U.S. Marines More Aggressive in Sangin Than British

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 8 months ago

From the Los Angeles Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis & Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On November 13, 2010 at 11:21 pm, anan said:

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

    Bingo. Most ANA hate the Taliban and want tough leaders to lead them against the Taliban. This is happening in two places . . . in Helmand and Loya Paktia.

    The annual attrition rate for 215th ANA Corps in Helmand is only 12% per year. Moral has a lot to do with it. 215th ANA Corps is less than a year old and is making rapid progress [though admittedly not yet at the same level as 203rd Corps in Loya Paktia.]

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

    More forces are almost certainly coming to Sangin as ISAF draws down in the safer parts of Helmand. In most of Helmand security is improving. Local recruitment into the ANSF is promising [although it is too soon in my opinion to say that Helmand men are joining the ANSF in mass.]

    Herschel, why do you think Sangin should get more ISAF/ANSF troops rather than other parts of Afghanistan were the GIRoA, ANSF and ISAF are more popular and where the Taliban is less popular?

  2. On October 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm, Šťoural said:

    Britain’s 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment is currently moving into the area, taking over from US marines of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment
    Twenty-one-year-old Dustin Weier picks himself up and leads with a metal detector sweeping this way and that, followed by a dog handler with a black Labrador called Moxi. Both are there to detect the countless other IEDs buried just inches under the dry, lumpy soil, and they’re not always successful. The patrol follows directly in their footsteps, a safe path indicated by baby powder or bottle-tops placed on the dirt.
    “Straight line 10 yards until you get to the bottle-top, then turn and come directly to me,” the message is whispered from one man to the next down the line. To deviate a few inches could result in a pressure-plate being compressed and the baritone boom of 20kg of silvery-grey homemade explosive exploding underfoot.
    It’s happened twice in the last four days, three times if you count that near miss. Around here that makes it a good week.
    The sun is beginning to burn as the patrol pushes 150m across an open field when the Taliban open up from tree lines to the west. One marine drops instantly, shot in the lower back.
    “I’m hit,” he shouts as he falls to the ground.
    The rest of the squad returns fire. Time compresses as a thousand bullets make an impossible noise. But instead of the insurgents ghosting away before the marines can take aim or helicopter gunships arrive, they increase their rate of fire.
    Sustained, accurate gunfire rips through the patrol and the Americans are forced to retreat to safety, running through a wall of gunshots from the west that are joined by fire from the east. A well-executed complex ambush.


    The newly-arrived British troops and their Afghan counterparts will be patrolling an area known as Qal Yeh Gaz, just eight miles south of Sangin town. One of the departing US marines, Captain Andrew Terrell told the BBC that “not a lot has changed” since he was was deployed nearby with Royal Marine 40 Commando four years ago.
    “The situation is no better. The people here are not fed up with the fighting, they’ve not reached the limit of what they’re willing to accept from the Taliban,” Terrell said. “It’s easier for them to move out of the area and hope it settles down, but they don’t look much further than tomorrow.”


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You are currently reading "U.S. Marines More Aggressive in Sangin Than British", entry #5730 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,British Army,Counterinsurgency,Marines in Helmand and was published November 9th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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