win.  They just need to remember it, and the brass just needs to sit back and watch and learn.  The Marines need to be Marines, and the brass needs to get out of the way and quit trying to micromanage their work.

Proliferation of Bad Analysis on Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 11 months ago

Readers should beware of bad analysis work on Afghanistan.  There is an increasing frequency of it, so many analyses that I do not have the time to catalog them all.  I will mention only two such examples.

First, Rajiv Chandrasekaran writing at The Washington Post outlines a supposedly successful villagers’ revolt against the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan.  Christian Bleuer writing at Registan is duly sarcastic, and if you want to read about the ZZ Top beards you will have to drop by Registan and read Christian’s prose.

Ian comments that the reason this has people salivating is that it resembles the Anbar pattern.  Let me state in the clearest possible way I know how.  NO . IT . DOES . NOT. The Anbar pattern had to do with force projection at the beginning of the campaign by the Marines, force projection by Marines during the middle phase of the campaign, and force projection by the Marines near the end of the campaign.  Let me also be especially clear on this next point.  Had it not been for the U.S. Marines, the tribal awakening in Ramadi would have failed.  They simply weren’t strong enough, well equipped enough, supplied well enough, or numerous enough to defeat the AQI, Ansar al Sunna, and the other bad actors in Ramadi.  Furthermore, in places like Fallujah it had nothing whatsoever to do with tribes or any awakening.

By the way, the SOF does look especially stupid in their ZZ Top beards, and since they are focused on kinetics rather than embedding with the population, the beards serve no useful purpose other than to make them look stupid.  But I digress.

Next, let’s deal with a piece by Stephen Grey at Foreign Policy as he takes on the British campaign in Helmand.  Copious quotes are reproduced below, but the reader is advised to read his entire essay.

As painfully described in an investigation published last week by the Times of London, the charge against military top brass, and those like Stirrup who talked endlessly of constant progress on the ground, is of filtering complaints from field commanders and junior soldiers so that politicians under the previous Labour administration got spared the full picture of how badly things were going in Helmand and the many shortfalls, for example, of war-winning military equipment and in basic welfare for the troops and their injured. Britain went into Helmand, the article described, with its “eyes shut and fingers crossed.”

Adam Holloway, a former Guards officer and now backbench Tory MP, added in the Sunday Times: “There was a tendency under the Labour government to promote ‘politicians in uniform’ rather than officers willing to give frank advice about the strategic drift in Afghanistan.”

As Holloway implies, some of the criticism of senior commanders like Stirrup for failing to “back our boys,” rather misses the point. While the insufficiency of resources like helicopters, bomb technicians, and mine-protected vehicles was arguably a betrayal of the “military covenant” that a nation owes an armed forces bearing so much sacrifice, none of these deficiencies go far to explaining why the war has been going so badly.

So what did go wrong with British leadership in Helmand? What part did the U.K. play in the transformation of what was a quiet backwater of the country in 2006 into this violent quagmire which now requires a garrison of 20,000 foreign troops (twice what the Soviets deployed to the province)?

The British had deployed in 2006 with an original plan for Helmand that echoed key elements of what was to become Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy. Its mission was to avoid combat and concentrate on protecting the population by providing basic security and fostering development in a narrow zone of central Helmand.

But the plan was not followed. As rebellion spread, the force of 3,300 personnel, representing an initial combat strength at first of little more nine platoons, were scattered across the district centers of northern Helmand. Pinned down in small Alamo-style outposts, their presence served as a magnet for the Taliban and an inspiration for general revolt. And, forced to defend themselves, they resorted to air strikes and heavy weapons that rubble-ized the centers of towns like Sangin and Musa Qala, and forced out the populations of Garmsir, Kajaki and Now Zad.

Now committed to defending a vast geographical area (and persuaded by President Karzai that any withdrawal would hand the Taliban a major victory), over successive years, Britain’s Task Force Helmand tripled in size but, despite reinforcement by Danes, Estonians and American units, was always outstretched by the spreading rebellion. British troops and their Afghan partners have never been in sufficient strength in any one place to dominate the ground effectively and provide the kind of basic security required to implement the central elements of an effective counterinsurgency approach, like reform of local government or meaningful development work. While the U.K. trumpeted its “comprehensive approach” — the unified application of both civil and military power — the slogan was a parody of reality.

The population of Helmand is highly-dispersed, scattered among the compounds that dot the “Green Zone,” as the irrigated land on either side of the Helmand River and its tributaries is called. While the British-led Task Force could cling on to the major towns like Sangin, Gereshk, and Lashkah Gah, real population security depended on securing the land that stretches between them.

Wedded at first to a conventional mindset, British operations initially sought to break the back of the Taliban revolt with endless and bloody “sweeps” up and down the Green Zone. The Taliban got suppressed for a few weeks or months and then came back. Troops came to refer to this disparagingly as “mowing the lawn.”

The sweeps got followed by another approach of “ribbon security” — an aspiration of constructing a chain of Forward Operating Bases up and down the Green Zone to provide a more extensive enduring presence — up the Helmand from Gereshk to Sangin and then ultimately upstream as far as the strategic hydroelectric dam at Kajaki.

The approach was flawed. There were never enough troops for such ambition. And the overstretch got worse by the fall of 2008, when the revolt started spreading to previously relatively-quiet central Helmand and the gates of the provincial capital, Lashkah Gah. In the assaults that began in July 2009, the British drained resources from Sangin and pushed troops into the central Babaji and Malgir districts west of Lashkah Gah. They were joined now by U.S. Marines who took over Garmsir, Nawa, and the southern Helmand district of Khan Neshin. The U.S. Marine presence has been expanding ever since, leading to today’s change-of-command.

This analysis is incorrect in a number of places, and misses the point in many others.  First off, let’s grant Mr. Grey the point about lack of adequate forces.  I have harped on this deficiency for four years, and will continue to do so.  But the analysis veers off into logically unrelated and largely irrelevant memes.  For example, Marine presence hasn’t increased steadily for years in Helmand.  The Marines (24th MEU, coverage found in category Marines in Helmand from 2008) entered Garmsir in 2004 and engaged in heavy kinetic operations, killing some 400 Taliban fighters and in fact having to pay out compensation for damage to homes in Garmsir.  Rather than alienating the population, the hard tactics caused the population to demand that they stay and ensure security.

Rather than staying, they turned over to British forces who then proceeded to pursue the same soft tactics they had in the balance of the Helmand Province, only to lose Garmsir in 2009 with the Marines having to retake it in 2010.  Bombing and shelling (“rubble-izing” as Stephen puts it) places like Musa Qala is quite irrelevant.  For an analysis of the horrible deal we made with Mullah Abdul Salaam in Musa Qala and the harm that it did to the campaign, see my category on Musa Qala.  The British were entirely responsible for that fiasco, and rather than being hated for shelling the city, they were hated for installing a stupid, corrupt coward to rule the city and for actually believing that he would protect the population and drive out the Taliban.

I won’t go on, but suffice it to say, there is a proliferation of analysis at the moment that simply doesn’t make the grade.  They are from those coming late to the campaign, or those who cannot jettison their population-centric COIN dogma, or for whatever reason.  Read everything you can, but be careful what you believe.

On the Proper Utilization of Resources in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
8 years ago

This report comes from the AP.

GHUNDY GHAR, Afghanistan — As night falls on this small hilltop base in the heart of Taliban country in southern Afghanistan, U.S. Army soldiers break out their knives and flashlights and go hunting for some of the country’s deadliest inhabitants: snakes and scorpions.

Tracking down the “creepy crawlies” that lurk in the nooks and crannies of the countryside is a favorite pastime, providing education, some entertainment — arachnid fight night! — or even a quick meal.

The expeditions help break the monotony of 10-day rotations the soldiers do once or twice a month at this rugged outpost in Kandahar province. Other than patrolling for a few hours a day, there is little for troops to do except watch movies or lift weights at a makeshift gym.

“Deployments are always 99 percent extreme boredom and one percent sheer terror,” said Spc. Chris Stoughton, a 28-year-old machine gunner with the platoon currently based at Strong Point Ghundy Ghar in Zhari district.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Christensen, a self-described reptile nut who grew up exploring the woods and coastlines of Oregon, leads the charge at night. Unlike most soldiers on their first deployment, he was just as fired up about the wildlife in the Afghan countryside as he was about potentially battling Taliban insurgents.

“I knew we had our job to do, but I was thinking in the back of my mind that I hope to see some of the cool things I have only seen in pictures or at exotic reptile shows,” said Christensen, who has owned cobras, rattlesnakes, lizards and a small alligator as pets. He even has two of his pet snakes tattooed on his left biceps.

The 30-year-old native of Portland, Oregon, has not been disappointed with what he and his fellow soldiers have found around the 200-foot (60- meter) rock and mud hill where their base is located. It is teeming with a wealth of snakes, scorpions, spiders and other wildlife.

This is a good human interest story from the AP reporter (Sabastion Abbot) that raises an issue entirely different from the one he intended.  Why are soldiers bored with little to do except look for reptiles, work out and watch movies?  I don’t want to start another round of internecine rivalry, but the Marines in Helmand aren’t so bored.

“We set out the combat patrol anticipating contact,” said Capt. E.A. Meador from Laurel, Miss., the company commander. “They always try to hit us in that area.”

After moving only about one mile from their combat outpost, the Marines received a heavy volley of enemy gunfire from multiple directions. Without hesitation, the Marines and ANA returned fire to suppress the enemy positions, began to maneuver on the insurgents and call for fire support.

Within minutes, an AH-1W Super Cobra and a UH-1N Huey were on station overhead to help suppress and engage enemy targets. The Cobra fired several five-inch Zuni rockets into one of the compounds from which the patrol was receiving sustained fire.

During the engagement, the squad leaders were encouraging and directing their Marines to ensure they were doing everything they could to stay effective and in the fight. No matter how tired they became as time wore on, the voice of experience could be heard across the battlefield.

“Push forward. Keep your dispersion,” called out Sgt. Jonathon Delgado, a squad leader from Kissimmee, Fla., as his Marines pressed through the corn field to maneuver on one of the compounds hiding the enemy.

The Marines and ANA eventually maneuvered up to and cleared the insurgent positions initially used to launch the ambush. One moment they were fighting in open fields, and the next they were clearing rooms the insurgents had used as fighting positions – two very different and challenging combat techniques. One squad, expecting to encounter some resistance, went to clear the western compound where the patrol had initially taken heavy fire. As they entered the compound, the only thing that was they found were brass casings and links from the enemy’s machine guns.

“It was tense going through the compound,” Daughtry commented. “You never know exactly what is coming around the corner.”

Marines with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, suppress enemy positions to protect the landing zone for a casualty evacuation helicopter in the middle of a six-hour firefight with Taliban insurgents.

This was a six-hour firefight.  Terry McCarthy has written about a four hour and fifteen minute patrol conducted by the 3/1 Marines.  This isn’t about branches of the military.  The Army in the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces is taking heat from the Taliban, and needs help on their many combat outposts.  It’s an issue of expectations and utilization of resources.  The question is why the Marines in Helmand and the Army is Kunar is suffering while the Army in other parts of the battlespace is bored?

Something is wrong with the management of the campaign.

Strange Counterinsurgency: The Marines Join Other Tribes!

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 1 month ago

After seeing a few pictures in a commentary by Diana West, I felt that they were so laughable, clownish and ridiculous that they must be fabricated, so I set about to locate them.  And locate them I did.


NAWA, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (From left to right) Lt . Col. Matt Baker, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Sgt. Maj. Dwight D. Jones, sergeant major of 1/3, and Maj. Rudy Quiles, civil affairs team leader with 1/3, listen to Nawas district administrator speak March 21, during Islamic New Year celebration.

There are other pictures for your viewing.  The pity with the story that these photographs tell is that there is nothing quite like it in U.S. Marine Corps history.  The Marines have done counterinsurgency and stability operations for some 200 years now, and yet the history of these operations seems to have been all but forgotten.  The most recent counterinsurgency success – the Anbar Province in Iraq – surely has been forgotten.

Note that I have been careful to point out the need for warrior scholars.

When Marine Lt. Col. Bill Mullen showed up at the city council meeting here Tuesday, everyone wanted a piece of him. There was the sheikh who wants to open a school, the judge who wants the colonel to be at the jail when several inmates are freed, and the Iraqi who just wants a burned-out trash bin removed from his neighborhood … Sunni sheikhs here want to create a relationship of true patronage with what they consider to be the biggest and most powerful tribe here: the Marines of Anbar Province.

This was Fallujah in 2007, and when the Marines of 2/6 entered in April, vehicle-borne IEDs were so prevalent that security couldn’t be enforced without draconian measures.  The city was locked down, gates and checkpoints were put up, communities were walled off, a census was taken, biometrics were taken on the population (fingerprints and iris scans), and kinetic operations were conducted on the insurgents.

Within months, Fallujah was a different place.  The Marines never relinquished their force protection, never jettisoned their uniforms, and always kept the upper hand with regards to the security of the city.  But in Marjah where Marine lives were lost to take the area, the situation is degrading.

Just a few weeks since the start of the operation, the Taliban have “reseized control and the momentum in a lot of ways” in northern Marja, Maj. James Coffman, civil affairs leader for the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, said in an interview in late March … Compensation helped turn the tide of insurgency in Iraq. But in Marja, where the Taliban seem to know everything — and most of the time it is impossible to even tell who they are — they have already found ways to thwart the strategy in many places, including killing or beating some who take the Marines’ money, or pocketing it themselves.

It isn’t counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that’s so different from Iraq – it’s the behavior of the Marines.  Insurgents have always been difficult to separate from the population.  That’s what makes it an insurgency.  In the Helmand Province, the Marines are apparently attempting to join the tribes, even if for a very brief period of time.  Note the irony.  Rather than being the strongest tribe, they are showing deference to the weaker tribes, i.e., the ones who are losing to the Taliban.

Helmand Fighting Holes

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 1 month ago

Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder not only documents the war in Afghanistan with traditional digital cameras, he also used an iPhone camera, carried in his flak jacket pocket, coupled with a Polaroid film filter application to photograph the daily lives of Marines, Afghan soldiers and fellow journalists during the military offensive in Marjah, Afghanistan.

I have long admired Guttenfelder’s work, and this scene of fighting holes near Marjah:

Afghan iphone

Is reminiscent of the scene from other locations in Helmand (about which I have previously written), just in slightly warmer weather.


Take a look at all of Guttenfelder’s work.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, Guttenfelder has given us quite an essay.

Battlespace Control and Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 2 months ago

In Reigning in SOF in Afghanistan I addressed the issue of General McChrystal having brought Special Operations Forces under his direct control in Afghanistan, or in other words, putting into place a structure that would ensure unity of command over all U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  The ostensible reason given for this was continuing noncombatant casualties and the need to reduce them by making SOF accountable to someone directly inside Afghanistan.

I demurred, rehearsing the idea once again that the attempt completely to end noncombatant casualties had contributed to the unnecessary deaths of U.S. servicemen.  Pristine, riskless war is a preening moralists dream and a warrior’s nightmare.  But I did support the idea of organizing all troops under a singular command structure.

I support the consolidation of forces because SOF shouldn’t be operating out of the chain of command.  If there is a direct action raid and a father or a son is killed in the middle of the night, the infantry (or those attached to the infantry, i.e., SOF) should have done it, under the direction of the immediate chain of command, and they should all be present the next morning to explain to the village why it happened.  If you don’t harbor insurgents, this won’t happen.  There is nothing like a little time with the villagers by those who did the killing … expending effort policing, teaching and admonishing.

But this isn’t the end of the story, and it appears that the reason given for the reorganization is mere cover.  First, consider what the always interesting and knowledgeable Tim Lynch tells us about Marine Corps operations in the Helmand Province regarding their use of Special Operations Forces.

While the Marines handled the close fight around Marjah they used the varsity Special Operations assets to go deep. Getting those organizations to work for you in a subordinate role is not just hard; it is one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Marine deployment to date. I’ve known General Nicholson and the senior members of his operations staff all my adult life and this last accomplishment impresses me more than anything else they have done since arriving in Afghanistan. That’s how hard it is to get the big boys to play nice.  One of the consistent complaints concerning the Joint Special Operations forces in Afghanistan is their penchant for running operations without informing or coordinating or even talking to the battle space commander responsible for the area they were working. Tim of Panjwai once got a call from the Canadian HQ in Kandahar back in the day when he was on active duty and in command of a company deployed deep inside the Panjwai district:

“Why are you currently fighting in the town of XXXX?” he was asked.

“Sir, I’m on my COP and were I not here and engaged in some sort of fight I assure you sir, that you would be the first to know.”

“Then who the hell is in XXXX wearing Canadian uniforms shooting the place up?”

It was the varsity SF guys running their own mission with their own assets for reasons known only to them.  Tim and his troops had to deal with the mess they created after they were long gone.  To this day they have no idea what went on or if the mission which cost them in lost credibility, lost cooperation, and the loss of hard earned good will was worth it.

The Marines made a deal last summer – which went something like this: “We want you guys operating in our AO and we will give you priority on our rotary wing, intelligence and fire support assets, but you have work with us integrating everything you do with our campaign plan.”  It was not an easy sell and at first there was reluctance from the varsity to cooperate.  But they gave it a shot, and they started chalking up success after success and nothing attracts more talent into the game like success.  While the Marine snipers and their recon brothers have been bleeding the Taliban around Marjah, the varsity has been going deep and going deep often.  All the big boys have joined the game now, the SAS, the SEAL’s, The Unit and other organizations who you have never heard of and never will hear about.   It is true that killing lots of fighters is not that relevant in the COIN battle.  Yet you still need to target and kill competent leaders along with any proficient logistic coordinators who pop up on the radar screen.  The varsity SOF guys have been doing that for months.

The Marines handled SOF differently than does Army, Navy or Air Force.  Unity of command is essential to the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) and MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) mission oriented approach.  Having SOF in their battle space without knowing, approving and integrating their efforts into a unity of approach isn’t the Marine way.  And given McChrystal’s appreciation for unity of command in Afghanistan, he surely approves.

Or does he?  First, there was this comment on the Small Wars Journal blog (regarding this Washington Post article about Army complaints concerning Marines’ autonomy in Helmand).

The rumor is that the Commandant, Gen Conway, spoke to Gen Petraeus and McChrystal and asked them, “What are you not getting that you want?” In other words, if you want some other result, tell the Marines what you want and they will change course. But let us handle it our way. The problem is that McChrystal does not respect, appreciate, or want the MAGTF. He wants to use the Marines in piecemeal fashion in suppport of Army forces.

I heard it second hand. Someone should ask this question of the Commandant.

I followed up reading this comment with a letter to General McChrystal’s Public Affairs Officer, asking the following question(s).

I would like to pose a question for General McChrystal.  If he would like to respond, I will post his response without any editorial comment, remarks or redaction.  Here is the question:

As you are no doubt aware, there is apparently a push to exert more control over the Marine Corps operations in the Helmand province.

Furthermore, there are indications – however reliable or not – that the MAGTF concept (philosophy and organization structure) is under-appreciated.

But mission-based, strict Marine Corps chain of command philosophy is the cornerstone of the MEU and MAGTF approach, and it has redounded to significant successes wherever it has been implemented, from the Anbar Province to Helmand (and many engagements prior to those).  Can you give us your perspective on the Marine Corps operations thus far in Helmand, and speak to the issues raised in the subject article?

Thank you.

This letter was written five days ago and to this date there has been no response (and the commitment to post the response in full with no redaction or editorializing still holds).  Still another source tells me that I have missed the real point behind the reorganization of SOF.  Briefly, there is a desire not to have second-guessing going on with CENTCOM when commanders in Afghanistan made a decision to use SOF for some particular purpose or mission.  The reorganization of SOF into the chain of command in Afghanistan moves them out of the chain of command at CENTCOM, and directly into the chain of command of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Furthermore, commanders in a particular battlespace do not have operational control over SOF or their missions.  They may not, in fact, have any knowledge of such actions until they are dealing with the consequences after the missions.  The degree of control and the unity of command that the Marines have exercised in Helmand is seen as a lesser version of the same problem as CENTCOM controlling SOF.

To be sure, there may be reasons that the chain of command in Afghanistan would want direct control over the SOF, given that they are the most timely and responsive units that any military in the world can deploy.  But just as surely, the Marine Corps doesn’t want control over SOF (excluding perhaps MARCENT), as much as it wants them matrixed to their chain of command during missions if and when they participate.

There are several very important issues with which we are faced.  First, while Tim Lynch may be lauding the Marine Corps philosophical approach to warfare – and while I may agree – there are some very powerful commanders who apparently do not have that same appreciation.  Second, there is apparently internecine warfare within the U.S. military, and just as apparently the Army doesn’t appreciate at all the degree of autonomy afforded the Marines in Helmand.  Third, the Marines have been highly successful in Helmand, just as in Anbar.  Success has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.

Fourth and finally, consider how badly the main stream media missed this.  Not a single MSM reporter performed further research into why this reorganization took place or what motivation brought it about.  This speaks poorly about our ability to trust their reports.  A corollary, of course, is that the Milblogs are providing increasingly salient and incisive analysis.


Reigning in SOF in Afghanistan

Abolish SOCOM

The Cult of Special Forces

Confused Narratives on Marjah

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 2 months ago

From Gareth Porter at the Asia Times.

For weeks, the United States public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan war against what it was told was a “city of 80,000 people” as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marjah was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centers in Helmand.

It turns out, however, that the picture of Marjah presented by military officials and reported by major news media is one of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as an historic turning point in the conflict.

Marjah is not a city or even a real town, but a few clusters of farmers’ homes amid a large agricultural area that covers much of the southern Helmand River Valley …

The ISAF official said the only population numbering tens of thousands associated with Marjah is spread across many villages and almost 200 square kilometers, or about 125 square miles (editorial note, approximately eleven miles squared) …

So how did the fiction that Marjah is a city of 80,000 people get started?

The idea was passed onto news media by the US Marines in southern Helmand. The earliest references in news stories to Marjah as a city with a large population have a common origin in a briefing given on February 2 by officials at Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base there.

The Associated Press published an article the same day quoting “Marine commanders” as saying that they expected 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be “holed up” in the “southern Afghan town of 80,000 people”. That language evoked an image of house-to-house urban street fighting.

The same story said Marjah was “the biggest town under Taliban control” and called it the “linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network”. It gave the figure of 125,000 for the population living in “the town and surrounding villages”.

From Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason at Foreign Policy.

The war in Afghanistan, as we have written here and in Military Review (pdf), is indeed a near replication of the Vietnam War, including the assault on the strategically meaningless village of Marjah, which is itself a perfect re-enactment of Operation Meade River in 1968. But the callous cynicism of this war, which we described here in early December, and the mainstream media’s brainless reporting on it, have descended past these sane parallels. We have now gone down the rabbit hole.

Two months ago, the collection of mud-brick hovels known as Marjah might have been mistaken for a flyspeck on maps of Afghanistan. Today the media has nearly doubled its population from less than 50,000 to 80,000 — the entire population of Nad Ali district, of which Nad Ali is the largest town, is approximately 99,000 — and portrays the offensive there as the equivalent of the Normandy invasion, and the beginning of the end for the Taliban. In fact, however, the entire district of Nad Ali, which contains Marjah, represents about 2 percent of Regional Command (RC) South, the U.S. military’s operational area that encompasses Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz, and Daikundi provinces. RC South by itself is larger than all of South Vietnam, and the Taliban controls virtually all of it. This appears to have occurred to no one in the media.

Nor have any noted that taking this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a “government in a box” might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation.

In reality, this battle — the largest in Afghanistan since 2001 — is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress. In reporting it, the media has gulped down the whole bottle of “drink me” and shrunk to journalistic insignificance.

Analysis & Commentary


The U.S. Marine Corps over the last several years in Iraq and Afghanistan has customarily been engaged in heavy combat operations.  More than 1000 Marines perished in Iraq, most in the Anbar Province.  Regardless, whatever the Marines are engaged in, they will officially hype their exploits and stretch the narrative, always redounding to the benefit of the Marines.  It’s part of the history, mystique and political strategy of the Corps.  The U.S. Marines are the best strike fighters and shock troops in the world.  No matter, this narrative isn’t enough, and it is crafted and molded until the Corps takes on mythical proportions.  The fact that their reputation precedes them and intimidates the enemy only justifies the strategy.

That most so-called journalists don’t know enough to be able to effectively cover the Marines is amusing, but reaches the point of being  sad for analysts who spend time asking the wrong questions and reiterating what we all already know.  Marjah is an approximately eleven mile squared area of operations comprising tens of thousands of farmers rather than an urban setting.  So who didn’t already know that?  The closest thing to a major urban center in Helmand is Now Zad.  How is this “revelation” significant to worthwhile analysis of what the Marines are doing?

In Why are we in the Helmand Province? I addressed the notion that Marjah is a “worthless postage stamp” of land by pointing out that targeting Kandahar (as a population center) without a coupled effort to shut down the Taliban recruiting grounds and support network (as well as means of financing) would be analogous to giving the Taliban free sanctuary in Pakistan, just on a moderately smaller scale.

U.S. counterinsurgency strategists can claim until their last breath that counterinsurgency should be “population-centric,” but if we honestly believed that axiom we wouldn’t care about sanctuary in Pakistan.  Control over population centers and good governance would be enough to marginalize the insurgents and render them powerless in spite of their sanctuaries – or so the doctrine claims.

But we know that the enemy must be stalked and killed, so we are in the Helmand Province, and Marjah was the last battle space for heavy kinetics.  Policing of the population must now ensue in these areas.  Kandahar will be next, and the buildup will be slow and deliberate, after, of course, we have finished with major operations in Helmand.

But if it isn’t one thing it’s another, and in addition to enduring bad analysis we must also deal with incomplete analysis that stops short of asking the hardest of questions.  Consider this recent Washington Times editorial.

The recent battle in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province was a key test case for new rules of engagement that emphasized protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents. The town was taken, but whether that was because of the new rules or despite them remains to be seen.

The rules of engagement are probably the most restrictive ever seen for a war of this nature. NATO forces cannot fire on suspected Taliban fighters unless they are clearly visible, armed and posing a direct threat. Buildings suspected of containing insurgents cannot be targeted unless it is certain that civilians are not also present. Air strikes and night raids are limited, and prisoners have to be released or transferred within four days, making for a 96-hour catch-and-release program.

In Marjah, the enemy quickly adapted to the rules, which led to bizarre circumstances such as Taliban fighters throwing down their weapons when they were out of ammunition and taunting coalition troops with impunity or walking in plain view with women behind them carrying their weapons like caddies …

The fighting has wound down in Marjah, which may or may not validate the rules of engagement. Most of the local Taliban either melted away to the frontier or simply put down their weapons and are still there. The true test will come when NATO implements rules of disengagement. When coalition forces pull out, Marjah may well go back to being the Taliban stronghold it always has been, and those who cooperated with NATO and Afghan government authorities will be held to account.

True enough with respect to the rules of engagement (as we have pointed out before), this commentary ends with a non sequitur.  It was predestined – the Marines were going to take Marjah, and there was nothing that the Taliban could do about it.  The conclusion of the battle was firm and fixed regardless of the rules of engagement, and they have won Marjah in spite of the ROE and not because it it.  The outcome of the operation says nothing to validate the ROE.

On the other hand, we all know that the Marines announced their offensive prior to its start for the specific reason of avoiding noncombatant casualties.  That Taliban escaped was irrelevant.  But is it?  Will the Taliban simply slither away only to come back later and cause long term counterinsurgency problems in this area?

Will our focus on the population (to the detriment of killing insurgents) come back to haunt the campaign?  Will we be dealing with these same insurgents later, walking with their women holding their weapons, knowing that the U.S. troops will not fire on them?  What do the people of Marjah think about the rules of engagement?  How long will this operation last, and will the horrible Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police be able to fill in behind the Marines?

The analysts at Foreign Policy called Marjah a “Potemkin village.”  John Robb did this as well with Fallujah in a post entitled Potemkin Pacification (as best as I can tell, he took it down about as soon as it went up).  There were a number of reductionist articles that sounded about the same when Operation Alljah began in Fallujah early in 2007.  Most of these articles focused on the “horrible” conditions of Fallujah when the Marines locked it down.

In April – June of 2007 heavy kinetics ensued between the Marines and insurgents in Fallujah.  The follow-on work involved heavy policing, gated communities, biometrics and neighborhood programs to watch and defend their turf.  It was found that most IEDs were vehicle-borne, so the decision was made to prohibit vehicle traffic.  When the population in a major urban center must walk everywhere, it provides a significant incentive to find and turn in insurgents and their weapons.

One narrative for counterinsurgency is that it must focus on turning the human and physical terrain into Shangri La, and if it doesn’t, it’s fake.  Of course, it is the narrative that is fake.  There will be heavy lifting in Marjah still to come, for it isn’t Shangri La.  Fake narratives by so-called analysts will continue.  But for the motivated journalist there are salient questions that must be answered.

As usual, Tyler Hicks is providing the best pictorial documentaries of Marine Corps operations in Helmand, and C. J. Chivers’ coverage is indispensable.  But the Marjah narrative is yet to be written, much less the narrative for the Helmand Province (Now Zad claimed many Marine lives).  Other than C. J. Chivers, we have yet to even approach anything that could be considered good analysis of the Marine Corps campaign in the Helmand Province, and Marjah remains fertile ground for reporting and analysis.

Prior Featured: Second Guessing the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh


Richard Lowry of Marines in the Garden of Eden fame writes to remind me that not all analysts missed the significant aspects of Marjah.  His article Marjah – Another Fallujah? is worthy reading.  Also check out his New Dawn.

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