Rules of Engagement

I have written in the past about night raids and aggressive ISAF convoy tactics causing unnecessary civilian casualties.  I have also written on the importance of not allowing enemy fighters who attack ISAF units to live and fight another day.  Counterinsurgency requires adaptation and my annoyance at night raids or shooting car loads of locals who come too close to convoys is that there are better ways to handle both situations. Nine years and counting and I have seen little adaptation to the local environment by the American military and our NATO allies until now.

I have just witnessed adaptation by the military after spending some time with the Marines of Regimental Combat Team 1.  They are operating in the southern Helmand province where the terrain is flat and the enemy not able or willing to operate in large numbers. Prior to this trip all my observations regarding military efforts have been “effects based”.  I had been on the outside looking in.  I have never before traveled with a military patrol nor have I had the opportunity to observe and talk with troops in the field.

The Marines in all three battalions I was with let civilian traffic pass them while both mounted and dismounted. The old post linked above has a short video of another ISAF unit doing the exact oppisate
The Marines in all three battalions I observed let civilian traffic pass them while both mounted and dismounted. The old post linked above has a short video of another ISAF unit doing the exact opposite

I have posted in the past on the rules of engagement often linking to Herschel Smith at  The Captains Journal with whom I am in complete agreement.  We feel the rules of engagement are too restrictive and endanger the lives of ISAF and Afghan soldiers in the field. I posted recently about my first visit to RCT 1 where Col Furness and his staff do not feel the rules of engagement are too restrictive or inappropriate. On this trip I had a chance to talk to grunts in the field, platoon sergeants, company commanders as well as all three battalion commanders. The consensus is that the Marines do not consider the rules of engagement too restrictive. The only bitching I heard from the junior enlisted men concerned the strict PID – positive identification of a target before they can engage.

LtCol Kyle Ellison in the Choor  Bazaar – these shops were closed by the Taliban last August just before Ramadan – just like the DVD shops in Jalalabad. When the shop owners refused to open back up the Marines cancelled their leases and brought in new store owners. The bazaar has been opened ever since.

The examples I heard about the problems with PID were instructive. One of the Sergeants told me about an incident where the lead MATV had hit a large pressure plate IED which destroyed the mine roller attached to the front of it and most of the engine compartment. As the Marines worked to recover the vehicle small teams of Taliban would open up from the outside of some compounds a few hundred of meters to the East. Then they would displace and do the same thing from the West. The battalion commander had strict rules about firing into the populated portions of blocks (this was in Marjah) and being a passenger in the targeted  vehicle he was standing right there taking the whole situation in. The sergeant was frustrated because they never got a fix on the shooters so they could not return fire. I asked LtCol Ellison about this and he was blunt; “I’m not lighting up an area where families we know and support are living in order to suppress a couple of idiots who were shooting a few long range, ineffective rounds.”

I’m growing fond of LtCol Ellison – that’s warrior talk there brother.

All the bazaars in Marjah are heavily guarded. This squad of ANA troops had been in a fire fight right down the road from the bazaar a few minutes prior to our arrival

Another interesting story unfolded as we were touring the Choor Bazaar. The ANA troops had spotted a man carrying an AK47 and they exchanged gunfire with him. The man ran into a local compound just as a patrol of Marines rounded the corner on a dead run. The Marines threw in a frag grenade which killed the gunmen and went into the compound to recover him and his weapon. The man’s brother came to the bazaar to speak to LtCol Ellison telling him his brother was “not right in the head” and should not have been out with a rifle. He understood that his brother should not have been shooting at the ANA and that Marines responded as expected to an active gunman. After saying that he asked for his brother body and the AK 47 he had been using. LtCol Ellison was polite but firm telling the man the Marines will not tolerate shooting at the Afghan security forces in Marjah because they leave him little choice in response. Having established this point he apologized and asked the man to come in and make a claim for their loss (financial compensation for accidental death) at the district governors office. He promised they would have no further issues with the burial and to ensure that told him a squad of Marines would be there to protect them.  All of this was heard by the mans neighbors who crowded in to listen to the interpreter as the discussion progressed. The man then asked if he could have his AK back.  LtCol Ellison just looked at him and his terp said “no”.  And that was that – the villagers headed back home and we continued on our way.

Satisfied with their discussion with the Marine commander these villagers are heading back to bury one of their members.

Ltcol Ellison is an exceptionally gifted commander with a very clear understanding of what he is doing and where his efforts are going.  His rules of engagement are different from his sister battalions to the north and south of him.  He has packed away his 81 mortars and sent that large platoon out west in the desert across the Helmand river to interdict Taliban fighter infiltration. He only lets his company commanders shoot illumination rounds from their 60 mortars unless there are exceptional circumstances requiring HE (high explosive) rounds.  He told me the battalion that proceeded him, the 1st Battalion 6th Marines had cleared central Marjah and that he was solidly in the hold phase of the operation.  He has spread out into over 80 positions ranging from lone static MRAP’s  (manned by rotating fireteams) watching areas of high IED activity to squad, platoon and company combat outposts.  LtCol Ellison told me “we shoot a lot of Hellfire’s and sometimes other air delivered ordnance but for the most part our aggressive patrolling keeps the Taliban out.  We’re driving the incident numbers into the basement.”

Thermal camera on the front of the new MATV – they are a really nice ride
A platoon patrol base – pretty spartan digs for these guys too.

In the northern outskirts of Marjah and beyond the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines (2/9) has been tasked with pushing the Taliban out of the populated areas and keeping them out.  They have sections of 81mm mortars in each company patrol base and use them frequently.

81 section set up in the middle of a 2/9 company patrol base

The portion of 2/9’s A.O. that I saw looked exactly like the rest of Marjah.  The same large grid pattern with clusters of houses surrounded by fields but there were a lot less people visible in the streets and fields.  The Marines patrol aggressively but get much more contact and they are much quicker with the supporting arms and heavy machineguns.  Fire missions have to be cleared at the battalion level but that is how the Marines do things regardless of front specific ROE and the reason for this is de-confliction.  They have a lot of Marines out patrolling at any given time and have to know where all of them are before they cut lose the firepower.

Rifle company CP’s are pretty high tech these days. The watch chief has a chat window open with the battalion and updates it constantly with locations of friendly patrols as well as a narrative of what they are up to. Accounting for them when clearing fire missions is virtually instantaneous.

Rifle company CP’s are pretty high tech these days. The watch chief has a chat window open with the battalion and updates them constantly with locations of friendly patrols as well as a narrative of what they are up to. Accounting for them when clearing fire missions is virtually instantaneous.  When a patrol makes contact or calls in a casualty the chat box pops up on every operations screen in the region. This makes clearing fires or launching a medical evacuation  just  a matter of minutes after the green light is received.

Marjah is the first place I have seen ANCOP’s who are the Afghanistan National Civil Order Police. The Marines make good use of them and they also give them specialized training at Camp Leatherneck prior to sending them out.  The ANCOPs I saw in Marjah were clearly Tajiks from the North of the country.  They spend a lot of time talking with the local people and they are clearly a valuable asset in gaining the kind of local atmospherics which can greatly aid the Marines as they work through the “Hold” portion of their mission.  I have seen articles like this one in the press about patrols from 2/6 looking for the houses of certain tribal members.  I am guessing that was earlier in the  deployment. They seem to know all the tribal members now and would be sending the ANCOP’s out to locate the compound for a specific guy if they did not already know where he lived.

ANCOP’s at the bazaar. These guy’s look like they hail from the Panjshier valley. They are there to restore civil order and act like it. They have also earned the trust of the local people – there have been no reports of misbehavior by the ANCOP’s in Marjah.

Marjah is a small area of Helmand province with a unique set of circumstances.  It was fascinating to me that Marine battalions had adapted with different operational templates between units just a few miles away from each other.  But that is what it takes to do counterinsurgency.  The ability to adapt and make tactical determinations based on micro level ground truth is essential to the mission.

The Marines have a distinct advantage in counterinsurgency due to the size of their maneuver units.  Marine rifle companies, battalion and regiments are much larger than their army counterparts. This is a legacy of World War II where the Marine battalion table of organization was designed to allow the battalion to function in the face of heavy casualties. Size matters in most things and especially when it comes to boots on the ground but the Marines also have another advantage;their well documented bias for action.

Not all my readers thought Mac’s observation in this post; (that this is smart guys war) – was that smart.  I did at the time and now that I have seen the line units in the field I agree with Mac even more. I’m all for stopping most night raids and using those teams for village stability operations. I am also for adopting convoy techniques that fit the local environment so that the shooting of civilian vehicles (which I have to admit has dropped off considerably over the past year) stops.  But it seems to me that the current ROE is proving to be more than adequate for those who can fight the smart guy war.

Healing Ulcer

After only 90 days of fighting to root out the Taliban from a place they have owned for over a decade Gen McChrystal called Marjah a bleeding ulcer. That was a harsh assessment given the tenacity of the enemy, the tight rules of engagement, and the limited amount of time the Marines have invested in the fight.  Marjah is still being called “the most dangerous place in Afghanistan” by embedded media which is, in my professional opinion, not true.  I’ve just returned from a three day trip into Marjah after being lucky enough to catch a ride with the CO of Regimental Combat Team 1, Col Dave Furness. There is too much information from that trip to post in one sitting so the first dispatch from the trip will cover Marjah.  The other things I saw, like Senators McCain, Lieberman, Graham and Gillibrand in the Nawa District Center will have to wait.

The CO of 2/6, LtCol Kyle Ellison with his boss Col Furness talking to local shop owners in the Marjah Bazaar during his Friday morning walk about. Note the lack of body armor and helmets
The CO of 2/6, LtCol Kyle Ellison with his boss Col Dave Furness talking to local shop owners in the Marjah Bazaar during his Friday morning walk about. Note the lack of body armor and helmets

Counterinsurgency requires boots on the ground when you need them and time. The Marines have been at this task (clearing Helmand Province) for nine months and they are winning.  But it is not easy and it is not cheap in the terms of treasure or blood.  Despite this, the one complaint I heard from virtually every commander I talked with concerned their ability to rapidly employ the most potent tool in their arsenal – money.  They feel the clearing is about done so its time to start the “holding’ piece. But holding takes money to build stuff and provide services and money comes from the contracting establishment and that establishment is not designed for or capable of rapidly dispensing money.

The first stop in Marjah was COP Shanfield which is named after one of the squad leaders from 2nd platoon Echo 2/6 who was killed in action nearby. This is the COC - 2/6 is known as The Spartans
The first stop in Marjah was COP Shanfield which is named after one of the squad leaders from 3rd platoon Echo 2/6 who was killed in action nearby. This is the COC which monitors the squad sized patrols that are pushed out of this small base 24/7.

We entered Marjah on the afternoon of 11 November heading directly to one of the dozens of platoon combat outposts (COP’s) which dot the Marjah area.  We were heading for an important ceremony but not one we would wish on anyone else. A painful yet important ritual designed to honor the dead while assisting the living in dealing with the loss of comrades they knew intimately and loved deeply. That is the dynamic of infantry – you know your fellow Marine better than anyone else in the world knows him. You may not always like every member of your platoon but you love all of them. And there is not doubt in the mind of an infantry Marine that the men he is with will instantly and willingly take suicidal risks to help him if he is in trouble. Memorials are tough and this one was especially tough for the very tight 3rd Platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion 6th Marines because they were saying goodbye to their leader.

1stLt James R. Zimmerman of Aroostock, Maine was killed in action on the 2nd of November 2010. He
1stLt James R. Zimmerman of Aroostock, Maine was killed in action on the 2nd of November 2010. He is survived by his parents and his wife Lynel.

 

The universal sign of a tight platoon headed by an exceptional platoon commander is how the junior Marines
The sign of a tight platoon is how the junior Marines feel about their leader. Here a young corporal in a filthy uniform with a field haircut gathers himself to deliver a tremendous tribute to his former commander.  It was an obvious emotional strain for him which is normal given the circumstances. What was unusual was the amount of love and respect these Marines had for their platoon commander.  1stLt James R. Zimmerman, USMC was obviously an extraordinary leader who will always be missed by friends, family and his Marines.

 

The firing detail
The firing detail

 

There is nothing easy about being an infantryman in combat
There is nothing easy about being an infantryman in combat

This was my first visit to a Marine COP and I wished it had been for another purpose.  Marjah is rapidly healing but that doesn’t mean the Talbian has given up and gone to ground.

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 when they fire at a patrol they have already set up IED’s between their positions and the Marines. The Taliban have learned through bitter experience that Marine infantry maneuvers aggressively while employing precision supporting fires and will close with and destroy those who stand and fight them. The Taliban started to use small arms in an attempt to lure aggressive Marines into mine fields full of improvised explosive devices.  Now the Marines maneuver to fix the teams engaging with small arms and then swarm them with other units coming in from a different directions or with precision fire from drones.  That’s the purpose for establishing multiple small potions from which to patrol 24/7.

Every Friday the 2/6 CO goes for a tour of the central bazaar. When he started he could make it from his outpost to the ANP post on the far side in 20 minutes. These days he can't make it that far due to the crowds of Afghans who want to stop and tell him two things; 1. they appreciate the Marines and what they have done and 2. Please don't leave and let the Taliban come back
Every Friday the 2/6 CO goes for a tour of the central bazaar. When he started he could make it from his outpost to the ANP post on the far side in 20 minutes. These days he can’t make it that far due to the crowds of Afghans who want to stop and tell him two things; 1. they appreciate the Marines and what they have done and 2. Please don’t leave and let the Taliban come back.

 

The CO has not gotten far when more residents stop to chat
The CO has not gotten far when more residents stop to chat

 

The crowds continue to grow and note how relaxed everyone is in a bazaar where this past summer we were dropping 2000 pound JDAMs
The crowds continue to grow and note how relaxed everyone is in a bazaar where this past summer we were dropping 2000 pound JDAMs

 

The Marines took the funds from the "Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure" and stood up armed neighborhood watch groups organized by blocks. The ISCI program was apparently designed to allow commanders to hire local "security contractors" for guarding critical infrastructure which is stupid. The Marines view the people as the most "critical infrastructre" they have in their AO so they spend those program funds on armed security of the people by the people. On blocks with ISCI guards there are no Taliban. As this car load was heading backing home they got a stern reminder from LtCol Ellison "remember fellas if you are not on your block the weapons stay in the cars right?"
The Marines took the funds from the “Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure” and stood up armed neighborhood watch groups organized by blocks. The ISCI program was apparently designed to allow commanders to hire local “security contractors” for guarding critical infrastructure which is stupid. The Marines view the people as the most “critical infrastructure” they have in their AO so they spend those program funds on armed security of the people by the people. On blocks with ISCI guards ( identified by the arm bands)  there are no Taliban. As this car load was heading back home they got a stern reminder from LtCol Ellison “remember fellas if you are not on your block the weapons stay in the cars right?”

 

 

On the way back to base LtCol Ellison stops to present a battalion coin to an Afghan policeman telling him he earned it by always being at his post with his weapon and controlling his intersection like a professional which the Marines find "motivating". This is counterinsurgency 101 in action where small acts of recognition provide huge amounts of motivation
On the way back to base LtCol Ellison stops to present a battalion coin to an Afghan policeman telling him he earned it by always being at his post with his weapon and controlling his intersection like a professional which the Marines find “motivating”. This is counterinsurgency 101 in action where small acts of recognition provide huge amounts of motivation

 

After the bazaar tour it was time for another memorial this one for Staff Sergeant Jordan B Emrick, an EOD technician who gave his full measure while working with a platoon patrol. The Platoon commander who was on point thought he say something in the ground and SSGT Emrick stepped up to assess what the Lt had spotted. It was a command detonated mine which went off as SSGT Emrick squatted to get a good look at it.took the full blast.
After the bazaar tour it was time for another memorial this one for Staff Sergeant Jordan B Emrick, an EOD technician who gave his full measure while working with a platoon patrol. The Platoon commander who was on point thought he saw something in the ground and SSGT Emrick stepped up to assess what the Lt had spotted. It was a command detonated mine which detonated as SSGT Emrick squatted to get a good look at it.

 

The afternoon started with a "strong man" show at the local school. Both Inchon 6 and Spartan 6 were invited by the District Governor
The afternoon started with a “strong man” show at the local school. Both Inchon 6 and Spartan 6 were invited by the District Governor.  In this photo the Sergeants Major from RCT 1 and 2/6 are getting the kids pumped up before the big show.

 

Waiting for the Parwan performance
Waiting for the Parwan performance

 

The ANP arrive with the District Governor
The ANP arrive with the District Governor

 

The show starts with forms from both father and son
The show starts with forms from both father and son

 

Then some father and son brick breaking on a bed on nails
Then some father and son brick breaking on a bed on nails

 

 

More bed of nails work
More bed of nails work

 

The show concluded with the classic "run over the Parwan with a tractor load of police trick
The show concluded with the classic “run over the Parwan with a tractor load of police” trick

 

That evening we were invited to a dinner in the newly opened restaurant by the District Governor
That evening we were invited to a dinner in the newly opened restaurant by the District Governor so we headed downtown again on foot.

 

Some of the elders from blocks which have recently been cleared also attened the meal - they were there to ask for permission to stand up ISCI teams in their blocks which comes from the District Governors office
Some of the elders from blocks which have recently been cleared also attended the meal – they were there to ask for permission to stand up ISCI teams in their blocks which comes from the District Governors office

 

The Marine leaders make it a point to travel into Marjah "slick" which means without body armor and helmets as a show of confidence in local security conditions. But they're not stupid and a fully armed security detail travels with them. A dinner like this attracts things like suicide bombers but there is no way any unknown person would get through the layers of security and into the restaurant. They certainly would have never gotten past these two devil dogs.s
The Marine leaders make it a point to travel into Marjah “slick” which means without body armor and helmets as a show of confidence in local security conditions. But they’re not stupid and a fully armed security detail travels with them. A dinner like this attracts things like suicide bombers but there is no way any unknown person would get through the layers of security and into the restaurant. They certainly would have never gotten past these two devil dogs.

Marjah is no longer the most dangerous place in Afghanistan. That distinction belongs to Sangin where Col Paul Kennedy is leading the 2nd Regimental Combat Team is a very stiff fight to secure the area.  The Marines way of conducting the counterinsurgency fight has caused some friction with our allies who think they are too aggressive. They are, without question, the most aggressive fighters in Afghanistan but they are also proving to be the most adept at holding the ground they have cleared. The battalion which proceeded 2/6 in downtown Marjah, the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marines had a 90/10 IED find rate.  Only 10% of the IED’s targeting them detonated and the others were either detected by the Marines or (in a vast majority of the time) were pointed out to the Marines by the local population.

Colonel Furness told me there was a Corporal in 3/1 (deployed in the South around Khanishin) who had an uncanny ability to spot IED’s. His squad wanted him on point every day. 49 times there were IED’s placed to target them and 49 times this Corporal found them first. Know what you get when you find mines targeting your squad 49 times in a row? Probably a lot of love and respect from your fellow Marines but you don’t get a combat action ribbon because when you find the mines every time the villains don’t shoot.  Mine blasts are used as the signal to attack with small arms and the Taliban are not known for their ability to contingency plan so when the mine doesn’t blow they slink off. Imagine that; seven months of constant patrols in a kinetic environment but because you are so good at spotting mines you don’t get to wear the coveted combat action ribbon. Col Furness isn’t a big fan of that order but it is an order so as 3/1 was leaving he showed up at a company formation and meritoriously promoted the kid to Sergeant. “It was the least I could do – the kid deserved a hell of lot more… I wish I had 100 more just like him.”

Here is another story you don’t hear every day. Today one of the squad patrols from 2/6 was stopped by a local man who wanted to turn in his son for being Taliban. He had told the kid over and over he did not want him fighting for the Taliban who he believes to be un-Islamic.  The father and one of his other sons went to the district center to have their statements video tapped and after doing so his son was arrested.

Counterinsurgency takes time and it is hard on the men and women doing the fighting.  The question is not can we prevail but will we be allowed to prevail and that question can only be answered by our Commander in Chief. The President can only “vote present” on Afghanistan for so long.  He needs to tell the American people and our allies what we are trying to accomplish in order to define an endstate.  The “July 2011 draw down” of forces is not a plan or an endstate or even a good idea. It is an abdication of leadership for a meaningless date which is predicated on nothing more than political calculation. Our president is rumored to be a very smart man. It is time for him to prove it.

Afghanistan Summary

This summary comes from Sami the Finn a.k.a Sami Kovanen, the Senior Information Analyst at Indicium Consulting. Sami has been in Afghanistan for over six years now and is one of the best informed analyst working outside of the ISAF security bubble.  He was kind enough to let me post this update and for those of you who are interested in additional analysis of this type you can reach Sami via the Indcium Consulting website at www.indiciumconsulting.net

On this week numbers of countrywide incidents decreased slightly in every category in comparison to previous reporting period, but in spite of the decrease on this week, the overall trend after the elections is still showing upwards, which is not a promising sign for this winter and expected lull in fighting what usually has started this time of the year. Even if the trend would turn in near future, still the difference between this and last year is drastic and actually been increasing from earlier months of this year (from last year TB / AGE incidents were approx 40% up during the first three months of this year, during the summer incidents were approx 80% higher than on last year and since the election TB / AGE (Taliban / Anti-Government Elements) incidents have been up approx 120%).

If the same trend will continue throughout the winter we will have total of approx 17500 – 18000 TB / AGE initiated incidents on this year, which would be approx 80% higher than last year. And if the current trend would continue throughout the next year we could be witnessing approx 34000 – 36000 TB / AGE initiated incidents during the next year. Although this is unlikely scenario and more likely the increase of attacks will not continue with the current pace, the outlook of next year is grim. This is a concern especially when considering the current situation and overstretched IMF / ANSF (International Military Forces / Afghanistan Security Forces) troops and their capacity. Even if the more conservative estimation of the next year’s attack rate is somewhere at around 30000 incidents, it still will pose a serious challenges for IMF / ANSF troops to manage the overall situation, especially if the TB / AGE elements are able to continue their infiltration into earlier calm areas like what is happening at the moment.

Kinetic operations by International Military and Afghan security forces have continued with high tempo. Militarily these operations have continued been success with significant amount of TB / AGE leaders, facilitators and fighters been killed, but the affect on the field is still unseen in many ways and TB / AGE elements have continued showing extreme capabilities to cope in spite of the significant loses. However, there are some indicators about the lower morale among fighters and especially disruptions of the supply chains, which might have an effect to ground level situation and bring some results in the future.

Total numbers of incidents on this week were 522 incidents (550 on last week); from which 393 were relatively serious incidents (420 on last week) and 482 incidents were related to TB / AGE elements (518 on last week). During the last three weeks there have been total of 1172 TB / AGE incidents in Afghanistan, which is significantly higher than 448 attacks on same weeks last year (162% increase from last year).

Route Clearance Package working outside of Kandahar
An American Route Clearance Package working outside of Kandahar

At Regional level TB / AGE incidents increased significantly in North-eastern Region (after last week’s similar drop) and slightly in Northern and Southern Region. In South-eastern, Eastern, Central Regions incidents decreased noteworthy, although still within the normal weekly fluctuation.

Breakdown of TB / AGE incidents by Regions:

  1. South-eastern Region (140 incidents – 36% of countrywide incidents)
  2. Southern Region (125 incidents – 32%)
  3. Eastern Region (36 incidents – 9%)
  4. Central Region (34 incidents – 9%)
  5. Western Region (21 incidents – 5%)
  6. North-eastern Region (21 incidents – 5%)
  7. Northern Region (16 incidents – 4%)
  8. Central Highlands (0 incidents)

Main types of attacks have remained consistent with earlier weeks; IEDs (163 previous week 164) have remained the numbers one tactic, followed by CPX (complex) attacks (82 previous week 81), SAF (Small Arms Fire) attacks (76 previous week 101) and rocket / mortar attacks (43 previous week 42). Suicide attacks have continued with average of 2.5 attacks per weekly, which is slightly lower than last year’s weekly average of 3 attacks per week. However, due to increasing usage of suicide bombers in complex attacks, the amount of used suicide bombers have continued increasing in Afghanistan.

Harassment / intimidation and direct attacks against civilian population (IEDs, rockets, SAF, assassinations, abductions, etc), or incident in which civilians are affected indirectly have continued at high level. On this week there were at least 98 incidents / attacks initiated by TB / AGE elements in which civilians were targeted directly or affected indirectly. Once again majority of these incidents occurred in Southern and South-eastern Regions.