Marines Fight Taliban With Little Aid From Afghans

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

The New York Times has a must-read on the state of the fight in parts of the Helmand Province.  It’s a sad tale of corruption, ineptitude, laziness and lack of governmental viability.  There are a few money quotes that will be called out below.

Governor Massoud has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”

[ … ]

Meanwhile, Afghans in Khan Neshin, the Marines’ southernmost outpost in Helmand Province, are coming to the Americans with requests for medical care, repairs of clogged irrigation canals and the reopening of schools.

“Without the Afghan government, we will not be successful,” said Capt. Korvin Kraics, the battalion’s lawyer, who is in Khan Neshin. “You need local-level bureaucracy to defeat the insurgency. Without the stability that brings, the Taliban can continue to maintain control.”

[ … ]

The Marines, unlike units in some other regions, answer to a NATO-led command and are under orders to defer to Afghan military and civilian officials, even if there are none nearby.

For instance, Marines must release detainees after 96 hours or turn them over to Afghan forces for prosecution, even if the nearest prosecutors or judges are 80 miles away. Some detainees who the Marines say are plainly implicated in attacks using improvised explosive devices or mortars have been released.

[ … ]

The Afghan National Army contingent appears sharper — even if only one-sixth the size that Governor Massoud said he was promised — but the soldiers have resisted some missions because they say they were sent not to fight, but to recuperate.

“We came here to rest, then we are going somewhere else,” said Lt. Javed Jabar Khail, commander of the 31-man unit. The Marines say they hope the next batch of Afghan soldiers will not be expecting a holiday.

First, concerning the issue of the attitude of the Afghan National Army (ANA), this is a depressing account of lazy and cowardly troops who are relying on the Marines to do the heavy lifting in the Province.  Furthermore, they are liars.  No ANA soldier really believes that he has been sent to the worst Province in Afghanistan to take a vacation.  This is one more in our stable of accounts of the poor training, inept personnel, untrustworthiness, lazy attitude and lack of professionalism that plagues the ANA.  As for ANP stealing, this corruption is one more in a large number of accounts that confirm that they cannot be trusted in any circumstance or with any authority whatsoever.

Second, the attitude the Marines are taking to the fight is dissimilar to the fight in Anbar, and relies too heavily on Afghan help.  The government is not strong enough, the ANA not professional enough, and the courts too corrupt and distant to make a difference in Afghanistan right now.  As for the complaint from the Battalion lawyer (why is a Battalion lawyer telling us what it takes to win a counterinsurgency?), he apparently never spent time in the Anbar Province.  It relied heavily on Marines doing exactly what is being done now in Helmand.  To be sure, the governmental institutions need to be brought along, but relying on them before it is time leads to things like releasing IED makers and emplacers who then go back to blowing the legs off of Marines.  It’s worse than stupid.  It’s immoral when it can be done differently.

Third, the problem we just described sounds like we are already operating under an effective status of forces agreement with Afghanistan, whether formal or not.  This is a mistake that will lead irrevocably to loss of the campaign.  Our deference to the Afghan government won’t convince any Afghan to show or have the same respect.  Respect is earned, not granted.

Finally, if the Marines are indeed actually operating as ISAF forces rather than under the purview of CENTCOM (can someone confirm or dispute this?), then this is an error of staggering proportions, and Commandant Conway has lost his bearings if he agreed to such an arrangement for the U.S. Marines.  This error should be immediately undone and the Marines untethered to operate independently from ISAF / NATO.

Prior on ANA: Afghan National Army Category

Prior on ANP: Afghan National Police

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  1. On August 25, 2009 at 6:07 am, infantryjj said:

    “unlike units in some other regions, answer to a NATO-led command and are under orders to defer to Afghan military and civilian officials, even if there are none nearby.”

    The NATO-led command is the exact reason why Afghanistan has been in decline since 2006.

  2. On August 25, 2009 at 8:31 am, BruceR said:

    You’ve got to adjust left or right for translation errors on these things. What the ANA Lt likely meant was that their kandak was the one in the Helmand brigade that was on its down cycle (or red cycle), meant to give them a couple months off the line, and for many a couple months for leave, etc., before the Marines showed up and either red cycle was suspended or drastically shortened so that there could be some ANA in the fight. Try assuming these guys are actual soldiers first (the Helmand guys have fought longer and harder than anybody in the ANA), and read it as a badly translated soldiers’ gripe, before jumping to the conclusion that they’re all “liars.” You’d be in a surly mood too if your only leave for a year in either direction was cancelled because you were needed on the line.

    Plus, “lazy and cowardly?” Dude, it’s a platoon. In a district of 75,000 mostly hostile Pashtuns. What exactly would you expect them to do without the Marines’ help? And hey, it is Ramadan: poor guys haven’t had a sip of water in daylight hours since Friday.

    So cut the Lt some slack. Odds are he’s only there in a command position because his Capt company commander had to go “spend time with his family.”

  3. On August 25, 2009 at 8:37 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Oh bull crap. I don’t care whether they want a couple of months “off line” or they call it laziness. If the Marines are losing legs and the ANA is complaining, then they’re worthless to the fight. It’s their country – and what I expect them to do WITH the Marine help (they Marines are there right now) is fight alongside them. I don’t want the police to steal things, and I will assume that the ANA are soldiers when they begin actually to act like it.

  4. On August 25, 2009 at 9:57 am, BruceR said:

    Hey, chief, I really think you’re missing the point. I am pretty sure that the particular ANA battalion you’re beating up on had been in the front lines and under continuous low-intensity combat for 36 months in Helmand before the Marines showed up. That’s far longer than any tour an American soldier has ever been given in a war in over a century. No transfers. No prospect of relief, either. Just every day walking down hot dusty roads and hoping the IED with your name on it isn’t under foot. They’ve lost lots of legs, trust me. It should be seen as amazing they’re still getting out of the sack in the morning.

    I respectfully suggest that if the Marines in question had been on the line for 3 years with no end in sight they wouldn’t be the best soldiers in the world, either. There’s lots wrong with the ANA, I know that all too well, but you’re really being too harsh in this particular case.

  5. On August 25, 2009 at 10:16 am, Herschel Smith said:

    The USMC 24th MEU was in Garmsir in 2008, and it was the first time any contingent of forces – U.S. or ANA – had every been there. As for the balance of Helmand, it’s like Garmsir. No forces have been there. Now Zad is the same way. Brits were there earlier, Brits are now gone, U.S. Marines took over. No ANA in Now Zad proper, only a few recently added to Now Zad district.

    No ANA unit has seen continuous combat for 36 months. Period. You’re making excuses for unprofessional behavior.

    Does every Brit think like you do?

  6. On August 25, 2009 at 10:39 am, BruceR said:

    First off, I’m not British. Second, 3/305 ANA Brigade has been in Helmand, HQ at Camp Shorabak, since mid-2006. I met their Bde Comd a couple times. The platoon in question will have been serving continuously, mostly elsewhere in Helmand Province, since that point. You’re right that they likely only returned to Garmsir recently.

    All the ANA units in the brigades in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces have not seen a relief in at least three years, and none was planned when I left them in April. I’m not making this up.

    More here:

  7. On August 25, 2009 at 11:38 am, Herschel Smith said:

    The ANA is not in Garmsir. The USMC is in Garmsir.

    The ANA is not in Now Zad. The USMC is in Now Zad.

    No one goes to the Helmand Province to vacation. That would be like the ISF going to the middle of Fallujah on a “fun” trip. You can cut this up a 1000 ways, but if they are deployed in Helmand and are doing nothing, then they are worthless to the effort. They can be AT some location, but doing something out of this location is a different thing entirely.

    Comparing Marines, yes, they do 7 month deployments (except for MEUs which are longer, and the 24th MEU was also deployed for longer in Garmsir), but even when not deployed they are expected to act professionally. R&R time is R&R time. In the field time is in the field time, deployed or not.

    Many marines did three or four combat tours in Anbar. I know one Force Recon who did four within a four year enlistment. The low intensity conflict to which you refer still doesn’t match what we saw in Iraq – not even nearly. The Marines lost over 1000 men in Iraq, and still did their three and four combat tours.

    Oh, and I don’t know a single Marine (or U.S. Soldier) who would sit and complain about the need for a vacation while brothers in arms were losing legs, no matter how long or how many times they had been deployed.

  8. On November 11, 2009 at 11:44 am, anan said:

    Herschel, you miss the point. BG Ghori’s 3-205 ANA in Helmand has maintained a very high tempo of operations for many years. They have taken heavy casualties. It is amazing that they are still operational. Remember that they only have 4 battalions for all of Helmand, one of which formed weeks ago.

    If you want the ANA to perform like Marines, give them leave, equipment, training and pay like Marines. ANA soldiers can make far more working for the Taliban than they can serving in the ANA. They serve in the ANA nonetheless because they love their country.

  9. On November 11, 2009 at 11:49 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Oh, I know your point. I just disagreed with it.

    The ANA has’nt been in operation for “many years.” And you are profoundly confused if you think that enlisted Marines are well-paid.

  10. On November 11, 2009 at 1:17 pm, anan said:

    The ANA has’nt been in operation for “many years.” Umm, yes they have. Especially in Helmand. Let’s not forget that there were very few Ameicans in Helmand until recently; because we were a little busy in Iraq.

    Enlisted Marines are well paid, trained, equipped and supported compared to ANA. Where should I start.
    -Recently, ANA 2nd Lieutenant academy has been shortened to only 20 weeks because the international community and CSTC-A/NTM-A refuse to pay to train and equip the ANSF.
    -Many recent private equivalents in the ANA have been getting a lot less than the 12 week bootcamp that is nominally required, because ISAF has not sufficiently resourced the Afghan National Army Training Command.
    -The entire ANA only graduated their first group of 84 2nd Lieutenants from 4 year academy in January, 2009. The 4 year class that began in January, 2009, only had about 300 cadets. Why? Because Rumsfeld and Cheney didn’t want US taxpayers to foot the bill for the ANSF; as a result the Turks and other NATO countries set up the 4 year academy with limited US help, and very little through put.
    -The ANA only accepts a small fraction of applicants who want to join the ANA. We know the reason why.
    -The entire GIRoA’s annual revenues = $600 million, versus long term steady state expenditure of $6,000 million per year. The GIRoA has no resources to pay for anything. Everything that happens in Afghanistan is funded by the international community.

    Once we train and resource the ANSF, by all means hold them to a high standard. This is not to say that the ANSF doesn’t have major challenges. The ANSF would dramatically improve overnight if most of the mid grade officers were rewarded (bribed) with early retirement and replaced by much more capable and motivated Lieutenants. These newly promoted Lieutenants (who would now become platoon, company and battalion commanders) would likely better utilize their many capable NCOs.

  11. On November 11, 2009 at 1:42 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    In part we are talking semantics, and in part you’re just being argumentative.

    As for the ANA, no, again, there haven’t been units that are capable of operating independently of ISAF / US forces (and still aren’t many), which is why the ANA units in Helmand see themselves as “on vacation,” and why some units refuse to go on night time patrols with the Marines. You can call this ANA “operations” if you wish. I don’t.

    If your point is that the ANA suffers from poor morale, poor unit cohesion, incompetence, etc., I agree with you and have pointed this out many time before in my ANA and ANP categories.

    Next, your own argument turned on itself. You said we ought to pay them like we do Marines. But we do, anan. We do! No one … NO ONE … goes into the U.S. Marine infantry for the pay, and every Marine can make more money in the States doing something else, just like the ANA can make more money working for the Taliban. Yet the Marines still fight and behave like Marines, and the ANA does not. ‘Nuff said.

    Finally – back to the main point of the article please – this ANA unit is worthless. It is worthless because of its disposition to threaten U.S. troops. This isn’t a defense of the U.S. unit, because they allowed the atmospherics to exist that led to this.

  12. On November 11, 2009 at 3:32 pm, anan said:

    “ANA units in Helmand see themselves as “on vacation,”” because they are officially on vacation. 205th ANA needs a lot more time to rest, refit and retrain. Continuous operations for years on end have degraded the force and made them brittle.

    Many ANA soldiers are operating far away from their families and need to travel home through dangerous areas to pay their families. Most of their vacation is eaten up by this. However, they haven’t had been rotated offline for retraining, refitting, or real vacations (such as the time this unit was spending in Helmand) nearly enough.

    “This isn’t a defense of the U.S. unit, because they allowed the atmospherics to exist that led to this.” Thanks for admitting this. Try to see it from the perspective of this ANA unit. For all we know, they have been in the fight taking heavy casualties, and killing Taliban for many years. Now these fresh soldiers show up, don’t understand the local terrain and local people as well as the ANA does, may not have taken the casualties inside Afghanistan that this particular ANA unit has taken (the ANA might not know or care about the casualties they took in Iraq), and they insult the Koran with a dog. The ANA soldiers blew up. They are after all human beings.

    The relationship with this ANA unit needs to be repaired. If they threaten their ISAF allies for any reason other than an insult to Islam, then you are right that “this ANA unit is worthless.”

    For the ANA to behave like Marines, they need to observe the Marines at close range for a long period of time. They need properly trained officers and NCOs (Marines assigned to the Afghan National Army Training Command would help.)

    In my view, since the Marines fight so much differently (and in my view better) than the US army and other ISAF countries, the Marines need to be assigned their own ANSF to mentor their own way. This means Marines at the Afghan National Army Training Command would manage the boot camp, NCO/officer academies for their ANSF units, as well as provide most of the mentors (and all the senior mentors) for their ANSF units. {Similar to 1st, 7th IADs and Al Anbar IP in Iraq.}

    Many ANSF units are currently unmentored, and have been from the start. This is partly our (America’s) fault. This is also partly the fault of other ISAF nations.

    I also disagree with your position that the Marines shouldn’t be under ISAF. In my opinion all US troops in Afghanistan should be under ISAF (except for maybe some special forces and intelligence officers.) There needs to be clear unified command and control. The commanders of ISAF (McChrystal and Rodriguez) are as good as they come.

  13. On November 11, 2009 at 4:52 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    As a new commenter, let me offer a few suggestions. When you have said your piece, so to speak, there is no need to say it three or four more times. We all know now where you stand. Let it go. We know where we disagree and where we don’t. Your contributions to the discussion thread are noted.

    A few rejoinders to your comment to close this out:

    (1) If you are saying that having a dog sniff anything is an insult to Islam and therefore this ANA unit actually has a right to threaten the U.S. unit, then of course I disagree, and in the superlative. Again … and for the final time … were an ISF unit or IP unit to have done this in Anbar they would have found themselves shot, beaten up or in prison.

    (2) This leads to my next point, and that is that I still support the notion of independent sovereignty for U.S. troops. If we do not believe we are acting in a sovereign manner to protect and defend the U.S., then it’s time to leave. I am strongly opposed to a SOFA, and fear that we are heading that way now. Likewise, I am opposed to restrictive ROE (where tactical decisions are dictated from offices in Kabul).

    (3) You need to see the USMC as a product of the culture, society, religion, familial framework and institutions of the USA. This isn’t something that one can create with enough training. I know hundreds of Marines and a lot about how they are made. Trust me on this. I would also point out that the creation of an NCO corps won’t be easy (and may not even be possible):


    (4) Finally, the lack of willingness to search a home is not only unproductive, it’s a break from what will be necessary to win the campaign. You and I can bluster all we want about vacations, good or bad ANA units, or whatever. Actions speak louder than words, and until they produce results they aren’t contributing to the campaign. Plans are nice. Results are necessary.

    In summary, you need to see this as a societal, cultural, familial and institutional problem, not merely a problem of enough training to do kinetics. Boot and SOI make for training in kinetics in the Marines. They don’t make the kinds of young men who go into the Marines to begin with (that’s done by their families and churches over 18 years), and they don’t make for what the fleet does to them to make them reliable in battle.

  14. On November 11, 2009 at 9:38 pm, anan said:

    “were an ISF unit or IP unit to have done this in Anbar they would have found themselves shot, beaten up or in prison.” The Iraqis would have taken this up their chain of command. If PM Maliki found out, the IA or IP wouldn’t have been “shot, beaten up or in prison.” Again we are talking about a dog sniffing a Koran. Dogs can sniff anything else, but not a Koran.

    It also depends on when you are talking about. After 1st and 7th IADs transfered to IGFC, they were under PM Maliki’s control, period. If memory holds, 1st IAD transfered at the around 2.15.07. 7th IAD transfered around 11.1.07. Even before the transfer of these division HQs to the IGFC from MNF-W, once these units were under the control of their respective brigade and division commander, MNF-W would have taken this up to the brigade or division commander, and had them punish their own troops.

    Point 3 is well put, and I have heard similar things from many Marines. Here is a rejoinder for you, the South Korean Marines that were trained by the US Marines became as good as the US Marines.

    While 7th and 1st IADs didn’t become as good as the Marines, they became arguably the two best divisions in the Arab world. That is more than good enough. The Abu Risha Iraqi Federal Police Brigade was another amazing Marine success, and they have proved in Mosul, Basrah and other parts of Iraq.

    The ISOF (granted they were trained by US special forces) were declared by General Jones in the summer of 2007 to be as good or better than any special forces in the middle east (inclusive of the Turks, Jordanians and Israelis.) Gen Petraeus publicly confirmed that he shared this assessment before Congress on 9.11.07.

    On (2), we have fought and won other wars without full independent sovereignty for U.S. troops. We fought this way in Iraq, long before SOFA. We are in Afghanistan in support of a legitimate internationally and UN recognized GIRoA at their own invitation. We are their guests. In most of Afghanistan, we are in support of the ANSF. In some parts of Afghanistan such as Helmand and Kandahar (maybe Kunar), the way we operate needs to be re-explored.

    The ANA doesn’t have full independent sovereignty in any part of Afghanistan. It can’t detain Afghans for longer than a certain period without transferring them to the ANP. It is limited in its ability to enter Afghan private residences. As a result the ANA often kills suspected Taliban instead of detaining them. To put it mildly, this is a time bomb waiting to explode. The Afghan Parliament needs to pass emergency martial rule for some districts in Helmand, Kandahar, and Kunar. This means that the ANA needs the ability to enter private property in these areas without permits, and to hold people for say 60 days without trial. This needs to be negotiated with the Afghan parliament and President Karzai.

    It is better for us if the ANA jointly conducts searches and detentions. This way if some politically connected Afghan gets inadvertently arrested or has his/her property damaged and the news dominates the Afghan press, there is an ANA general to take the flak along with us.

    This is off topic, but we need to think through what our national interests are in Afghanistan. I would define it as facilitating the ANSF giving the Taliban and Takfiri extremists one hell of a fight over many years, regardless of whether or not the ANSF are able to win. Based on this understanding of national interests, our largest priority has to be advising, training, equipping and funding the ANSF.

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You are currently reading "Marines Fight Taliban With Little Aid From Afghans", entry #3654 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghan National Army,Afghan National Police,Afghanistan,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand and was published August 24th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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