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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.