Source: ABC - By: Matt Gutman
It became apparent in the very first briefing I received from the brass at Camp Leatherneck, that more troops will be needed. 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB) commander Brig Gen Lawrence Nicholson says “we can’t be everywhere at once. This area is just too large.” The 10,000 Marines of the MEB, are taking over an area a little smaller than New Jersey. It’s four times the number of troops there this time four months ago, and sounds like a lot of troops. But fighting is one thing, creating a sense of semi-permanent security locals, and holding territory are different. There are two Afghan army and police units to hold areas taken from the Taliban.
For instance, in the unruly crags of Gulestan, which hugs the Farah border with Helmand, a single platoon of Marines, about 50 men plus assorted supplementary troops, is charged with holding a 450 sq km area. It has one semi-passable road that runs diagonally through it. Gulestan has thirty cops. One of them said: “I will fight as long as the Marines are here, when they leave, I will leave before them.”
Moving around the valley’s only “route” -- a rocky track carved in the wadi floor -- is extremely slow going. The troops have stopped their Humvees at only a few of the dozens of villages in the area. They are incredibly patient dealing with evasive locals, many of whom seemed to have already decided that they are safer allying with the Taliban than Afghan and coalition forces.
A sample conversation:
Marine LT: “You have a barrel of opium outside, who do you sell to?"
Villager: “I don’t know?”
Marine: “You don’t know who comes here and buys your product?"
Villager: “No, I don’t”
Marine: “How much do you get for it?"
Villager: “I am not sure.”
Marine: “Who’s the chief here?"
Marine: “We don’t have one”
Nicholson wants his troops to focus mostly on the most populated towns, adhering to the so-called inkblot concept -- once you control populated areas, control seeps outwards.
Lt. Col. Pat Cashman, commander of the 2nd Battalion 3rd Brigade, whose approximately 1,000 men control an area the size of Vermont (he’s a Vermonter), says he can seize Taliban strongholds like the violently contested Helmand town of Now Zad, but doesn’t have the men to hold it.
The fiercest fighting so far has been in the town of Now Zad. “Hardcore” Taliban have sown the ground with anti-personnel mines (which have killed a Marine and a contractor, and maimed other marines) and attack the small base daily. As fighting intensified, locals simply picked up and moved en mass. The town has been entirely depopulated – something encouraged by the Taliban. The insurgents require the support of locals for shelter, food and spies etc..… and appear to have tried to avoid civilian casualties where possible. Empty, Now Zad is a free fight zone. It's perfect for ambushes -- the squat homes are closely packed together that Taliban punch holes in walls and move house to house, without having to step out into a street or the open air.
Brig Gen Nicholson expects fierce battles and higher casualties over the next few months, a period being called the “summer of decision.”
He says higher casualties are inevitable. And rising casualties in a war so far from home could erode public and congressional support for the mission. He’s not concerned about his MEB deployment, which will last about 10 more months, but the others to come.
Again commanders, including Nicholson are warning this fight could take years. Officials at the Pentagon have privately mentioned 3-5 years. Some commanders on the ground caution “it could be twice that.”
IEDs and MRAPS
About two thirds of the casualties so far come from IED’s. Though the Marines’ area of operations comprises most of Helmand and as far west as the Farah province bordering Iran, there are no signs yet of the Iranian made EFPs ( explosively formed projectiles) that punch holes through MRAPS. In fact the vast majority of IED’s the troops have hit were concocted from homemade explosives – a combination of fertilizer, urea and other chemicals stuffed in the nearly ubiquitous yellow jerry-cans used to store anything from fuel, to goat yogurt. The big mines (50 KG and above) have obliterated Humvees, tossing heavy steel parts 100 yards from the blast site. Some have barely dented Humvees and MRAPs.
That they are so primitive makes them particularly dangerous. The jammers can’t disarm them, because they are just pressure plates that detonate when something rolls over them. Metal detectors are the only way to pick them up. That often requires troops to get out and scan the track… and as has happened set off mines.
The near impenetrability of the MRAPS is the good news. The bad news is that they are constantly breaking down. As the contractor who is tasked with working on them out of Leatherneck explained, “they weren’t made to go airborne. So every time these troops hit a big enough bump, the shocks bust.” Further complicating everything is that no Marine mechanics are allowed to work on MRAPs. The contractor is based in Camp Leatherneck, but some of the debilitated MRAPs are awaiting rescue in tiny, extremely remote bases, accessed only by convoy along IED-infested tracks.
Iraq is a country with a vast network of paved roads, a la Saddam. That Jersey-sized area of operations the Marines control has two. The MRAPs were simply not designed for this type of terrain, which means Marines often travel in heavily armored 7-Ton trucks (they actually weigh much more, but are called 7-tons because that’s their towing limit) and Humvees. I rode one in Gulestan that was so dinged up, I had to hold the door shut. Four days earlier it had been hit by an RPG just above the rear passenger door. The grenade failed to detonate.
While morale remains relatively good, if anything is eroding morale it’s the IED situation. As a lanky Corporal Dan Menser says “being a sitting duck is not what I signed up to do, I signed up to fight.” That will likely change as the summer fighting intensifies.
Navistar’s Maxx Pro Dash MRAPs are troops’ favorites. The suspension makes for a good ride, and they seem as safe as four and six wheel MRAPs. Navistar has built at least 400 of them, but there aren’t nearly enough in Afghanistan.
Talking to the Taliban
That’s one of the reasons commanders on the ground like Marine Capt Paul Webber of Fox Company of the 2-3 in Farah, are actively reaching out to local Taliban. Webber has asked them, through the slightly corrupt “I-know-everyone-here,” local police commissioner to set up a Shura meeting. This, despite the fact that Taliban IEDs have killed one of his troops and maimed 10 others. “I can’t kill them all, I can’t shoot my way out of this” says Webber, “I think it’s easier to turn a majority of them to our side.”
Nicholson hinted at this as part of his policy. The Marines fostered the Sunni Awakening Councils in Anbar – and they seem to be doing the same in Afghanistan. Another major hint: the State Department’s Kael Weston, considered one of the architects of the Sunni Awakening/Sons of Iraq movement is being brought to Helmand to work his magic. I met Weston in 2007-8 in Afghanistan. He was working on organizing similar tribal councils in the eastern province of Khowst, which for a time blossomed. He left for Iraq. Khowst, near Bin Laden’s legendary Lion’s Den training camp, is again in the grips of a suicide attack campaign by insurgents.
It seems in most parts of Marines area of operation that as the Marines are sizing them up the Taliban is doing the same. But the drug trade continues. Locals talk about selling their opium directly to the Taliban who come every couple of weeks to their farms to make purchases. It’s certainly more convenient than having to harvest wheat and haul it dozens of miles over unforgiving terrain to the nearest market.
Marine commanders and intelligence officers believe that much of the violence directed at locals and troops is the result of a narco-war over smuggling routes.
Those primitive roadside bombs speak to the type of insurgency encountered in much of Helmand and Farah – the marines say locals are hired by Taliban militants/drug lords to plant bombs. These are Taliban-lite. Nicholson and his staff estimate that about 10- 20% of the fighters in the area are the hardcore Taliban ideologues, the rest are so-called “10 dollar a day Taliban.” They are farmers, who with poppy planting season over, are paid to sow bombs in the moondust that covers the roads. It’s a high risk, low reward job.
It is remarkable. In Farah and Helmand, poppy and cannabis really grow well, like weeds. Cannabis plants sprout tall and fragrant in the backyard of the Farah Province sub-governor. Cannabis and poppy grow in the large bazaar town of Delaram. Dried buds/capsules of poppies are found everywhere… already scoured to draw out the opium. They litter the farms and floors of nearly every house in every village in the countryside. Locals eat the seats inside the pods once all the opium is drawn out. I tried a couple pods, tastes like dried cream of wheat.