After only 90 days of fighting to root out the Taliban of a place they have owned for over a decade, Gen McChrystal called Marjah a bleeding ulcer. That was an unbelievably stupid assessment given the nature of the enemy, the rules of engagement placed on the Marines by the General, and the paltry amount of time the Marines had 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 who was taking a road trip to visit his battalions in the field. 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.
Counterinsurgency takes a lot of two things, boots on the ground and time. The Marines have been at this task for nine months and they are winning. But it is not easy, it is not cheap in the only currency we care about which is the blood of fellow Marines. The only persistent bitching I heard from Marine commanders concerned their ability to rapidly employ the most potent tool in their arsenal – money. They feel if they are the ones doing the clearing they should be doing the holding too and able to directly finance the projects they nominate. I have a lot to say about that myself but being in the reconstruction business I’m going to (this may be a first) shut up and let that sleeping dog lie for now. The best way to relate the current state of play in Marjah is with lots of pictures and a little bit of story telling.
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. As I have said many times before war means fighting and fighting means killing. Unfortunately the killing part of warfare cuts both ways and when the Americans lose a Marine his fellow Marines host a memorial service. This is a painful yet important ritual designed to not just to honor the dead but also assist 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.
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 slinked off to some other area in the Helmand. Marjah was place where they all ran after getting their asses kicked out of every significant town from Naw Zad in the north to Khanishin in the south and there is very little maneuver room left for the Taliban in Helmand Province.
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.
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 population of that 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 immoral and unislamic. The father and one of his other sons went to the district center and to have their statements video tapped and his son is now in custody.
Counterinsurgency takes time and it is not cheap for the men and women doing the fighting. The question is not if we can prevail but will we be allowed to do what it takes 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.