Task Force Southwest (the 300-man Marine Corps unit deploying to the Helmand province this spring) had a Full Mission Rehearsal exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C. that ran from February 27th – March 3rd. I was able to attend the first two days of the exercise (as an embedded reporter) with the Afghanistan National Police (ANP) training team who will be working out of the provincial capitol of Lashkar Gah. It was time well spent with a diverse crew of experienced Marines.
By diverse I mean they are from a variety of military occupational specialties (MOS’s) and they are volunteers. As mentioned in a earlier post one of the rules for embedded journalists is to not use the name, age and hometown of Marines in our reports. This is a force protection measure designed to prevent cyber stalking and/or cyber bullying of Marines and their families. That’s a legitimate concern these days so I won’t be focusing on individuals in this or future posts.
The ANP training team will be working with the ANP 505th Zone National Police in Lashkar Gah. The ANP team is heavy on officers, most of them experienced captains or majors who have deployed to Afghanistan. Even the Physicians Assistant attached to the team has over 12 months experience working with Afghan Security Forces (ASF) in Tarin Kot, capitol of Uruzgan province which was serious Indian Country.
Large pre-deployment exercises for Marine Corps units are designed to make the various subordinate headquarters work through their standard operations procedures (SOP’s) for contingencies they anticipate encountering while deployed. They do this using the communication equipment they are deploying with and under the control of their higher headquarters (BGen Roger Turners command group) which will be located at Camp Shorabak (30 miles away). These exercise can be boring as hell if the exercise control group is off it’s game but that no longer seems to be a problem.
The exercise control folks are now contractors who run exercises for a living and they were excellent at keeping the problem running smoothly and inserting serious events (like a VBIED blowing up at their front gate) when they were least expected. Contractors are a significant improvement for designing and running exercises of this type because there is no military occupational specialty (MOS) for conducting training exercises but you still need experts to do it correctly.
Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said “everything in war is simple. But the simplest thing is difficult”.
He was describing friction as it relates to military operations and that was the goal of the full mission rehearsal; gum up the works with serious problems and see how the various command groups handle solving them. It’s not the most exciting evolution to watch and it is also not that fun for the Marines who are working through the problems but it’s important to do. Operations centers need to remain calm and focused when under stress and the only way to get them there is to stress them during their pre-mission training.
Experienced military professionals can tell how good a unit it is within minutes of watching their tactical operations control (TOC) in action. But as a member of the press I wasn’t allowed inside TOC’s so I watched the problems play out from the medical spaces. I saw what I expected to see which was a group of experienced Marines working through problems in real time. Friction makes that hard to do when all the communication nets are involved (and some go down when the exercise controllers want to add stress) and I’ve seen command groups melt down with helmet fires under similar stress. The ANP training team did fine; they didn’t get too excited and never got far behind the event horizon by failing to maintain good situational awareness with their higher headquarters.
I found a corner on the second floor above medical that had not been claimed by Marines and slept there too. I knew to roll up my sleeping bag and mat and to keep my ruck packed during the day (so I didn’t stand out like a pouge) and it wasn’t long before I was making friends and chatting with the team. I liked them too – a good crew with a positive attitude and great stories from their prior deployments to Afghanistan. Plus I slept like a baby in my little corner on the second deck. I’m always awake before dawn and had a rental car staged at the airfield so I skipped out every morning for coffee and an egg sandwich. Talk about living the high life!
My best guess (and this is just a guess) is Task Force Southwest will head into the Helmand to help with the training and coordination but remained confined to the bases they will be working from. The 215th Corps of the Afghanistan National Army and the 205 Zone of the Afghan National Police are taking a serious beating while not getting their share of combat enablers like Tac Air (Afghans use the A-29 Super Tucano which is a good ground attack platform) which it seems are being concentrated in the east to battle an out break of The Daesh (ISIS) in Nangarhar province (where we lost another special operator last night). It appears (again to me) that the 215th Corps and 205th Zone are fighting a holding action designed to keep the Taliban focused on Helmand while the central government in Kabul tries to consolidate its control of the strategically critical eastern provinces.
If my guess is true then this deployment will be a lot of risk some potentially long term gain making this one of the more unique deployments in the history of the United States Marine Corps. This is why I feel it needs to be covered correctly. Please help make this month-long embed with TF Southwest happen by stopping by the Baba Tim Go Fund Me Page. This deployment is too important to be ignored….