The Marines, Afghanistan and Strategic Malaise

BY Herschel Smith
16 years ago

” … every Marine a hunter” 

Preliminary Reading: Resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda

Contact.  Contact with the enemy.  Counterinsurgency includes security for the population, construction of infrastructure, amelioration of community problems, and good governance.  It cannot ultimately be won without these (and other) elements.  But it also cannot be won without contact with and defeat of the enemy.  The Marines have participated in untold meals with families, construction of sewage and water systems, and other things that brought them into contact with the population in Anbar.  But contact with the enemy has been a staple of Marine operations in Anbar, and one result is that there are few if any insurgents left to carry on the fight.  It has been many months since a Marine casualty resulting from combat operations.  One can argue with the warrior ethos, but the results speak for themselves and need no apology.

When the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 6th Regiment, conducting Operation Alljah in Fallujah, turned over to their replacement unit, most Marines headed for Camp Baharia but a few stayed behind to complete the turnover to their replacements.  During mounted patrols, one SAW gunner / machine gunner drilled one particular message home every day and on every mission: “If you make contact with the enemy and withdraw or retreat, you have lost.  You might wait until later and use night vision, or use satellite patrols now, or use flanking maneuvers, or some other tactic.  But if you don’t engage, you have lost.  Period.  Don’t ever pull back from contact.  It only makes them stronger.”

Pajamas Media gives us an account of the current situation in Afghanistan, and the observations are important and instructive.

Here’s a verbal snapshot of Kabul today. It was written by an American businessman who wrote to a friend of mine who forwarded his words to me. He has a dry and ironic wit and a keen eye. His information is accurate and utterly heartbreaking.

“First of all, the roads aren’t paved.  Also, there are no street lights.  Not a lot of trees.  That’s because almost all of the trees in the country have been cut down for firewood.  They’re digging up the roots now. That’s in Kabul.

Second, there must be something strange about the gene pool there because there aren’t any women. I was there six days and there are 100 men in the streets for every woman.  And most of them are completely covered.  I didn’t see one Afghani couple on a date.  In fact, I didn’t see anybody on a date.  The restaurants have guards with Ak47’s and double sets of walls to avoid the car bombers.  In case you don’t speak Pushto or English, there are big signs with pictures of AK47s x’d out in red just so everybody understand the dress code if you want to eat.

Third, nobody can read. And there is not a lot of room for improvement there because I saw an awful lot of kids in the street begging or working.  It was reassuring that none of them were younger then 5. Well, I’m not sure, some of them might have been 4.”

Fourth, no one in the American Embassy is allowed to leave.  To eat,  to go shopping, even to fool around—assuming that there was anyone to fool around with or someplace to go.  They can go to a private house if there is enough security.

Fifth, the Army allows it’s personnel to leave to go out, but they have to be in an armored vehicle.  The part about that is that the tactics seem to be completely different from the Petreaus handbook which is a  work of genius.  Even the soldiers say they are going out of their minds.  Its really hard to stay fit and alert in a compound.

The use of trees (and now roots) for firewood to stay warm has been going on for quite a while, and shows that the U.S. has done little if anything to ameliorate the sad power and fuel conditions.  Crop rotation, good agricultural practices and proper land management cannot hope to take hold unless basic necessities are addressed.  The important observations here are too numerous to fully discuss.

The one salient observation for our purposes is the notion of force protection versus contact with the population … and the enemy.  This theme seems to be prominent in the Afghanistan theater.  The Australians – who have been a staunch ally in both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns – have recently remarked that contact may make their jobs more dangerous.


An Australian patrol from the Reconstruction Task Force takes a break in the Chora valley in Afghanistan (

AUSTRALIAN instructors working with Afghan army units will be in greater danger as they go into action further from their home bases, says Defence Force chief Angus Houston.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced on Tuesday that Australia was establishing a 70-strong training team in Afghanistan.

Air Chief Marshal Houston told a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra yesterday that Australian soldiers building a forward operating base for the Afghan Army in the Chora Valley were fired on yesterday by insurgents using rockets. No one was hurt.

Air Chief Marshal Houston said the biggest danger in Afghanistan now was not a wave of Taliban fighters coming over a hill but “very lethal” home-made bombs, which were becoming common. The improvised explosive devices now caused 70% of coalition casualties in Afghanistan, Air Chief Marshal Houston said.

He supported Mr Fitzgibbon’s concerns that Australia was not being given enough information about the conflict by NATO, which largely controls the war against the Taliban.

He said he was satisfied with the information relevant to operations in Oruzgan Province, where most Australians are based.

“The problem has been the higher-level NATO work, because fundamentally NATO is set up to deal with NATO members, NATO countries — not participating members such as ourselves.”

He said he hoped that now Australia would gain full access to strategic plans for southern Afghanistan and it was likely that the international security forces would be better co-ordinated during the campaign season following the Afghan winter’s end.

The Marines in Anbar know all about the IEDs, as well as fighters hiding in rooms and on the rooftops.  The only way to defeat them is through contact – contact that Fitzgibbon knows brings additional risk.  IEDs can only be defeated by killing or capturing the IED-makers.  But without sustaining this risk, the result is loss of the campaign.  As for the NATO strategy, force protection is not a strategy, and hope is not a plan.  Thus there is no strategy.

As for the 3200 Marines who will soon deploy to the Afghan theater, their doctrine can be summed up as “close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.”  This is not mere sloganeering.  The ethos of the Marines runs directly counter to the current malaise that grips the NATO project in Afghanistan.  Without entering into whether the MARSOC unit that deployed to Afghanistan was disciplined enough or the particulars of the engagement in which civilians perished (there is reason to believe that the charges may be dismissed), the reports by Army leadership are more telling on the Marines’ departure than any element of the particular engagement.

A big issue was that the Marines seemed to be dissatisfied with the reconnaissance missions that the Army commanders envisioned for them, even though the Marines, with their heavy Force Recon background, were supposed to be reconnaissance experts.

“They resisted it and kept wanting to go do the direct [action] missions,” he said. They strayed from their area, looking for bad guys.

“They never went in their assigned battle space,” the field-grade Army officer said. “They were always looking for missions outside of their battle space.”

What the Army command didn’t understand is that the battle space for Marines is hunting the enemy.

Before they leave Camp Pendleton, Marines are getting an advanced course in tracking — taught by a big-game hunter from South Africa.

The Combat Hunter course at the School of Infantry is meant to teach Marines how to notice the slightest change in the landscape that shows a person has passed by, no easy trick in a desert where winds erase footprints in an instant.

The Marines are taught to be hyper-aware of their environment: What’s there that should not be there? What isn’t there that should?

The project is the brainchild of the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway. “If we create the mentality in our Marines of the hunter, and take on some of those skills, then we’ll be able to increase our combat effectiveness,” he has said.

While Iraq is the immediate focus, the course is also applicable to Afghanistan, where several thousand Marines will soon be deployed. But while the ways of the hunter may be old, the instructional methods have been updated. Each Marine, along with lectures and field work, gets a 15-minute CD: “Every Marine a Hunter.”

The current institutional and strategic malaise in the NATO project in Afghanistan is about to be stirred up with the presence of 3200 warrior-hunters who want to make contact with the enemy.  The real re-examination of the campaign won’t come as a result of the addition of 3200 troops.  It will come with the addition of a completely different ethos than has previously been in theater.  Re-examination should be a healthy process, even if a difficult one.

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  1. On February 21, 2008 at 5:55 am, Marsoc Dad said:

    My son just spent 6 months in Helmand with his MARSOC team so your article hit home.
    Possibly the 3200 Marines heading for Afghanistan will be tasked to shake the status quo and embarass some of our NATO allies.
    Having found you Blog I am looking forward to popping in on a regular basis.

  2. On February 21, 2008 at 3:11 pm, fummduck said:

    My son is a scout/sniper headed to Afghanistan and spent 5 weeks in the Arizona desert at a man tracking school. He has said the whole regiment much prefer a mission to Afghanistan to returning to Al Anbar. Marines are indeed hunters and not occupiers.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,Marine Corps and was published February 21st, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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