The Battle for Marjah
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 are 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 Nowzad the Marines spent months talking about what they were going do 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 magic show analogy is most appropriate for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB) because they have many balls up in the air which have to be managed. They are working under a NATO chain of command with allies who add very little to the fight. Managing these relationships is a distraction and tedious but is still important. The Marines success so far in the Helmand has won them the dubious honor of hosting multiple junkets from our political masters, which is also a distraction and tedious but important. On top of that they have the various other US Gov agencies to work coordinate with and that too takes time, personnel and attention from senior commanders- commodities that are always in short supply.
The current Marjah operation is a replay of the Nowzad 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.
Last summer Gen Nicholson talked often about how hard it will be to dislodge the Taliban from places like Nawzad stating repeatedly that the battle would be tough and cost a ton in the only currency important to him; the blood of his Marines. Yet when the Marines moved into Nawzad they had little fighting to do. The Taliban (according to the MSM) had fled in advance of the Marines and nobody really knew where they ran off too because they are tricky bastards who look like local farmers when they move about the AO.
General Nicholson knew where they were and so did his Marines; they were dead. I guess they all migrated to paradise if there is a paradise for defeated armies who were stripped of their civilian cover, tricked by multiple feints into revealing their locations and plans, and then whittled down by small teams of reconnaissance Marines with attached snipers who don’t mind living in the rough forgoing pecan pie, A/C, and internet access while staying deep behind enemy lines for weeks at a time. One feint, two feint, three feint, four; call in an air strike and the Taliban are no more. I just made that up but it should be a run jody for the 2nd Recon battalion; that is exactly what they did then and are doing now.
While the Marines handled the close fight around Marjah they used the varsity Special Operations assets to go deep. Getting those organizations to work for you in a subordinate role is not just hard; it is one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Marine deployment to date. I’ve known General Nicholson and the senior members of his operations staff all my adult life and this last accomplishment impresses me more than anything else they have done since arriving in Afghanistan. That’s how hard it is to get the big boys to play nice. One of the consistent complaints concerning the Joint Special Operations forces in Afghanistan is their penchant for running operations without informing or coordinating or even talking to the battle space commander responsible for the area they were working. Tim of Panjwai once got a call from the Canadian HQ in Kandahar back in the day when he was on active duty and in command of a company deployed deep inside the Panjwai district:
Why are you currently fighting in the town of XXXX? he was asked.
Sir, I’m on my COP and were I not here and engaged in some sort of fight I assure you sir, that you would be the first to know.
Then who the hell is in XXXX wearing Canadian uniforms shooting the place up?
It was the varsity SF guys running their own mission with their own assets for reasons known only to them. Tim and his troops had to deal with the mess they created after they were long gone. To this day they have no idea what went on or if the mission’ which cost them in lost credibility, lost cooperation and the loss of hard earned good will was worth it.
The Marines made a deal last summer which went something like this: “we want you guys operating in our AO and we will give you priority on our rotary wing, intelligence and fire support assets but you have work with us integrating everything you do with our campaign plan.” It was not an easy sell and at first there was reluctance from the varsity to cooperate. But they gave it a shot and they started chalking up success after success and nothing attracts more talent into the game like success. While the Marine snipers and their recon brothers have been bleeding the Taliban around Marjah the varsity has been going deep and going deep often. All the big boys have joined the game now, the SAS, the SEAL’s, The Unit and other organizations who you have never heard of and never will hear about. It is true that killing lots of fighters is not that relevant in the COIN battle. Yet you still need to target and kill competent leaders along with any proficient logistic coordinators who pop up on the radar screen. The varsity SOF guys have been doing that for months. Soon we will know how effective their efforts have been.
According to this recent article; Gen McChrystal is seeing progress in Afghanistan. A close reading reveals that the signs of progress he mentions are all located in the AO of the 2nd MEB. No mention of the Army Stryker brigade who patrols highways 4 and 1 at 15 miles per hour to detect IED’s. No mention of the other army brigades in the east, the southeast or any of the other NATO forces that operate in the rest of the country. This leads me to believe that the units in the rest of the country have yet to change their operational focus and are continuing to do what they’ve been doing for the past 7 years.
It would appear that the fate of the military and developmental effort has been placed onto the shoulders of a Brigadier General and his small band of Marines. Every US government agency that is supposed to be supporting him in this fight has failed to deliver. The Department of State and USAID are supposed to take on the hold and build portion of the operations in the south but when it came time to actually put district stabilization teams into the districts last summer they balked.
The few competent outside the wire contractors who are currently supporting the Marine efforts with USAID funded projects have to fight USAID FSO’s in order to do so. Many (not all) of the FSO’s are more concerned about procedure than results. They get pissed when small contractors working directly with the Marines cut them out of the loop.
A few hours ago the Marines crossed the line of departure and the battle has been joined by one of the biggest assault forces yet assembled in Afghanistan. If my read on this fight is correct then it will be over very quickly and the butchers bill will be small. The Marines will win, there is no question about that but that is the easy part. Somebody has to do the hold and build and it is not fair or smart to put that burden on the 2nd MEB. Say a prayer for the fighting men from multiple nations who crossed the line of departure today. Then say another prayer seeking divine intervention with our political leaders so they get a clue and start demanding that the organizations who are supposed to be winning the peace do what they have been sent to do. It would be a crime to see all the sacrifices made by our military squandered due to apathy, risk aversion, lack of innovation and the parochial guarding of rice bowls.
Render who runs the Last Stand blog points out that my good friend Michael Yon sneaked into Afghanistan without stopping by the Taj (that’s twice now Michael which you know is a violation of combat correspondent Bushido code) so you will want to check his site often once he gets embedded. Until then the best source to check with daily is Bill Roggio’s Long War Journal. Hat tip to Render… thanks brother, you rock.
* David Guttenfelder is an exceptionally talented professional photographer. You can find a collection of his work at on this website.