U.S. Marine Corps Small Unit Maneuver Warfare in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 6 months ago

I have previously discussed the notion of offensive posture in small unit maneuver warfare in Afghanistan.

In Odd Things in Counterinsurgency after detailing a Marine unit’s all-day efforts to locate a local elder’s home in order to befriend him (when in fact neither he nor his people wanted him to be located), I observed the following:

This effort is misplaced.  It would have been more effective to kill insurgents, make their presence known, meet villagers, find weapons caches, question young men, and interrogate prisoners (or potential prisoners).  They have given no reason for this tribal leader to ally himself with the Marines.  The Marines haven’t yet shown that they are there to win.  When the Marines get the Taliban on the defensive, the tribal leader will more than likely come to the Marines rather than the Marine searching him out.

The next patrol should focus on those fighters who were setting up the ambush.  Send a few Scout Snipers that direction.  Flank the insurgents with a squad or fire team, and approach the area where these men are supposed to be doing their nefarious deeds.  Find them, kill them. Do this enough and the Marines won’t have to search out the leaders.  Then it will be time to sit down and drink tea.  This is the recipe for success.

In the same province there is another example to study.

PressZoom) – NAWA, Afghanistan (Oct. 21, 2010) — The men of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, have spent enough time in Afghanistan to understand some of the workings of the Taliban presence there.

There’s no denying they’re fighting a crafty enemy. Combatants will usually engage the American and Afghan forces from a well-concealed position, and then dispose of their weapons as they flee. They don’t stay for long-drawn out battles.

They shoot and run.

And so during Operation Black Tip, Oct. 14, India Company saw much of what they’ve grown accustomed to — shooting and running. Except this time, it was a little different.

When Sgt. Bryan Brown’s squad started taking fire, they were the ones who ran. They ran toward the bullets. They ran to the enemy’s position to take away his ability to flee.

“It’s always impressive to see Marines running toward fire,” said 1st Sgt. William Pinkerton, the India Company first sergeant.

Not that the enemy didn’t try to run away, but a well-placed sniper team left them with limited escape options. The snipers suspect they killed one enemy combatant and wounded another, Pinkerton said.

The Marines are growing in their application of small unit tactics in the Helmand Province.  Not long after I observed that a different approach was needed the Marines showed that they were adapting to their environment.

Tim Lynch gives us yet another great example of the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. Marine Corps small unit maneuver warfare in Afghanistan.

The 2nd Battalion 6th Marines is currently responsible for the southern, central and some of the northern portions of Marjah which is actually a series of villages organized around a gigantic grid of canals which were built by US AID back in the 60’s.  They are expanding their control block by block by spreading their Marines out into platoon and squad size outposts from which Marines foot patrol constantly.  The villains still offer battle but only on their terms which means they will fire on a patrol only when they have set up IED’s between their positions and the Marines.  When the Marines came back to Afghanistan in 2008 the Taliban had forgotten that they were not like other infantry.  The Marines maneuver when fired upon closing with and destroying those stupid enough to take them on.  After getting mauled time and again the Taliban learned to use small arms fire to augment IED blasts in an attempt to lure aggressive Marines into mine fields full of more improvised explosive devices.  Now the Marines maneuver to fix and then swarm with other units coming in from a different direction or with precision fire from drones.  To facilitate this they establish multiple small postions – partrol from them constantly and then push out to establish more small bases once the area they are working comes under their control.

This is outstanding reporting and analysis by Tim.  He has titled his post “Healing Ulcer” (so much for General McChrystal’s stupid notion of Marjah being a bleeding ulcer).  The entire Helmand Province is tough, and Sangin is especially tough right now.   A year ago and two years ago it was Now Zad.  But the Marines must have time and the commitment of the brass and the country – and more troops – and they will succeed and prevail.  They are the best troops in the world at small unit maneuver warfare, and their efforts in Helmand prove that once again.

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  1. On November 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm, Dray said:

    Gentlemen, I am a big fan of Tim and the CPT, I think they are truly genuine well meaning men. But the love affair with the Corps is blinding you to the fact that they were also the best troops in the world at “small maneuver warfare”, in Vietnam as well, and how did that counter insurgency campaign turn out for our beloved Marine Corps? I know the Army is big problem right? Or is it the Navy’s, no its the politicians, hmmm maybe they are all culpable.

    Look the Marines have some of the answers, the Army has some answers, SOF has something to contribute, the State Department has an idea, and the Air Force, well at least their here, but the real problem here is none of them consistently communicate with each other! No unity of effort at all.

  2. On November 18, 2010 at 3:24 pm, anan said:

    Dray, the South Vietnamese would have won their war if the US Congress hadn’t stabbed them in the back by cutting off funding for the ARVN.

    The ARVN was able to establish 11 good divisions [22 Ranger Brigades or 5.5 div; 1 Airborne Division, 2 Marine Brigades, 4 good conventional divisions.] They could have held out indefinitely with funding.

    ARVN had 20 conventional divisions. 4 of them good. Most of them not very good.

    Vietnam demonstrates the success of the advisory model, provided the advisors are good.

    To your point on unity of effort, add in a lack of unity of effort on the part of 50 K non US coalition troops, non US civilians from 70 countries, 146 K ANA, 122 K ANP, NDS and different civilian ministries within the GIRoA.

    To take one example, Afghanistan is very dependent on $1 billion/year in grants from Japan. Japan takes a special interest in funding the MoI and increasing MoI capacity. How often is Japan’s role in the ANP and MoI even discussed, let alone how much do we discuss how to coordinate Japanese efforts on the MoI with UNAMA, NTM-A, EU, European Gendarmerie Force, Germany, US State Department, Turkey. [Both Russia and India are eager to train ANP . . . and do some of it low profile.]

    Note that something like 600 Afghan Police Officers [not NCOs] are trained in Turkey, and 300 ANP officers are trained in UAE directly per cycle [a number that will probably ramp up.] How much is their training curriculum coordinated with other ANP training? To LTG Caldwell’s credit, he has been visiting Turkey frequently and has brought Turkey into the NTM-A fold. We need much more of that.

  3. On November 18, 2010 at 3:24 pm, XBradTC said:

    I just find it astonishing that the squad combat drill that formed the very basis of infantry training for both Army and Marines has suddenly been rediscovered.

    The purpose of infantry is to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and assault. They’re just now remembering that?

  4. On November 18, 2010 at 3:36 pm, anan said:

    Captain, notice how Baba Tim and the Marines praise the ANCOP. There are now 22 ANCOP combat bns.

    Also note the performance of BG Ghori’s 3rd Bde, 215th ANA Corps, which frees up Marines for operations in some of the more dangerous parts of Helmand.

    Looks like the Georgians have about 2 bn equivalents, one near Sangin under Marine OPCON and one near Delaram.

    I would also read Tim’s last article. Something like 35% of all Afghan violence is still in Helmand even though only 4% of all Afghans live in Helmand. Yes, Marjah is mostly won, but the fiercest opposition is still ahead.

    Suspect Sangin will improve and Kajaki or other parts of the North will soon become the most dangerous parts of Helmand.

  5. On November 19, 2010 at 12:25 am, Herschel Smith said:


    But hold the phone here …

    Let’s talk about this for a minute. I have also been highly critical of the Marines before. Take for example my criticism of their propensity to send Marines on ridiculous MEUs pretending that they are going to do sea-based forcible entry against a near peer state. Ludicrous. They are mired in the mid-twentieth century, unable to think with innovation.

    Furthermore, I’m not sure that anyone would really disagree with my characterization(s). Big army doesn’t want to do small unit fire and maneuver warfare. The army and Marines just met at the Picatinny Arsenal to try to decide whether to pool resources to upgrade the M4. We will always be a rifleman’s service and will stick with the M16, said the Commandant. No thanks on the upgrades.

    Now. Whatever I might think about that, it says a lot. Big army wants to do forcible entry and advance via tank, stryker, and other mechanized means. They have clearly said so. The Marines want their boys to practice squad rushes for a 1000 meters with full body armor and back packs, day after day. They are foot-borne and want it to stay that way. It’s just a matter of choices, not who is better than whom.

    So it should not come as a surprise that they are somewhat adept at small unit tactics, techniques and procedures. That’s what they want to do. It would be like saying that the Rangers are the best in the world at airborne entry (jump or fast-roping) to secure air fields. Of course they are. Who could disagree with that characterization? Or, it might be like saying that Big Army is the best on earth at mechanized warfare. Of course they are. For more on Marine TTPs and their focus on them, see:



    I think it would be more a matter of characterizing this as adaptation of small unit fire and maneuver warfare against a wily enemy, rather than “rediscovering” this. Do you see something else in what I wrote that I don’t?

  6. On November 19, 2010 at 2:28 am, Dray said:

    Anan, excellent points all, we also need to look at the complexities of how the extremist muslim ideology plays into the equation. A communist ideology (Vietnam) shrouded in half truths and economic fallacies is allot easier to combat than an religious one (Afghanistan) sheltered and nurtured by well over half the population. My point with this is that you cant maneuver on and destroy an idea, it has to be extinguished in the minds of those who feed this insidious thought process, here is where we are all (Marines, Army, Navy, and the Air Force) dropping the ball in Afghanistan.

    NATO is a consistent Joke, and the sooner the top realize that the sooner we can get back to winning this war. But our State Departments lack of concern regarding corruption that is systemic within the GIRoA is causing me more head aches than our NATO brothers in arms are. At least you know NATO will clearly do nothing and they will tell you that. I have no idea what our State Departments mission statement or end state is here, have any of you seen it?

    CPT, Stick with the M16? I will argue with anyone that if the Corps was serious about fielding rifle men then it would equip them with a real rifle. There are several 7.62 rifles that would be better suited to infantry tactics, rather than doggedly sticking with the 5.56 NATO M16. Take a real gun with you battle, I have run both in Afghanistan and I can tell you from first hand experience 7.62 is hands down the superior choice.

    If you think that 1000 meter IMT drills in full body armor with packs on are going to do you any good over here in the Pech river valley or in the Korengal you and the Corps are sadly way behind the power curve. Again what works for one unit down south is not necessarily going to work for another up in N2KL. I have had to fight the brass at the top here just to get them to let my men dump the body armor and packs, so we could finally take the fight to the enemy. Oh and when they finally let us it led to 150 EKIA, how about them apples. And we are not Marines nor will you ever read about our exploits in NY Times.

    Once again I agree with about 90% of your analysis, its getting you over that last 10% that is frustrating to me. I have noticed that this is also very therapeutic for me to vent, so I hope you all just bare with me.

    Thanks to all who speak up here this is what makes me long for home.

  7. On November 19, 2010 at 5:44 am, Dray said:

    Anan do you sit in an office to do your job? I would to put money on it that answer is a resounding yes. Not trying to be offensive just looking for the vantage point from which you view this war.

  8. On November 19, 2010 at 3:40 pm, anan said:


    You overstate your case by calling NATO a joke. The Dutch, Danes, Canadians, Estonians, Australians in the South were not a joke. The Australian/Dutch mentored 4-205 seems to be doing okay.

    The 2 Georgian battalions . . . we need to wait and see. Might the Romanians be doing okay in Zabul? Heard some good things about Romanian mentored 2-205 ANA, although wouldn’t overstate their success. Do you have data on the Romanians?

    Have you heard anything negative regarding the Jordanian commandos in Zabul or the thousand Jordanian troops in Northern Logar? The Jordanians seem to have done a decent enough job with the 3 thousand ANSF commandos they trained, many inside Jordan itself.

    Some of the ANA Commandos are advised by the French and UAE commandos. Seen no indication that they are not doing okay.

    UAE is also training about 300 ANP officers in UAE. Not sure how they are doing with that.

    The European Gendarmerie Force don’t seem to be messing up with the ANCOP.

    Have you heard negative things about the French/Greek mentored 3-111 ANA heavy mech bde? Or about the French in general in Kapisha?

    Poles do seem FOB centric in Ghazni, but shouldn’t they get some credit for 3-203 ANA bde?

    The German/Swede mentored 1-209 ANA Bde is doing okay.

    If not for the Turks and French, the 4 year ANA officer academy might not have stood up in Jan, 2005.

    The Brits, well you have a partial point ;-)

    Sure the 50 K allies have a mixed record; but don’t overstate your case! :-)

  9. On November 21, 2010 at 1:52 am, Andy said:

    Can you share with me (on here or privately on SIPR) some of the issues that you faced in convincing higher to let your men doff their body armor and packs and go old-school patrolling? I am all for dropping gear if it enables us to be effective. I’d like to know how you convinced them, how you conducted the patrols, etc.

    I haven’t seen anyone try to really “take the fight to the enemy” in N2K, in a consistent manner, for four years. I think you’re also overlooking the recent results Watapur of what happens when we try it in an inconsistent, half-assed manner. Still, kudus to 1-327 for continuing a tough, under resourced fight in the face of heavy casualties. I just hope that “we” don’t try to reign in the battalion and force them to sit on their hands for fear of losing more soldiers.

    I think Herschel is correct that in the army in general, we suffer from a systemic unwillingness to shoulder risk of death and injury to accomplish the mission. My assessment across RC-East is that maneuver units have “checked out.” We have counted the days remaining of the war and have decided that with the limited time and resources that we are unable to accomplish the overall mission. As such, we have started holing up in our camps, FOBs, COPs, and FBs–in an attempt to limit exposure to risk, while saying “What does it matter? We won’t have an effect either way.” We have decided that we need MRAP vehicles to “safely” move on the battlefield. We are unwilling to walk 10km over rugged terrain. We are unwilling to do difficult, tough operations that are necessary to disrupt and defeat the enemy.

    Again, my hat is off to 1-327IN and the brave soldiers of Abu company. I hope we don’t get cold feet as a result of what has happened there.

    Anyway, enough of my ramblings. I really am interested to hear more about how/what you are doing.

  10. On November 21, 2010 at 3:31 am, anan said:

    “I haven’t seen anyone try to really “take the fight to the enemy” in N2K, in a consistent manner, for four years.” Sadly Agreed. The Taliban are winning in Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman [Laghman locals hate Taliban . . . at least there is that much], Nangarhar.

    Increasingly the Taliban in N2K are foreign from anecdotal accounts. Many of them TTP, TNSM, LeT, Siraj, Iyas Kashmiri’s Lashkar al Zil, Peshawar Shura, Hekmatyur who aren’t necessarily really loyal to Mullah Omar.

    In repeated ISAF briefings, it is stated that ISAF has three priorities . . . Kandahar, Helmand and Kunar. In Kandahar and Helmand, a real effort is being made. In Kunar, as Andy implies, it seems to mostly be hype.

    Not sure what the deal is with CJTF-101 in N2K. Seems like 201st ANA Corps has deteriorated since the Marine advisors left, replaced by 101st.

    Nuristan and Kunar AUP . . . lets not depress ourselves more.

    Although Karzai seems adept at wasting his precious limited ANA commandos on whack-a-mole with Pakistani Taliban to assuage Afghan ego.

    But Andy, there is good news in RC-East.

    Things are going well in Bamiyan, Panjir and Parwan [in all three provinces there are no ANA. AUP completely in the lead in Panjir and Bamiyan, close to completely in the lead in Parwan, where the South Koreans have a real shot at reconstruction successs.] Greek/French mentored 3-111 ANA heavy mech and newly forming French mentored 3-201 plus the French brigade seem to have captured momentum in Kapisha in recent months.

    The best US Army in Afghanistan seems to be COL Luong’s Rakkasan. The 203rd ANA Corps they advise are significantly better than any other ANA Corps. Similarly the Khost AUP might be possibly the best in Afghanistan.

    Col Luong is a tough person and the ANA seem to like him. Despite being an economy of force operation, Loya Paktia seems to be the only major strategic combat theater other than Helmand that ISAF/GIRoA/ANSF are winning. And that too against what I consider to be the best Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the former Soviet Republics.

    TS Alfabet, you asked why the ANA needs to be trained to confront a foreign country? In one phrase . . . Loya Paktia. Some say that Siraj is the most important national asset of a country you might have heard about.

    Anecdotally, the Rakkasans are out of the FOB and wearing the enemy down, with 1-203 and 2-203 bdes following their example.

    Maybe ya folks should write about them ;-)

    The Rakkasans have managed to spare a battalion to work with 3-203 ANA and the Polish bde in Ghazni.

  11. On November 21, 2010 at 3:44 am, anan said:

    Before Andy mentions it, Siraj is winning in Logar in RC-East. The local ANA and ANP suck. US army is performing poorly. They aren’t Rakkasans :-( Siraj is openly attacking company sized ISAF/ANSF units and not doing too shabby in those engagements [increasingly using effective artillery in these engagements.]. The thousand Jordanians are in the North were things aren’t as bad. Not sure how well the Czechs are doing; fear it isn’t good news.

    Any thoughts on how Wardak is doing? Has the Taliban momentum in Wardak been arrested?

    Andy, how have we let the ISI cow ourselves so much in N2K, Logar and Baghlan? Why can’t we fight indirectly through the ANSF the way the ISI fights through the Taliban?

  12. On November 21, 2010 at 2:11 pm, Andy said:

    Great points! I wonder about Parwan, Bamyan, and Panjshir… they’ve been relatively tame for some time. Is it more that we’ve been successful there or that the insurgency has not been successful?

    I didn’t want to say anything, but since the Jordanians have been brought up twice: I haven’t heard much positive said about them. In fact, everything that I’ve heard in the past 10 months has been negative (unless we’re talking about their dining facility at Shank).

    173rd had their A-team in Wardak. However, I think the deterioration of security in southern Wardak has not been arrested. Sure, we’ve ceded ground in the Tangi (echoes of N2K), and bought ourselves a bit of breathing room. Our ventures in Jaghato have stirred up a hornets nest, and the enemy is increasing pressure in the Shekabad/Sayeedabad areas. I think 4/10 is hoping for a quick winter freeze so they can get their feet on the ground a bit better. I am discouraged by some of what I’ve been hearing about 4/10’s approach to operations–specifically information fusion and then the Counter IED fight. It sounds like they are attempting to recreate the wheel and relearn lessons that other units have already learned. Let’s exercise tactical patience and see how the Patriots develop the situation and the fight.

    To answer your last question, I’d say that while I don’t have the answer, I know that we don’t help the issue when we pump $2B into the PakMil without certain safeguards. The ISI is getting more and more brazen. I’ve heard of ISI cadre operating openly all along the Kunar river from Asmar to Barg-e-Matal.

    I wonder at times if our insistence on “partnering” has somehow obfuscated our own ability to conduct FID using a cadre model. Dorronsoro and Gant independently recommended a reduced footprint. Is it possible that a 12-man ODA is as effective at mentoring a battalion as is a 500-man conventional battalion? If so, do our operations become counter-productive in the following way: 1) we are misappropriating resources and in so doing 2) we are inadvertantly stirring up unnecessary resentment towards the coalition? Would we possibly be more successful if we abandoned a 1:1 (okay, realistically it’s 1:3) ANSF to CF ration in favor of a 10:1 or 30:1 using properly trained mentors? MiTT/ETTs are largely condemned in the military. USASFC is stretched thin.

    I agree that Siraj is good. He and his fighters have done a careful relative combat power analysis and determined that the $10 PPIED is WAY more effective than spending more money on ammunition, warheads, etc and trying to go toe-to-toe with CF. I guess, while they’re not the best at conventional fighting (I give the nod for that to LeT backed militias in Kunar/Nuristan), they are the best at creating results.

    I will say that Bastogne has maintained a very high OPTEMPO as well. They’re very busy. Generally speaking, though, I’ve neglected to keep a good pulse on Paktya and what Rakkasans are doing there. It would be interesting to compare and contrast 1/101 and 3/101 to see what could effectively be carried from one AO to the other.

    Anan, are you in RC-E now? Where?

    Herschel et al, I apologize for hijacking the thread.

  13. On November 21, 2010 at 2:18 pm, Andy said:

    My most sincere apologies. I will learn to proof-read one of these days…

  14. On November 21, 2010 at 8:26 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Andy, no need to apologize. You didn’t hijack the thread. Smart and well thought-out comments such as yours are always welcome. And as for proof reading, some day I will learn to do that with my articles too!

  15. On November 22, 2010 at 11:05 am, Dray said:

    Andy, do you have Roshan number I can contact you on?

  16. On November 22, 2010 at 11:11 am, Andy said:


    Tomorrow (Tues) would be best, if at all possible. Any time will work. Look forward to it!

  17. On December 1, 2010 at 8:35 am, Matt said:

    I agree with most of the article. Readers please understand that the Marines do not just train on 1000yd rushes. That is funny that people actually think that. I was a Marine Captain and physically trained Marines on counterterrorism tactics, combat hunter programs, kinetic and non-kinetic ops, movement to contact, and the list continues. I have been in combat more times than you can count on one hand. We have established many training programs years ago to address all the issues that this article and people’s comments. I have also been afforded the opportunity to work with the Army. They do thing different than the Marine Corps but are still effective in small unit maneuver warfare and anything else needed of them. Please gather facts before making a biased opinion off nothing. I would never judge how you are doing your job if I had no idea what was really going on and what your training was.

  18. On December 1, 2010 at 9:43 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Thanks for dropping by Matt. I think sometimes people misunderstand what I am saying. Not one is better than the other or the other is better than the one – just that they’re different. Moreover, I think they want to be different and the Army wants to focus on close quarters drill and mechanized interdiction and approach.

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You are currently reading "U.S. Marine Corps Small Unit Maneuver Warfare in Afghanistan", entry #5762 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marines in Helmand and was published November 18th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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