My latest trip included a quick stop in a dusty, sparsely populated corner of Afghanistan where I found my best friend Colonel Paul Kennedy USMC. Paul and I were instructors at the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) 20 years ago, after IOC we were both pulled out of the last quarter of the Amphibious Warfare School to work together on a project for then LtGen Krulak. We later ended up in Okinawa at the same time where we were battalion operations officers (we were still captains then). We both were selected to be Recruiting Station commanders back in the late 90’s when every other service were failing to make their annual recruiting quotas. I had RS Salt Lake City and after missing mission the first month of my tour I never failed again. Paul had RS San Francisco and never once failed to make mission. Think about that … San Francisco, not the most military friendly town in America and he not only made his mission but consistently over shipped month in and month out to carry the 12 Marine Corps Recruiting District during the days when making mission was a nightmare. I had all of Montana, Idaho, Utah and a good bit of Wyoming and Nevada to recruit from, but rarely had the bones to over ship. When it comes to leading Marines and accomplishing the mission, regardless of what that mission may be, Paul is one of the guys I’ll admit is better than I was at leading Marines.
Paul is currently commanding Regimental Combat Team 2, which has around 6000 Marines on its rolls. They will ultimately comprise half of the ground combat power for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (forward) when it arrives in country sometime this spring. Paul has developed into one of the finest combat commanders of his generation. His combat tour in Ramadi, Iraq where he commanded the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines (2/4) was a battle from the start, which has been documented in books by Bing West and Oliver North. He was hard pressed on several occasions, sustaining heavy casualties while inflicting much heavier losses on his attackers. Despite fighting virtually every day during his year in Ramadi he was able to restore city infrastructure, open local schools and he never shot artillery or ran tac air into the city. There are at least three Marines in his regiment who are brothers of 2/4 Marines killed in action in Ramadi during Paul’s tenure as the commanding officer. He knows this because their mothers have written him to say that there is no other leader in the Corps they would want watching over their son as he ships out to fight the Taliban. That the younger brothers of those lost warriors would work the system to join his regiment so that they too could have a chance to fight under such a dynamic, proficient combat leader is, even to me, stunning. I don’t know about you but when I hear that a mother who has already lost a son in Iraq has written Paul to tell him another of her precious sons is currently under his command as he again enters the fray and that both Marine and parent would have it no other way, it brings a little water to my eyes. Paul’s too, but I pretended not to notice things like that (USMC Bushido Code rules.)
Paul and the 6000 or so of his closest friends here with him have a very tough road ahead of them. They are taking over towns which have been giving the British army fits over the past years while simultaneously taking on new areas under solid Taliban control. Paul has no intention of using the “penny packet” outpost system currently being used by allied forces in places like Musa Qala. He has no intention of allowing his main LOC’s to be cut and dominated by the Taliban. He has no intention of leaving his maneuver battalions on FOB’s, nor does he plan to be on his for very much of the next year. He intends to find, fix and destroy every armed group operating in his AO so that he can get to the real mission assigned to him, which is to hold and build. Nobody knows how to use violence of action to take the fight to insurgents better than the Marines. All it takes is one look at the infantrymen of RCT 2 to get the clue that a new apex predator has moved into northern Helmand Province. No greater friend, no worse enemy; you can take that to the bank.
Paul already has one of his maneuver battalions on deck, the 1st Battalion 2nd Marines (pronounce one/two in Marine speak), commanded by LtCol Mike Manning, a student of ours back when we were on the IOC staff. Mike and his battalion command group spend four to five days a week on operations with joint Marine/Afghan Army patrols, living and sleeping in the rough like traditional infantry. Two of his three rifle companies are out in the boonies at all times. They are not finding too many bad guys in the Naw Zad area, so they spend most of their time interacting with and helping out the local population. As I have said in the past, there are very few places in this country which do not welcome American infantry. The caveat is that the Afghans would prefer the Americans- or British or Canadian or Norwegians to hang around for a year or two to eradicate the conditions that drive the cycle of violence. One of the places I would not have expected to welcome the Marines would be Naw Zad because most of the farmers in that area have fought for or support the other side in this conflict. That makes little difference to the Marines who are more than willing to let bygones be bygones as long as everyone can get along. It is when the local villains decide not to play nice that the true difference between the Marine way of fighting and theirs becomes evident.
Western armies have three options upon enemy contact: violence of action in the form of direct assault by heavy infantry, using supporting arms to soften the enemy followed by a direct assault, or using direct arms in combination with direct fire to punish the enemy before withdrawing without making physical contact. The last option, although the most common response by NATO units, is the least preferred. Fire without maneuver is a waste of resources and accomplishes little.
As I have said in the past humans can adapt to aerial bombardment over time but they can never adapt to another human who has come to kill them at close range. Bombs ultimately do not scare humans; humans scare humans. Just as the Koreans and Chinese learned to avoid the “yellow legs” during the Korean War and Somalis learned to fear the “black boots” and the Haitians rapidly figured out not to tangle with the “white sleeves“, the Taliban in Northern Helmand are about to get the same graduate-level education that their southern brethren started receiving over a year ago when Duffy White and his Regimental Combat Team arrived in country. Trying to play shoot and scoot with the Marines is a dead mans game. Use IED attacks on the Marines and they will quickly get “left of the boom” to collect the scalps they are due. The local Talib leaders can stay here and go with the program to reap the benefits of American generosity as we re-build this shattered land or they can leave for some other shit hole to cause mischief or they can try to fight. There are no longer any other options for them in the Helmand Province.
The Marines from RCT 2 are going to prove predictable too. When attacked they will respond with direct assaults and once contact is made they will not let go until their tormentors are decimated. Direct assaults break the cycle of violence by stripping the bad guys of experienced fighters. Experienced fighters who keep their wits in the face of direct assault are dangerous adversaries. They can cost you a fortune in time, ammo, or blood – the three commodities you never have enough of in combat. Less experienced cadres will do one of three things: stay in place because they are too freaked out to move; break contact and run because they are too freaked out to stay; or quickly surrender because they are too freaked out to fight. Afghans do not have a cultural history of standing firm in battle and slugging it out toe to toe with heavy infantry. Only men of the west fight using that style of warfare, which is why western armies have dominated those of other lands since the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. I am not saying the Afghan Taliban does not have brave fighters….they do, but brave individual fighters do not a cohesive combat unit make. The shock of rapid, violent assault by multiple platoons from multiple angles is something only a well trained, well equipped, well supported western army can handle. The Talibs of Helmand Province are accustomed to ISAF forces engaging from a 1000 meters out, dropping some tac air or arty on them and withdrawing. RCT 2 doesn’t play the drop ordinance and withdraw game. They play the close with you and stay on your ass until you are dead game.
Although I was able to talk at great length with Paul about his combat experience that was not why he wanted to see me. I have always wondered if the theories about human factors in combat we studied so diligently, argued over so passionately and taught to our students 20 years ago turned out to be true. They did but I don’t want to bore you with that least I catch you know what from you know who. Paul has the combat part of his mission down cold but understands that his band of Killer Angels has a much harder mission than seeking out and destroying their enemies. They need to master the “hold and build”, which is not something combat units train to do. The true mission of RCT 2 is described perfectly in today’s excellent post by Richard Fernandez at the Belmont Club.
“Kaplan describes how in the process of muddling along through intractable situations, the US military has become the master of the possible, simply because they have had to be. Kaplan predicts they may succeed in Afghanistan yet again and that very success will become a poisoned pawn.
The secret to their success, Kaplan says in his article Man Versus Afghanistan, is that the men in the field have discovered what their political masters have long forgotten: legal concepts are not enough. Governance doesn’t just mean installing someone, anyone – let alone someone as corrupt as Karzai- and recognizing them as sovereign. Governance means the ability to harness a population’s aspirations to make things work. To paraphrase Lenin’s famous observation on Communism, counterinsurgency is the freedom agenda plus competence. And the worst thing about the US military, Kaplan says, is that they’ve learned to do it. Kaplan describes how McChrystal has approached the problem and is at some level alarmed at how good at it they’ve become.”
Mullah John and Raybo who are working the southwest for Ghost Team are going to be helping with the hold and build as they implement a very clever USAID project, which has flat lines of authority, flexibility, and speedy implementation built into the project design. This program is the follow-on to the very small project Panjwai Tim and I did last summer, and to the everlasting credit of USAID, has been reinforced by extra cash. Mullah John has over 10,000 Afghans working in Helmand, Farah and Nimroz Provinces and the only internationals involved are Raybo, an Aussie bloke I don’t know in Farah, and Mullah John. That is an unbelievable accomplishment considering the project started last December. Despite this success the best thing one can say about the other US Government agencies who are responsible for the “hold and build” is that they do not hinder our efforts in the cash for work programs currently being implemented by Ghost Team. The various funding streams for reconstruction, with their associated rules and multiple agencies who manage these complex programs from the safety of big box FOB’s makes the job of executing the “build” portion a supremely difficult task.
What is going to be even more difficult is reinforcing the success of Team Canada and crew as they grow what was once a small cash for work program into a regional reconstruction vehicle. The big boys in the reconstruction biz did not hire a platoon of former AID executives and a squad of retired Marine Colonels to lose business and prestige to a band of small upstarts who have accomplished in months what they have not been able to do in years. The Marine Corps, given their history of innovation, their institutional bias for action and our personal relationships with the current commanders are a perfect match to do effective hold and build. As I have blogged in the past it is possible to do reconstruction in contested areas without ridiculously expensive, completely ineffective security measures like B6 armored trucks and know- nothing gun goons escorting your expats. My good friends and I have been doing it for years and we are just now gaining traction with the guys who matter. I’m feeling more optimistic about the ultimate outcome of our adventure in Afghanistan then I have at any point in the five years I have been here. Time will tell if my optimism is warranted, but my money is and will remain on the Marines.