Back to Helmand
As the early morning sun rose over Nawa District in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, a small, eclectic mix of Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) leaders casually finished their breakfast. A few kilometers away at an Afghan outpost, a team of Marine advisors grew increasingly anxious, as they still had no idea what their Afghan partners intended to do that day. Finally, a call came in from the Afghan district chief of police, who relayed the scheme of maneuver that the Afghans had constructed over their meal. The advisors, members of Task Force Southwest (TFSW), immediately relayed the plan back to the TFSW Joint Operations Center (JOC), initiating the repositioning and tasking of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and fires assets to support the Afghan operation.
Minutes later, the TFSW Joint Terminal Attack Controller told the F-16 flying over Nawa, “Tripoli 6 approves that target,” as the CG, TFSW, authorized an airstrike on three Taliban fighters armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades. The Marines working in the JOC used full motion video from an unmanned aerial surveillance asset to find these three fighters as it scanned a few kilometers ahead of the Afghan ground force. Just seconds after the approval, a 2.75mm rocket hit the three fighters, instantly killing one and wounding the other two. Through his cultural advisor, we relayed the location and result of the strike to the Afghan district police chief on the ground, who immediately sent his forward element to the site. The Marines in the JOC watched the full motion video feed as Afghan police forces sprinted to the strike site, detained the two wounded enemy fighters, and seized their weapons. The Marines then shifted their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms in search of the next target ahead of the Afghan maneuver unit.
Over the course of a nine-month deployment, TFSW repeated this process hundreds of times, enabling the Helmand-based Afghan National Army (ANA) 215th Corps and Afghan National Police (ANP) 505th Zone to reverse years of Taliban momentum, retake lost territory, and expand population control without once sending U.S. forces to the front lines of combat. The center of gravity in this effort was the confidence of the partnered Afghan force to conduct offensive operations, knowing that coalition support gave them a decisive advantage at the point of attack in every engagement. Building this confidence in our Afghan partners was a twofold effort. First, TFSW advisors fully integrated into the Afghan command structure, advising and assisting the Afghans in each phase of both planning and executing large-scale operations. Second, with the battlespace understanding gained by advising, TFSW delivered precision fires in close support of Afghan maneuver forces, which in turn created Afghan confidence in their capability to accomplish their security objectives.
Through this operational concept, TFSW effectively enabled the Helmand-based Afghan forces without putting U.S. troops on the front lines, minimizing the risk to U.S. forces and preventing an unsustainable Afghan dependency on the presence of U.S. troops. As the U.S. continues to fight wars “by, with, and through” partnered forces, this model serves as an example of enhancing warfighting capability in partnered operations while minimizing risk to U.S. forces to achieve tactical success. While situationally dependent, these tactical successes can allow the U.S. and the partnered force to achieve operational and strategic objectives.
Arriving in Helmand Province in April 2017 amidst a dire security situation, TFSW quickly realized restoring Afghan confidence and maximizing combat power were two interrelated and mutually supporting critical tasks. At that point, the ANDSF controlled only the two major population centers of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk and were suffering a crisis of confidence after years of catastrophic losses following the departure of U.S. forces in 2014. With only 300 Marines and an advising mission, TFSW’s success had to come by, with, and through the Afghan forces, which required an Afghan willingness to take the fight to the enemy.
To maximize integration with the ANDSF and increase their confidence, TFSW developed an operational concept that treated the Afghan forces as an organic element. Reverting to Marine Corps doctrine, TFSW built a MAGTF-like unit and functioned like a command element fully engaged in combat operations. But, in this case, the ANDSF acted as the GCE; an Army combat aviation brigade, an Air Force F-16 squadron, and an assortment of unmanned aerial surveillance platforms comprised the ACE; and contractors and Afghan units served as the LCE. The task force’s advisors were the critical link from the command element to the Afghan forces—not just the ANA but also the Afghan National Police, the Afghan Border Police, the Afghan Local Police, and the National Directorate of Security. The advisors provided TFSW the necessary understanding of the battlespace to properly support, influence, and enable the Afghans in combat operations. Most importantly, the advisors’ integration with their Afghan partners set the foundation for restoring Afghan confidence.
Equally essential to Afghan confidence was the application of maneuver warfare concepts in this atypical structure. Embracing the by, with, and through philosophy, TFSW avoided imposing U.S. objectives on the Afghans; instead, we encouraged the senior Helmand ANDSF leaders to jointly develop their own operational objectives and commander’s intent. Once decided, we leveraged TFSW advisors to ensure each Afghan warfighting function adhered to that intent, which synchronized advising efforts and Afghan action to support the operational plan. This approach also kept the Afghans and the entirety of TFSW oriented on the enemy and gave the Afghan leaders confidence that TFSW would effectively support their planned operations and accomplish Afghan objectives.
Once in execution phase, without the capacity or capability to accompany Afghan maneuver forces into combat, TFSW had to overcome the challenge of remaining integrated with our Afghan partners. To solve this, TFSW built ad hoc teams of task-organized advisors, known as expeditionary advising packages, to deploy with the forward Afghan command and control element for the operation. This team of advisors served as the primary link between the Afghan ground forces and the TFSW command element. While these forward-located advisors never achieved perfect certainty of the intentions and actions of the Afghan maneuver force, the information they did gather was enough to allow TFSW to effectively enable the Afghans through precision fires and preserved Afghan confidence in coalition support throughout the operation.
The most critical element of TFSW’s operational approach and in building Afghan confidence was leveraging U.S. and coalition assets to deliver precision fires in close support of Afghan maneuver forces. Persistent advising created a MAGTF-like command element to the GCE relationship between the TFSW JOC and the Afghan ground force and provided the requisite communications links to facilitate the close coordination of air strikes. Quickly discovering that Afghan maneuver was the most effective way to find and fix the enemy before conducting a strike, TFSW centered all advising efforts around supporting Afghan maneuver and closely coordinating with Afghan ground forces.
On a daily basis during an Afghan operation, Afghan forces, closely tracked by the TFSW JOC and advisors, maneuvered and forced the Taliban to react by positioning forces, conducting reconnaissance, or staging ambushes. Taliban actions exposed them to TFSW collections platforms and then subsequently to fires assets like Air Force F-16s, Army Apache helicopters, and MQ-1C Predator drones. Every strike required battlespace clearance through the Afghan chain of command and then constant confirmation, as most targets emerged in highly dynamic environments. Following these strikes, TFSW pushed information back to Afghan leaders, who routinely maneuvered to and exploited the strike site, oftentimes leading to more strikes as the Taliban reacted again to the Afghans.
TFSW conducted more than 500 air strikes over the course of the deployment, the vast majority of which occurred because of Afghan maneuver. This close integration and high volume of air support ended the Afghans’ crisis of confidence. Each strike reinforced to the ANDSF that they had an overwhelming advantage at the point of attack in every engagement, and their confidence grew exponentially. And as their confidence increased, their drive to conduct offensive operations similarly grew, and the ANDSF seized the initiative from the Taliban early in TFSW’s deployment and never relinquished it. True to maneuver warfare, the ANDSF used tempo as a weapon against the Taliban, conducting at least one offensive operation on approximately 250 of the 280 days of TFSW’s deployment. In fact, it became a challenge for TFSW to keep up with the ANDSF tempo, as they often proposed more offensive operations than TFSW could support at one time.
When properly enabled and advised, the ANDSF proved to be a highly willing and capable partner, achieving impressive tactical success by retaking ground from the Taliban and expanding population control. Because of the Afghans’ confidence, TFSW had no need to accompany our partners to the front lines or put U.S. troops in direct combat. This model succeeded in Helmand as a way to work by, with, and through our partners to accomplish tactical objectives at a sustainable level of effort and level of risk to U.S. forces. While there is still much work left to be done, the combined efforts of TFSW and the ANSDF reversed the momentum of the war in Helmand Province and offer a potential model to create the tactical success needed to accomplish the overall operational and strategic objectives of the Afghan campaign.