On the front lines with the Marines in Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

The Independent has an informative article on U.S. Marine Corps operations in Helmand.  Much of it is reproduced below.

Battling through the dense, towering corn fields, the heavily armed US marines trudged through Taliban territory, every arduous step sinking into deep cloying mud. In the background, the thunder of artillery rounds boomed.

Suddenly, a burst of Pashtu emanated from the radio set monitoring Taliban chatter. “They say they have got eyes on. They are waiting on us,” translated one of the marines. “Can we ask them where they are?” another replied sardonically.

The think tank International Council on Security and Development (Icos) announced last week that there had, yet again, been an increase in Taliban activity across Afghanistan. Its research revealed the insurgents had a permanent hold in 80 per cent of the country, up from 72 per cent last year and 54 per cent in 2007.

In this remote part of the green zone bordering the Helmand river, their defiant presence is blatant. As the marine patrol approached the tiny hamlet of Herati, they were greeted by a volley of bullets before an agonising pause. The troops sat as the day turned into a furnace, beads of sweat sliding down their faces, listening to the Taliban prepare their assault. Huey and Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead.

Suddenly rounds from rifles and Russian machine guns began raining down from a collection of compounds just a few hundred yards away over a small canal. The marines dropped on to their bellies and returned fire. Enemy bullets cracked over their heads and danced in the dust, but none hit their targets and the other side eventually fell back. The scream of a Harrier fast jet, low over the compounds, provided a parting warning.

It was one of three fire fights the 2nd Platoon endured during a seven-hour patrol on Friday 11 September, a symbolic anniversary of the terrorist attack that led these young servicemen to Afghanistan.

But worse was to come. As they made their way back through the corn fields, Corporal Andrew Bryant halted abruptly, his foot caught. He looked down to find it was tangled in two copper command wires, which an explosives team discovered were linked to a daisy chain of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) along the patrol’s route. If it had detonated, Cpl Bryant would not have been the only victim.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is going to be it, right here.’ I am not scared of a fire fight. They can shoot at me all day. But the IEDs you have no idea when it is going to come at you. You never have any idea when your time is up,” said the 21-year-old New Yorker. “We have already had problems with them. My friend lost his legs, and two others were killed [when a vehicle hit a roadside bomb]. “That’s the best way they can get at us. They know they can’t beat us with conventional arms” …

While recent reports show that the insurgency has grown in the north and Kabul, it is in its traditional strongholds in the south and east that it remains at its deadliest. On 2 July, 4,000 US marines were dropped at key points in Garmsir district, Helmand, a staging post for the Taliban moving north from the Pakistani border.

Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines were ordered to take the southernmost point. After four days of intense fighting, they established combat operating Post (COP) Sharp – named after Lance Corporal Charles “Seth” Sharp, 20, who was killed on the first day – in Mian Poshtay. For the past two months, in daily battles, they have attempted to purge the area of a defiant Taliban while trying to convince the locals that they are here to help and, more importantly, to stay …

Slowly, some of the local farmers have started to listen, but fear of retribution is everywhere. After the battle on Friday, a man appeared from nowhere to give the marines information on the Taliban positions before disappearing into the fields once more.

In nearby Lakari market, Taliban stroll with impunity through stalls that sell opium and ammunition as well as fruit and vegetables. From the dialect that can be heard over the radio chatter during a fight, it is obvious that many are from Pakistan, where they have training camps near the border. This is the main supply route into Helmand, through which smugglers bring drugs, weapons and fighters to battle the British and American troops to the north. Once over the border into Baramcha, they move up to Safaar, where they receive weapons and orders, before heading into Lakari.

The locals in Mian Poshtay, either through fear or a strong sense of traditional Pashtunwali that demands they welcome them into their homes, continue to feed and harbour them. Others are interwoven in the community. As Captain Eric Meador, commanding officer of Echo Company, explained, the village tractor mechanic may also be a local fighter.

The Americans have put on a show of force, sending out patrols, meeting ambushes with overwhelming power. When four armed men were spotted by surveillance a few days ago laying an IED, mortars obliterated the team. The Americans informed the locals that those waging this un-Islamic war would meet the same fate. But they know they face a chicken-and-egg situation: to provide security to local people, they must cut off the Taliban supply line. But to convince farmers to co-operate, they must provide security. The locals, the Americans insist, are tiring of the insurgents. In the past couple of weeks, people have tentatively come forward with information and requests for medical help.

A boy of eight turned up at the gate yesterday with his three smaller brothers and his sick baby sister. As the doctor tended the youngest, Captain Meador gave the children liquorice and toys. “They are expecting you to be these big mean people the Taliban tell them the Americans are and I sat down and blew soap bubbles with them. Their faces just lit up,” said the officer.

“We are keeping the enemy away from population areas that are a little bit better – neutral to positive. I think the people around here want change but there has not been enough time.”

Last Monday, 20 elders turned up at shura, a meeting organised by the US marines. Among them were suspected Taliban sympathisers. Others genuinely appeared to want to co-operate. Many more would have liked to attend, they said, but were too afraid. One of them, Mirza, explained: “The Taliban said we will cut off your head, your fingers, if you go to the shura. But we had to come. The most important thing is peace, prosperity and security and no civilians are killed.”

Two days later, when the governor of Garmsir made a rare trip to the region, only a handful of old men came. The reason became obvious 24 hours later when one of the original attendees turned up at COP Sharp to display the wounds on his legs; he had been whipped. The elders who had attended the first shura, he said, had been taken to Lakari and beaten.

First off, I find it annoying that professional journalists cannot seem to follow proper grammatical rules and capitalize the word Marine.  The word marine refers to inhabiting, related to or formed by the sea.  Marines are the subject of the article.  The difference is in a letter, and journalists should get it right.

But getting on to the major points of the article, it’s obvious that although the Taliban are, generally speaking, tactically sound fighters compared to insurgents in Iraq, they are lousy shots (unlike many in Iraq).  This report follows the same theme as just about every other report from Afghanistan, whether ANA or Taliban.  Their roadside bombs and IEDs are lethal, their shooting not so much.

The campaign is winnable, but note that as we have observed before, there aren’t enough Marines or logistics to engage in the chase.  With only 4000 U.S. Marines in Helmand, the Taliban easily have enough terror on their side to prevent the locals from siding too easily with the Marines.  Beatings and whippings are commonplace with the Taliban, and the best way to ensure that the Taliban don’t have the time or wherewithal to brutalize the population is to chase them, kill their fighters, interdict their lines of logistics, and police the terrain.  In short, aggressive military and policing action is the only solution, and that requires more Marines.

I recently had an extended conversation (one of many such) with a certain Marine about his experiences in Fallujah in 2007, and while I was reminded at how heavy the kinetics was early on, I was also reminded of how much interaction the Marines had with the population.  In addition to heavy combat operations, their time in Fallujah may be said to have been policing on steroids.  The same will have to hold true for Helmand or we will not win it.

Finally, recall that we recently discussed Discerning the Way Forward in Afghanistan where I addressed – wearily, for the hundredth time – the small footprint model for Afghanistan, what a miserable failure it has been, and how it cannot hope to succeed.  Is this report from The Independent anything other than confirmation in the superlative that the hunter killer teams concept will not work?  Intelligence suffers because the Marines are not plentiful enough to protect the population from the Taliban, and they are 4000 strong in Helmand.  What happens if we bring the Marines home and send a few teams of Rangers to the Helmand Province?  Answer: the Rangers die within days.

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  1. On September 16, 2009 at 8:30 pm, blkfoot_04 said:

    I filed this at strategypage.com “a message from afghanastan” comment section:

    So here is just some simple ideas that maybe we aught to look into.

    1) The Taliban and Al Qaida is whipping our butts in the media battle. Anything the Allied Forces do that just might cause a death or injury of a civilian is promply brought out and displayed with bright spotlights and glittering lettering. And without knowing just who is Taliban and who is Joe Chit the Ragman Civilian…we’ll always be losing this battle. We need to get a handle of the “propaganda” war.
    2) All the Afghans ever see of the Allies is Warriors (oh, our troops are doing a great job don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but the highest respect for our service personel over there, but, their troops, combat- armed to the teeth ready to kick azz and take names troops)…even the small amount of Civilians sent over there look like some sort of soldier. How are you going to get the mindset changed to “trust us” if all they have ever seen is foreign combat troops trying to secure safe areas on your home turf. Imagine if you can, that in your town or village all the time. You didn’t invite them here, unwanted guest.
    3) Children. Children are the future, Children are open to making new friends…Children are Afghanistan, Children remember kindness, friendliness, gifts and who gave them..who can be their friend. If this country could once again mobilise the giving power of Churches, and start a Toy’s and clothes for tots programs to be handed out to the Children of Afghanstan…by our soldiers and Marines…a whole new strategy of “hearts and Minds” would begin. Shoes, socks coats, gloves, hats, teddy bears or other stuffed animals, coloring books and crayons, gum or candy, picture books and caned foods and cooking utensils, solar cook stoves….things these people just don’t have everyday. Clean out every Goodwill in the United States and just give this stuff away to needed Afghan families. Do not enclude religion.
    4) Buy vegitables from the local farmers for the Military base camps, make it worth their while to change their Poppies to Corn, Wheat, Tomatoes, Beans, Beets, Rice, Potatoes, Lettuce, Carrots, Broccoli, Aspargus, Caulaflower, Chickens, Beef, Eggs, Lamb (I would suggest Pork but being a muslim country I doubt if there’s any big farms of those around), create that market that they need to kick start a larger market thru out Afghanastan and neighboring countries…Hell, there’s over 68,000 US troops, plus the Nato troops, plus the supporting units not in country and off shore on ships…we’re talking a Massive market out there, compared to having to ship all this stuff from the U.S. and Europe to Afghanastan….Also get NGO’s involved for purchases for African nations that need food. Build a industry and infastructure.
    5) Start shipping over brand new 1800’s style farm empliments like plows and disks (pulled by oxen or donkeys), harvest equipment, thashers, elevators and storage bins and corn cribs (contact our Amish people here in the States, they still make and use this stuff). And give it too the farmers
    6) BEAT the Taliban and Al Qaida at a game they have no pieces to match with. Out smart these guys at a strategy they couldn’t beat. Anything we “give” or buy from the locals is all positive, the Taliban or Al Qaida, if they take it away from the locals are walking right into the trap of Suggestion #1!

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand and was published September 14th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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