Archive for the 'Marjah' Category

Confused Narratives on Marjah

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 2 months ago

From Gareth Porter at the Asia Times.

For weeks, the United States public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan war against what it was told was a “city of 80,000 people” as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marjah was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centers in Helmand.

It turns out, however, that the picture of Marjah presented by military officials and reported by major news media is one of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as an historic turning point in the conflict.

Marjah is not a city or even a real town, but a few clusters of farmers’ homes amid a large agricultural area that covers much of the southern Helmand River Valley …

The ISAF official said the only population numbering tens of thousands associated with Marjah is spread across many villages and almost 200 square kilometers, or about 125 square miles (editorial note, approximately eleven miles squared) …

So how did the fiction that Marjah is a city of 80,000 people get started?

The idea was passed onto news media by the US Marines in southern Helmand. The earliest references in news stories to Marjah as a city with a large population have a common origin in a briefing given on February 2 by officials at Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base there.

The Associated Press published an article the same day quoting “Marine commanders” as saying that they expected 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be “holed up” in the “southern Afghan town of 80,000 people”. That language evoked an image of house-to-house urban street fighting.

The same story said Marjah was “the biggest town under Taliban control” and called it the “linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network”. It gave the figure of 125,000 for the population living in “the town and surrounding villages”.

From Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason at Foreign Policy.

The war in Afghanistan, as we have written here and in Military Review (pdf), is indeed a near replication of the Vietnam War, including the assault on the strategically meaningless village of Marjah, which is itself a perfect re-enactment of Operation Meade River in 1968. But the callous cynicism of this war, which we described here in early December, and the mainstream media’s brainless reporting on it, have descended past these sane parallels. We have now gone down the rabbit hole.

Two months ago, the collection of mud-brick hovels known as Marjah might have been mistaken for a flyspeck on maps of Afghanistan. Today the media has nearly doubled its population from less than 50,000 to 80,000 — the entire population of Nad Ali district, of which Nad Ali is the largest town, is approximately 99,000 — and portrays the offensive there as the equivalent of the Normandy invasion, and the beginning of the end for the Taliban. In fact, however, the entire district of Nad Ali, which contains Marjah, represents about 2 percent of Regional Command (RC) South, the U.S. military’s operational area that encompasses Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz, and Daikundi provinces. RC South by itself is larger than all of South Vietnam, and the Taliban controls virtually all of it. This appears to have occurred to no one in the media.

Nor have any noted that taking this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a “government in a box” might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation.

In reality, this battle — the largest in Afghanistan since 2001 — is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress. In reporting it, the media has gulped down the whole bottle of “drink me” and shrunk to journalistic insignificance.

Analysis & Commentary


The U.S. Marine Corps over the last several years in Iraq and Afghanistan has customarily been engaged in heavy combat operations.  More than 1000 Marines perished in Iraq, most in the Anbar Province.  Regardless, whatever the Marines are engaged in, they will officially hype their exploits and stretch the narrative, always redounding to the benefit of the Marines.  It’s part of the history, mystique and political strategy of the Corps.  The U.S. Marines are the best strike fighters and shock troops in the world.  No matter, this narrative isn’t enough, and it is crafted and molded until the Corps takes on mythical proportions.  The fact that their reputation precedes them and intimidates the enemy only justifies the strategy.

That most so-called journalists don’t know enough to be able to effectively cover the Marines is amusing, but reaches the point of being  sad for analysts who spend time asking the wrong questions and reiterating what we all already know.  Marjah is an approximately eleven mile squared area of operations comprising tens of thousands of farmers rather than an urban setting.  So who didn’t already know that?  The closest thing to a major urban center in Helmand is Now Zad.  How is this “revelation” significant to worthwhile analysis of what the Marines are doing?

In Why are we in the Helmand Province? I addressed the notion that Marjah is a “worthless postage stamp” of land by pointing out that targeting Kandahar (as a population center) without a coupled effort to shut down the Taliban recruiting grounds and support network (as well as means of financing) would be analogous to giving the Taliban free sanctuary in Pakistan, just on a moderately smaller scale.

U.S. counterinsurgency strategists can claim until their last breath that counterinsurgency should be “population-centric,” but if we honestly believed that axiom we wouldn’t care about sanctuary in Pakistan.  Control over population centers and good governance would be enough to marginalize the insurgents and render them powerless in spite of their sanctuaries – or so the doctrine claims.

But we know that the enemy must be stalked and killed, so we are in the Helmand Province, and Marjah was the last battle space for heavy kinetics.  Policing of the population must now ensue in these areas.  Kandahar will be next, and the buildup will be slow and deliberate, after, of course, we have finished with major operations in Helmand.

But if it isn’t one thing it’s another, and in addition to enduring bad analysis we must also deal with incomplete analysis that stops short of asking the hardest of questions.  Consider this recent Washington Times editorial.

The recent battle in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province was a key test case for new rules of engagement that emphasized protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents. The town was taken, but whether that was because of the new rules or despite them remains to be seen.

The rules of engagement are probably the most restrictive ever seen for a war of this nature. NATO forces cannot fire on suspected Taliban fighters unless they are clearly visible, armed and posing a direct threat. Buildings suspected of containing insurgents cannot be targeted unless it is certain that civilians are not also present. Air strikes and night raids are limited, and prisoners have to be released or transferred within four days, making for a 96-hour catch-and-release program.

In Marjah, the enemy quickly adapted to the rules, which led to bizarre circumstances such as Taliban fighters throwing down their weapons when they were out of ammunition and taunting coalition troops with impunity or walking in plain view with women behind them carrying their weapons like caddies …

The fighting has wound down in Marjah, which may or may not validate the rules of engagement. Most of the local Taliban either melted away to the frontier or simply put down their weapons and are still there. The true test will come when NATO implements rules of disengagement. When coalition forces pull out, Marjah may well go back to being the Taliban stronghold it always has been, and those who cooperated with NATO and Afghan government authorities will be held to account.

True enough with respect to the rules of engagement (as we have pointed out before), this commentary ends with a non sequitur.  It was predestined – the Marines were going to take Marjah, and there was nothing that the Taliban could do about it.  The conclusion of the battle was firm and fixed regardless of the rules of engagement, and they have won Marjah in spite of the ROE and not because it it.  The outcome of the operation says nothing to validate the ROE.

On the other hand, we all know that the Marines announced their offensive prior to its start for the specific reason of avoiding noncombatant casualties.  That Taliban escaped was irrelevant.  But is it?  Will the Taliban simply slither away only to come back later and cause long term counterinsurgency problems in this area?

Will our focus on the population (to the detriment of killing insurgents) come back to haunt the campaign?  Will we be dealing with these same insurgents later, walking with their women holding their weapons, knowing that the U.S. troops will not fire on them?  What do the people of Marjah think about the rules of engagement?  How long will this operation last, and will the horrible Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police be able to fill in behind the Marines?

The analysts at Foreign Policy called Marjah a “Potemkin village.”  John Robb did this as well with Fallujah in a post entitled Potemkin Pacification (as best as I can tell, he took it down about as soon as it went up).  There were a number of reductionist articles that sounded about the same when Operation Alljah began in Fallujah early in 2007.  Most of these articles focused on the “horrible” conditions of Fallujah when the Marines locked it down.

In April – June of 2007 heavy kinetics ensued between the Marines and insurgents in Fallujah.  The follow-on work involved heavy policing, gated communities, biometrics and neighborhood programs to watch and defend their turf.  It was found that most IEDs were vehicle-borne, so the decision was made to prohibit vehicle traffic.  When the population in a major urban center must walk everywhere, it provides a significant incentive to find and turn in insurgents and their weapons.

One narrative for counterinsurgency is that it must focus on turning the human and physical terrain into Shangri La, and if it doesn’t, it’s fake.  Of course, it is the narrative that is fake.  There will be heavy lifting in Marjah still to come, for it isn’t Shangri La.  Fake narratives by so-called analysts will continue.  But for the motivated journalist there are salient questions that must be answered.

As usual, Tyler Hicks is providing the best pictorial documentaries of Marine Corps operations in Helmand, and C. J. Chivers’ coverage is indispensable.  But the Marjah narrative is yet to be written, much less the narrative for the Helmand Province (Now Zad claimed many Marine lives).  Other than C. J. Chivers, we have yet to even approach anything that could be considered good analysis of the Marine Corps campaign in the Helmand Province, and Marjah remains fertile ground for reporting and analysis.

Prior Featured: Second Guessing the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh


Richard Lowry of Marines in the Garden of Eden fame writes to remind me that not all analysts missed the significant aspects of Marjah.  His article Marjah – Another Fallujah? is worthy reading.  Also check out his New Dawn.

Rules of Engagement Slow Progress in Marjah

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 3 months ago

In combat action near Marjah:

Spc. Andrew Szala of Newport, R.I., tried to keep the injured man talking, conscious. He chatted about the plot of a season of the American comedy series, “The Office,” a send-up of white-collar life.

“Michael starts his own paper company. Pam goes with him. Jim stays behind,” Szala said as the battle raged.

In the new ambush, a man was firing from above a green door. Spc. Richard French of Indianapolis was in the hatch of a Stryker, an American military vehicle, that pulled up on the canal road. He saw the man and opened fire with his M4 rifle.

“My first three rounds were tracers. I watched them go right into him. I watched him fall,” French said later. “First time I ever killed anybody. That was interesting.”

Close to the road and relative safety, soldiers saw a man in black walking. He was unarmed. They watched him in their scopes but did not shoot. Western forces in Afghanistan are operating under rules of engagement, or ROE, that restrict them from acting against people unless they commit a hostile act or show hostile intent. American troops say the Taliban can fire on them, then set aside their weapon and walk freely out of a compound, possibly toward a weapons cache in another location.

In combat action in Marjah:

With gunfire coming from several directions all day long, troops managed to advance just 500 yards deeper as they fought off small squads of gunmen.

US military spokesman Captain Abraham Sipe said: “There’s still a good bit of the land still to be cleared. We’re moving at a very deliberative pace.”

Western soldiers complained about rules of engagement that are supposed to prevent them firing at people unless they commit a “hostile act” or show “hostile intent.”

US Lance Corporal Travis Anderson from Iowa alleged that Marjah residents are “using our rules of engagement against us,” stating that his platoon had repeatedly seen men dropping their guns into ditches before walking away to melt among civilians.


1/3 Marines Mortar Crew in combat in Marjah, Afghanistan

Analysis & Commentary

Recall that the standing rules of engagement (ROE) are modified by theater-specific ROE, such as the rules for Operation Iraqi Freedom (at one time on Wikileaks) and more recently a tactical directive promulgated under the authority of General McChrystal.  There are parts of the directive (perhaps large parts) that have not been divulged to the public, but we do know that there are some significant restrictions on troop movement, cordons and searches and kinetic operations.  For instance, the ROE prohibits night or surprise searches, and firing at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first.  Pentagon officials have admitted that these rules have opened up new space for the insurgents.  In McChrystal’s own words, “If you are in a situation where you are under fire from the enemy… if there is any chance of creating civilian casualties or if you don’t know whether you will create civilian casualties, if you can withdraw from that situation without firing, then you must do so.”

I had predicted that these rules would have the opposite affect from that intended, i.e., that they would fail to prevent noncombatant deaths and might even cause more than if we were to implement a more robust set of ROE or simply leave the rules unchanged.  Strategy Page sources explain a bit more about the unintended consequences of the restrictive ROE.

The fighting in Marjah would be going more quickly were it not for the more strict ROE (Rules Of Engagement), intended to minimize civilian casualties. The Taliban and drug gangs have invested a lot in the local media, to make each civilian death, at the hands of foreign troops, a major story. The majority of civilian combat deaths are at the hands of the Taliban or drug gangs, and the local media plays those down (or else). It’s a sweet deal for the bad guys, and a powerful battlefield tool. The civilians appreciate the attention, but the ROE doesn’t reduce overall civilian deaths, because the longer the Taliban have control of civilians in a combat situations, the more they kill. The Taliban often use civilians as human shields, and kill those who refuse, or are suspected of disloyalty. In places like Marjah, civilians are eager to get the Taliban killed or driven away, as quickly as possible. The number of civilian deaths, at the hands of NATO/Afghan forces, in the operations around Marhah, are spectacularly low by historical standards. The troops know this, some of the civilians know this, but the media doesn’t care and the Taliban need a media win, as a way to extract something that is, otherwise, a military disaster for them.

Some of this is the tendency to micromanage the campaign on the part of field grade and staff officers, an evolution that appears to have been going on for years.  But despite the best of intentions, the current rules place U.S. troops in greater danger than before, removes battle space latitude and decision-making from the enlisted men, NCOs and lower ranking officers who are in the actual combat, and add absolutely nothing to the good will of the Afghans who are noncombatants because no lives are being saved as a result of the rule changes.  The rules are a spectacular failure.  It sounds like a government program, no?

Takeover of Marjah

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 3 months ago

Oftentimes I disagree with Ralph Peters.  I have disagreed with him vehemently on how to conduct the campaign for Afghanistan (among other things), with Peters advocating the small footprint model with SOF killing HVTs.  It would have been a worse logistical nightmare than what we have now, with SOF having to be sent in later to rescue the SOF who had been relegated to large bases for force protection, unable to gain any actionable intelligence for their HVT raids because no one would cooperate with them.  But occasionally Ralph gets it right.

Attacking behind a vanguard of special operators and backed by an Army Stryker battalion, the 6th Marine Regiment has been conducting a textbook takeover of the Afghan city of Marjah.

Meticulously planned and methodical in its execution, the operation is well on its way to fulfilling its goals of driving the Taliban out of this opium-poppy center of 80,000 souls, while minimizing casualties and destruction.

In dramatic night helicopter assaults, lead Marine elements cordoned off Marjah, setting the stage for follow-on waves to maneuver into the city.

That’s not as easy as it sounds: The Taliban, knowing the attack was coming, planted roadside bombs, mines and booby traps by the hundreds — forcing frequent pauses to disarm them. And broad irrigation canals (funded by US taxpayers back in the 1950s, the last time we tried to modernize Afghanistan), also impede progress, requiring the emplacement of tactical bridges.

For the Marine infantryman shouldering a 100-pound ruck, there can be a lot of hurry-up-and-wait.

But these obstacles were foreseen by the planning staff, and the 6th Marines’ motto is “Keep Moving.” One by one, the IEDs are dismantled as the Marines push deeper into the city. There’ve been some foiled ambushes, as well as firefights with Taliban stay-behinds. But the gunmen are no match for our Marines.

Our troops are doing everything asked of them superbly. But as they take control of the city, the question becomes, “Now what?”

This is a major operation, involving over 15,000 US, British, other NATO and Afghan troops. Marjah’s the main objective, but not the only one. The mission is to wrest a key opium-growing, income-producing region from the Taliban — and keep it.

Once our fighters have done their part, though, the Afghan government has to step up. Thousands of Afghan troops are “participating,” but, thus far, the heavy lifting’s been done by the US and our NATO allies. Afghan soldiers tagged along to show the flag, learn how to operate, and help us deal with the locals. They still can’t do any of this stuff on their own.

Yet ultimate success in the Marjah district depends on the Kabul government delivering meaningful aid programs at the pick-and-shovel level. Above all, it has to impose its authority with competent, reasonably honest police and Afghan National Army soldiers capable of protecting the surrounding countryside. That’s a tall order for the troubled regime of President Hamid Karzai.

The Marjah operation’s a prototype — the first big test of Gen. Stan McChrystal’s refurbished approach that emphasizes cutting back combat actions focused on killing Taliban fighters in favor of securing population centers and bidding for popular support.

The unanswered question is whether you can win a war of any kind without killing your enemies in large numbers. Can this population really be won over? Can the Karzai government gain and sustain the people’s loyalty? Or do the Taliban merely rally elsewhere, denying us decisive results? Stay tuned.

It isn’t over yet, but when it is, it will have been a textbook takeover.  I’m in the school which advocates killing the enemy in large numbers.


The Battle for Marjah

Announcing the Marjah Offensive

No Secrets to Marine Plans for Marjah

The Battle for Marjah

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 3 months ago

The battle for Marjah is underway, apparently thus far without serious resistance from the Taliban.  So what is going on in Marjah?  Our friend Tim Lynch at Free Range International gives us his perspective.

Operation Moshtarak, the assault on the Marjah District in the Helmand Province started today.  The press has been looking at it for months from various angles with stories stressing that secrecy has been lost, or that civilians will be killed, or with speculation on why the military is publicizing Operation Moshtarak in the first place. These stories all contain grains of truth but none of them is even close to telling the real story.  Here it is: when the Marines crossed the line of departure today, the battle for Marjah had already been won.

That is not to say there will be no fighting – there will be – pockets of Taliban will need to be cleared out along with a ton of IED’s.  Just as they did last summer in Now Zad the Marines spent months talking about what they were going do in Marjah while focusing their efforts at shaping the fight behind the scene.  Like a master magician General Nicholson mesmerized the press with flashy hand movements to draw attention away from what was important.  The press then focused on the less important aspects of the coming fight.  Just like a magic show the action occurred right in front of the press in plain view yet remained out of sight …

The current Marjah operation is a replay of the Now Zad operation last summer.  Back then the Marines were in the news, constantly saying they did not have enough Afghan security forces (Karzai sent a battalion the day he read that story despite virulent protests from RC South) and that they didn’t have enough aid money (the embassy responded by sending more money and FSO’s).  Those complaints were faints – the Marines welcomed the Afghans, ignored most of the FSO’s and because they have their own tac air, artillery, and rocket systems they were able to cut out both the big army command and control apparatus in Bagram and the Brits who head RC South at the Kandahar Airfield.

Okay, stop there.  Let’s briefly assess what Tim is saying.  I don’t believe this analysis.  Not that I know enough to dispute it, but it isn’t compelling – not yet.  Tim goes on to explain that Scout snipers and Recon have been in Marjah killing Taliban for quite a while, and many or most of the bad guys are already dead.  Shaping the battle space, we are.

SOF cannot kill enough Taliban (or any other enemy) to win a campaign.  As for killing HVTs, regular readers know what I think about that tactic.  It remains an unimpressive distraction.  The Taliban – all of them – need to be killed, not chased away only to come back later.  With Lt. Col. Allen West, I don’t believe in holding terrain.  And it would be better to leave the mid-level commanders alive and let his troops see him fail rather than give new Taliban a chance to prove their mettle at being a new commander.

Shaping the battle space.  It sounds nice, and it’s what we claimed we were doing in Now Zad.  But go back and study my Now Zad category, the most comprehensive coverage of Now Zad anywhere.  We weren’t shaping the battle space.  We were losing Marines and Marines’ legs to IEDs, Marines were sleeping in Hobbit Holes at night, and for more than one year we had inadequate force projection – all of this while the population had left, the Taliban were using Now Zad as an R&R area and daring us to a fight, and we had an unmitigated opportunity to kill the enemy without even so much as a chance of killing noncombatants.  Yet in a tip of the hat to population-centric COIN, we refused because there was no population to protect – as if the Taliban wouldn’t leave Now Zad and go back to the population.

The Marines who bravely fought in Now Zad are heroes and the fact that we own it now is a testimony to their skills, courage and honor.  The brass who developed the strategy (or lack thereof) superintended a failure.  Now Zad was a failure entirely because brass didn’t resource the effort.  We let the Marines in Now Zad suffer while we sent infantry battalions to sea on wasted MEUs.  Finally, as to this notion that the Marines constantly complained that they didn’t have enough ANA in Now Zad, there wasn’t any ANA – period.  There was no ANA in Now Zad.  It was all Marines.

Back to Marjah.  Tim gives me pause if he claims that Marjah is a repeat of Now Zad.  Joshua Foust compares and contrasts coverage of Marjah, and concludes that there are contradictory reports from even reporters in the same locale and talking to the same people.  One report stands out, though.  This campaign is heralded as the point at which the ANA stands up.

For a second day US marines and Afghan troops have been clearing houses one by one of explosives.

One villager says they knocked on his door this morning and he saw Afghan soldiers in the lead and Americans following. He says he thinks the operation is going well.

But what is the ANA really doing?  “As Marines unloaded equipment needed to build an outpost at Five Points, others manned “fighting holes” — what the Army calls foxholes. Most of the Afghan soldiers sat in their trucks, with the engines running and the heaters at full blast.”

Last, it would appear that the only thing consistent about the reports is that a dozen noncombatants have been killed.  Predictably, McChrystal has prostrated himself before Karzai.  To be sure, we should pay the family, Marine officers should sit with surviving kin, and so on and so forth.  But the public nature of the posturing after such events is becoming a silly overreach, as if we are attempting to convince the American or Afghan public that there is any such thing as riskless war – war conducted in laboratories by men wearing white coats, where mistakes are mere failures to follow procedure and can be fixed by retraining men and retooling paperwork.  It’s all a lie.  The noncombatant deaths aren’t a mistake in procedure or protocol.  They are a tragedy of war, a tragedy that can only be avoided by losing the campaign or losing our own warriors.


Announcing the Marjah Offensive

No Secrets to Marine Plans for Marjah

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