Crickets as in “I hear nothing but crickets” is the word of the day for Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1) based in Camp Dwyer and controlling the southern districts of Helmand Province. I needed to do a little district level coordination last weekend and was able to catch a ride to Marjah with my good friend Col Dave Furness USMC, the CO of RCT 1. He was heading there to host a CODEL (congressional delegation) and agreed to let me tag along if I promised to not talk to talk to any congressmen. That’s an easy promise to keep so once again I got to ride with the Marines across the Dasht-i-Margo (desert of death) and into the fertile Helmand Valley River town of Marjah. The chances of us getting attacked while en-route? Zero. Chances of hitting an IED? Just about zero. Crickets – the Taliban have taken the winter off and their stay behind IED teams are failing miserably. Know why? Because the Marines when faced with tactical problems have turned to tactical solutions.
Last summer Wired magazine had a pretty good article about the DoD Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and the cat and mouse game they’re playing with IED attackers. Given the size and complexity of the American military these guys are operating as fast as one can expect but they are too far removed from the battlefield to help front line infantry deal with IED cells that vary dramatically in effectiveness and methodology. As I mentioned in the last post when line troops want to get actionable intelligence the only dependable option is to get it themselves. Likewise when the Marines need tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to battle Taliban insurgents the tried and true method is to figure it out on their own and pass on what works to the units coming in behind them.
The Taliban learned that they need two obstacles in front of them when they shoot at Marine patrols and the most common obstacle used is a bunch of IED’s buried in choke points in front of large, deep irrigation ditches. The Talibs believe that the two obstacles will give them the 30 or so minutes it takes to get air or rocket delivered ordnance targeting them. That was a good plan during the heavy kinetic fighting around Nawa and Marjah when the Marines first arrived. But the Marines have been here a while now and seeded this vast AO with little patrol bases. RC Southwest averages 500 patrols daily and those patrols identify and record every compound; recording if they are occupied and by who which is a moving target as families continue to flow back into the villages.
Every patrol submits a fire plan which includes on-call firewalls that have been pre-planned by the Ops officer Mike (Mac) McNamara and the RCT-1 Air Officer shop. A firewall is fire coordination measure to clear the air space and near space of all obstacles so RCT can fire HIMAR rockets. It takes a good 20 minutes to set up a firewall if you are running on the fly. With pre-planned firewalls when the squad leader calls for fire support – Mac sends a text message to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) declaring Firewall XYZ in effect. The DASC says “roger that” (unless they have to move assists out of the way which may delay the affirmative a few seconds) and RCT 1 has a firewall. Knowing if the nominated target is an abandoned or occupied compound speeds up the clearance too which is the whole point of the intensive patrolling and census taking. Every compound in the AO has an alpha numeric designator and the battalions update their lists daily due to the number of families who are moving back. What once took 20 minutes can now be done so fast it’s stunning.
The Marines on the ground still have to contend with the IED’s and the Taliban seed IED’s everywhere which, as you’d imagine, does not endear them to the local population. To cope with the flood of IED’s, most of which function by pressure plates and have very small magnetic signatures, required new tactics and a special tool, which in typical Marine fashion, was designed by a Gunnery Sergeant, fabricated from materials purchased in local bazaars, and paid for out of pocket by the troops. I’m not going to describe the tools or TTP for now because they are effective and need to stay that way as long as possible.
I missed something I really wanted to see on this trip and that was the monthly NCO symposium. Dave came up with the idea after seeing the turnover between two sister battalions from the 1st Marines 3/1 and 2/1. 3/1 had a strike to find ratio hovering around 90% during their 7 months in theater and 2/1 who is now 5 months into their deployment has pulled out over 400 IED’s at the cost of 2 WIA and 1 KIA. This was due to an uncommonly planned, organized and executed turn over package based on every bit of front specific knowledge 3/1 had gleaned during their tour. Using the turnover as a template Dave and his staff started a monthly training symposium for the squad and fireteam leaders from all his battalions designed to facilitate cross decking of the best practices and procedures. I’ll have to wait a month or two before I can get back and attend one of these and man am I looking forward to it. It’s a great idea to focus time, attention and limited resources on the young leaders. It is also worth the investment to get them in front of the principal staff members who clear their calls for fire requests and the Regimental Commander who encourages any and all questions and will sit in the classroom all night to answer them. Face to face is the best way to get things sorted out and with an endeavor as complex as war things need to get sorted out frequently.
There is hard fighting ahead but I just do not see how the Taliban is going to be able to do jack in the southern Helmand Province. The Marines treat every foot of ground outside their COP’s as if it contained an IED and yet they figured out how to move and move fast through the mine fields. The Taliban can’t sow anymore mines than they already are sowing and it wouldn’t matter if they did. The Taliban can’t train effectively, they can’t improve their rudimentary command and control, they are rarely able to coordinate among themselves and they didn’t spend the winter lull learning how to shoot. They’re guns are old and worn, their ammunition a mix of dodgy 3rd world crap, re-loads, and what they can buy on the black market. (C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, has been writing extensively about the guns and ammunition used by all side in this conflict and his piece What’s Inside A Taliban Gun Locker is worth a look.) The Taliban are not going to emerge from their winter off with enhanced capabilities but the Marines will.
The summer fighting season will be here in a matter of weeks. In RCT 1’s AO the Marines have used the lull in fighting to push out to the fringes of the Green Zone. There they still occasional gunfights and IED’s continue to take their toll but not that often. The Marines expand their area of influence while patrolling constantly; the SF guys continue to raid. Dave told me the HVT raids are a big help and the targeting precise; he’d be happy to see a lot more (I stand corrected B). He also told me the raids are coordinated with him so again there seems to be a big shift in not just the ROE but also the TTP.
Nobody is sure what to expect when the poppy harvest is in and the fighting starts again in earnest but I’m predicting the southern Helmand will see limited fighting because the Taliban lack maneuver room, lack good rat lines, and are now isolated from a large percentage of the population. The fighting this summer is going to be in the north outside Sangin, Musa Quala and Naw Zad. If the Marines break the Taliban up there and the army/ISAF units in Kandahar continue to press the Taliban out of the green zone the villains are in real trouble. This could be the tipping point but for it to matter countrywide we need the will to hang on and repeat this process in the places like Khost, Paktia and Kunar. That’s not going to happen but still, giving the Taliban a serious ass whooping right in their front yard is a morale booster for the men. It also will give the Afghans space to unfuck themselves and it they don’t take this opportunity to do so then…….what can you say? It’s going to be a real interesting summer but right now the word of the day in the southern Helmand province is crickets.