I just did something today which would have been suicidal 10 months ago. My colleague Little Mac and I, in the company of a Marine tank officer and Naval surface warfare officer (he’s a fires guy by trade) just strolled around the town of Naw Zad with no body armor, no helmets, no riflemen escorting us, munching on local bread and handing out candy to the kids. We are safer here than we would be in downtown Chicago. Naw Zad was once the third largest populated area in the province. By 2007 the civilian population had fled the area and there was nobody here except bad guys and a few hard pressed British and Estonian infantrymen.
Fox company 2nd Battalion 7th Marines (Fox 2/7) arrived in Naw Zad to reinforce the Brits in late 2008 and were able to expand the security bubble but not by much. The Brits, Estonians and Marines fought side by side to expel the Taliban from this fertile valley but were hampered by restrictive ROE pushed down from on high by senior officers in Kabul who lacked common sense and experience at counterinsurgency warfare. The Marines and their allies lost a lot of men because they did not have the mass or firepower to do the job correctly. Way back then there was a lone voice in the blogsphere pleading with all who would listen to free up the combat power and let the Marines in Naw Zad fight. His name is Herschel Smith and his posts at the Captains Journal can be found here. It is worth your time to read them all.
In the summer of 2009 the U.S. Marines had deployed the 2nd Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan and their first move was to clear out Naw Zad and the surrounding hamlets of all Taliban. The 2nd MEB was commanded by BGen Larry Nicholson who I was fortunate to serve with as a young Lieutenant back in the 80’s. He had his own Tac Air, his own artillery, his own rotary wing transport and gunships and he had his own ideas about how to fight. He didn’t have to go to the powers that be in Kabul or Kandahar because he didn’t need anything from them. He seeded the high ground overlooking the rat lines running into Naw Zad with sniper and recon teams in June. They immediately started collecting scalps and then on 2 July 2009 he launched Operation Khanjar dropping 2000 grunts onto Naw Zad and the surrounding villages to finish the Taliban off. The Taliban reacted as they always do when faced with superior forces – they broke contact and ran…into the sniper teams.
Fighting in the town of Naw Zad and its adjacent hamlets is long over. The Taliban can’t muster the manpower or firepower required to drive the Marines out so we are now deep into the “hold & build” stage of the operation and it is slow going. Every brick, piece of steel, bag of cement and all hand tools have to be trucked in from Camp Bastion or Lashkar Gah. My old battalion 1/8 has has deployed a rifle company (C 1/8) to Naw Zad for the past six months facilitating the hold and build while expanding the zone of safety further into the hinterlands. Actually the rifle company headquarters is based here with what looks like a platoon or so in the district center proper. The three rifle platoons are working areas to the north and southeast.
The roads to the south of Dahaneh are controlled by the Taliban. They cannot stand and fight the Marines like they do the army in the east because there aren’t enough of them, the terrain doesn’t facilitate ambushes, and they can’t run to Pakistan for sanctuary. So they use IED’s… a lot of IED’s which, as IED’s do in Afghanistan, strike disproportionately against the civilian population. In order to get building material into the valley local truckers insist on being escorted by Marines. The Marines know the Taliban are going to plant IED’s and they literally walk the convoys into the valley. The 65 kilometer trip from Bastion to Naw Zad takes two days; most of that time is spent waiting for the engineers to blow IED’s which have been seeded ahead of them.
The villains have deployed countless numbers of IED’s targeting the Marines of 1/8. Only three of them scored hits but none have resulted in a fatality. One can only wish IED’s were so ineffective in other areas of Helmand Province. The Naw Zad area has been cleared; the hold and build underway. The Marines who are here would like to be somewhere else – preferably a place where the Taliban will stand and fight them. Infantry Marines, even after ten years of constant deployment, still hunger for a good fight. But that is not to be for 1/8 as they are stuck in place to do the hold and build. There was a time when Marines were dying here and there needed to be a lot more thrown into the fight. Now Marines are fighting and dying in other places like Sangin and they need more of their brother devil dogs to back them up. Now many of the folks I correspond with are starting to see what I was talking about when I opined that you need a hold and build force working directly for the ground commander. This is where contractors can save money, time and lives by freeing up the gunfighters to do what they do best. Kill villains, protect the innocent, and unmask the evil who prey upon the population.