An excerpt from "The Wrong War"
The president has ordered our troops to stop the Taliban momentum that was gaining its most strength in the south, particularly in Helmand. Once that momentum has been halted, do the American troops continue with the counterinsurgency phases of clear, hold, build and transition to Afghan control? According to Vice President [Joe] Biden, “the president has made something exquisitely clear to each of the generals: He said, ‘do not occupy any portion of that country that you are not confident within 18 months you’re going to be able to turn over to the Afghans.’”1
Sooner or later, we have to turn the war over to the Afghans. We don’t want to maintain a large, expensive force and we don’t want to lose when we leave. So what choice do we have in terms of what portions of the country—and what missions—we turn over?
Marja illustrated that question. In February of 2010, the Marines were able to push out the overt Taliban force. The secret cadre, passively supported by many farmers, remained in place. Drug dealers fought back. IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and harassing attacks continued. Battalion 2-6 [2d Battalion, 6th Marines], commanded by LtCol Kyle Ellison, took responsibility for southern Marja in the summer of 2010. On his third combat tour, Ellison knew the challenges he faced.
“The insurgents use motorcycles,” he said to me, “to move around the interior canal roads. They hide their weapons in the weeds along the canals. The people won’t dime them out. I’ll show you.”
On a brutally hot day in early August of 2010, we drove in two MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles] several kilometers to the Kuru Bazaar that had served as a Taliban headquarters for a decade. As Ellison strolled through the bazaar, merchants scarcely looked up. About forty stalls and shops, many with living quarters on the second floor, were open. About a hundred men, and no women, were browsing among the modest wares and vegetables, filling a few plastic bags with sundry items.
“How’s business?” Ellison asked a solemn-looking man sitting cross-legged on a blue prayer rug.
“Look for yourself,” said Ibrahim, who was selling bags of rice and an array of spices. “Before, business was good. Two hundred shops were open here.”
Ibrahim, who had the Afghan flair for exaggeration, pointed at a row of about 50 shuttered shops. “Before” meant when the Taliban had been in charge.
“Our lives are over now,” Ibrahim said.
A crowd gathered to listen as Ibrahim defended the good old days and Ellison argued that without the Taliban, the children would be educated and enjoy a better life.
Another man shouted from the crowd that he wanted to be paid for damages to his house. Haroom, Ellison’s interpreter from San Francisco, ignored him.
“Most of these people support the Taliban and the drug trade,” Haroom said. “They want things for nothing. It makes me mad because the Marines work harder than they do.”
As Ellison wandered farther down the street, a man in a white dishdasha stepped forward and spoke loudly, attracting a crowd.
“He says the Marines beat up his friends,” Haroom said.
As the crowd pressed in to listen, Ellison patiently backed the man down, sentence by sentence. Well, yes, Taliban had fired on a Marine patrol from his friend’s house.
The Taliban then ran away. The Marines called for the Afghan police, who beat the owner after the Marines had left. So why were the Marines at fault? Because, said the man, if the Marines had stayed out of Marja, the Taliban would not have entered his friend’s house.
Ellison gestured at the narrow dirt road leading through the market. While motorcycles were common, perhaps three cars passed the market in a day. Yesterday, a white van had driven through the market. An hour later, a Marine patrol engaged a sniper farther down the road. The white van stopped and two men hopped out with AKs. A Marine shot the driver and the other two surrendered.
“You all knew that white van didn’t belong here,” Ellison rebuked the crowd. “You did not warn us. Instead, you complain, telling a silly story that was all mixed up.”
Told later about the argument, LtCol Hezbollah, a kandak commander who had served in Marja, burst out laughing.
“The Taliban were listening to every word,” he said. “Until the store keepers see we are winning, they will not support us. What’s wrong with that?”
* * * * *
Ellison left the skeptics at the bazaar and drove along [a] bumpy path toward the western boundary of his zone. Along the way, he requested a situation report.
“The AO (Area of Operations) is quiet,” the ops officer replied over the radio. “Three incidents of SAF (small arms fire), one PID (positive identification) resulting in two EKIA (enemy killed in action), and one IED found, plus a DFC (Directional Fragmentation Charge) detonation on Route Elephant. One canal in Block 4 is overflowing and the road is closed. That’s all.”
That’s all? For any police department in the States, three shootings, two criminals shot down in the streets, two bombs on a highway and a local flooding would not be considered a quiet morning.
“The flood was caused by weeds choking the canal,” Haroom said. “The fields are drying up, and the people don’t organize to clean out the weeds.”
The decay of the canal system symbolized inability to work together for the common good.
“My father was the director of agriculture here in Marja,” Haroom said. “All my family left this country. Know why? In Kabul, if you don’t have money or political connections, no one cares about your qualifications. I swear, a graduate of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who had no connections would not be hired to fix canals in Marja.”
“Three blocks in south Marja solidly support the Taliban,” Ellison said. “One block opposes the Taliban, and nine refuse to do anything. We’re heading to Block 10, my biggest headache.”
At Outpost [OP] One Zulu on the western edge of Block 10, Lance Corporal Chris DiBiase was in charge of five Marines and six askars. The OP consisted of a circle of Hesco barriers topped with a row of double sandbags and three sentry towers, each with a machinegun.
“We get shot at about every other day,” DiBiase said, “from that strip of houses to the west. We know they’re coming because the children disappear. We try to pretend we’re not prepared, but they’re not stupid. All they do is stick an AK over a wall, spray and pray, hop on their cycles and take off.”
The tiny outposts with a few cots, piles of sandbags and stacks of MREs [meals, ready to eat], manned by Americans and Afghans, bore a striking resemblance to the Combined Action Platoons [CAP] in Vietnam. The difference was equally striking, though. In Vietnam, the villagers chose sides. Farmers stood guard watches and learned how to patrol. In the afternoons, the Americans wandered through the hamlets, joking with families and eating peanuts and duck eggs, plus Cokes and an occasional beer chilled on an ice block.
When Sergeant White, a CAP squad leader rotated home from one village in 1967, the elders wrote a letter to his family:
To Sgt J.D. White Family
My name is ‘trao,’ second village chief working with Sgt. White and Sq. Our people thank him very much, because he is very good man. Evry day he is a few to sleep he works to much. All my cadre are very happy. Sgt. White and his Sq. evry days evry night go to empust with P.F. My village no more V.C. Your friend always, Ho Yan Trao.2
In Marja, no village elder ever wrote a letter of thanks. Instead, the opposite was true; 99% of Marja residents in a survey said that US military operations were bad for the people.3 Marja had to be controlled; few hearts and minds would be won over to the government side.
* * * * *
An Entitlement Culture
Chatting with Sergeant Austin about his ambush plan, Ellison headed back to the open road. Austin looked warily from side to side while pretending to adjust his rifle strap. They were waiting for a local fighter to take a potshot. Sometimes the technique of trolling rewarded an alert grunt with a PID, but not often.
Seeing several men squatting in the shade of a small mosque, Ellison crossed a canal and walked toward them. One man with a green shawl wrapped around his face stood up and walked forward. After the usual greetings, Ellison gestured toward the weed-clogged canal.
“Those weeds are sucking up all your water,” Ellison said. The mullah shook his head.
“It’s not my canal,” he said. “It belongs to everyone.”
Ellison pointed to the loitering men.
“Then all of you should clean it,” he said. “To show that we are not like the Taliban and we care for you, I will pay each man nine dollars a day.”
“Give me ten men,” the mullah said, “to clean the canal.”
Ellison walked angrily away.
“We’re breeding a entitlement culture,” he said. “We’re doing all the work here.”
* * * * *
Clear, Hold & ???
Clear, hold, build, transition. While Marja remained a tough nut because the farmers, drug dealers and Taliban had common interests in resisting government control, American combat power in other districts had cleared large areas of armed Taliban. Garmsir provided the classic example of the choice that would confront the US high command in mid-2011: what to do if security improves in local areas, while government remains a mess? Is it enough to clear, hold and leave the build phase entirely to the Afghans?
I had heard that in Garmsir, the clear and hold phase was progressing well, so I hopped a ride to the bottom of Afghanistan to take a look. Viewed from the air, the twisting course of the Helmand River below Garmsir resembled a cobra about to strike. The “Snakehead” district of Garmsir, home to 100,000 conservative Pashtuns, was 70 kilometers long, with The Green Zone of farm fields extending ten kilometers on either side of the river.
Beginning in 2006, the British and Taliban had fought to a standoff in Garmsir. The Brits held onto the district town, but weren’t able to advance outside it. As in other districts in Helmand, they were under siege. In the summer of 2009, General [Stanley A.] McChrystal assigned most of Helmand to the US Marines. Ambassador [Karl W.] Eikenberry quipped from Kabul, “It was bad enough dealing with 42 nations, without adding “Marine-istan.”4 The Marines added heft, though, first sending Battalion 2-8 to push the insurgents south from the district town, and then replacing them with Battalion 2-2.
“The Talibs don’t like the saman dirian (Marines),” said “Kites,” an Afghan-American interpreter from Las Vegas on his second rotation. “They hit LtCol [Joseph] McDonough (the commander of 2-2) with an IED. He was medevaced to the States and returned to fight. The Talibs say saman dirian have too much enthusiasm for war.”
When 2-2 rotated home, Battalion 3-1 came in and gradually deployed combined American and Afghan squads in an interlocking series of outposts. On a map, the patrol areas looked like a string of pearls extending south from the Snakehead.
“Each squad leader is on his own,” the battalion commander, LtCol Ben Watson, said. “My guidance is 16-hour days, with two or more patrols a day. We can hold that pace for our seven months.”
Partnering on the Lines
The battalion averaged over 90 patrols a day—the highest number of patrols by one battalion in Afghanistan. The combined platoons lived in tents and mud shelters, without air-conditioning as temperatures soared above 110 degrees. Every villager bumped into at least one patrol every day. Because the outposts were about two kilometers apart, the Taliban couldn’t find many seams to slip in, shoot and get away.
“Still, right outside the town of Garmsir,” LtCol Watson said, “the elders complained that a Taliban had threatened them. One man, unarmed, pushed them around. That passive attitude drives me crazy. The people have an inordinate fear of the Taliban; they won’t stand up for themselves. We’re tipped off—after the fact.”
That was the crux of the matter. In the States or in Afghanistan, people are not protected by a few security patrols a day. Protection lies in calling security forces that respond by pursuing the criminals. The combination of informants, pursuit, arrest and punishment provides the umbrella of security.
As the insurgents fell back to the south, they responded by murdering two elders and threatening to kill more. The district police chief, Omar Jan, retaliated by picking up his cell phone and calling around his informant network. Afghanistan was one of the world’s poorest countries, yet one in eight Afghans had a cell phone. The Taliban let the phone companies operate, as long as they shut down service at night so the insurgents could move around without being reported.
Omar Jan carried three cell phones. The Americans had one number, his family and tribal relatives had another, and informants had the third. A few days after the murder of the second elder, Omar Jan drove 30 kilometers south with four Nissan pickups filled with cops. Hours later, he drove back with six prisoners. Two were high priority targets listed on the JPEL (Joint Prioritized Effects List). Omar Jan released the other four to their village elders. He then drove to the Helmand River, tongue-lashed two ferrymen for taking the murderers across the river and threw their outboard motors into the water.
In Garmsir, the Marines and Afghan soldiers provided the deterrent to the incursion of large, armed insurgent gangs. The police chief provided some assurance of pursuit and the swift administration of rough justice. Of course, if the tough police chief were removed from the equation, intimidation of the people by the displaced Islamists would resume. Conversely, Omar Jan demonstrated the difference one informed, determined man made, when he had solid military backing.
* * * * *
In June of 2010, the Taliban detonated two bombs in markets, killing and maiming 13 men and 16 children. The intent was to demonstrate that the Americans could not provide security, and force the Marines to man tight defensive positions around the markets rather than to continue the oil spot technique of expanding the outposts.
Instead of pulling back, Watson attacked. In July, Battalion 3-1 assaulted the Taliban stronghold of the Safar Bazaar, a town square of 200 compounds and ramshackle shops dealing in drugs and weapons. At Safar, the Helmand River took an abrupt turn to the west flowing toward Zabar Province. Below Safar lay 100 miles of hard-packed desert, ending at the border with Pakistan. Insurgents drove from Pakistan across the desert, checked into their hotels at Safar, bartered wet opium or Pakistani rubles for supplies and munitions, contacted their guides and relaxed for a few days before driving farther north to begin their jihad.
The outposts at Safar were as far south as Watson intended to control. The bare wadis extending south into Pakistan had no economic value. It would be good enough to patrol them as a No Man’s Zone, intercepting the drug trade and infiltrators. Marine light armored vehicles, recon and CIA CPT (Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams) hid in the gullies and roved the back trails. The majority of infiltrators would get through, but the long journey across barren land would be tougher with the Safar Bazaar eliminated as the rest stop.
The next step in Garmsir was transitioning the security lead to the Afghan forces. Most likely the kandak would pull back into fewer than a dozen outposts. This would put a premium on the ability of the local police to receive tips about the infiltration of insurgents. The major danger would come from IEDs intended to prevent the Afghan forces from using the roads. Thus in Garmsir, the overall number of Americans could be reduced, but they would have to leave advisers, plus sufficient forces for road clearing, fire support and quick reaction.
1. The television program Morning Joe, 15 December 2009.
2. West, Bing, The Village, NY Pocket Books, New York, 2003, p. 194.
3. Ignatius, David, “A Dubious Battle,” The Washington Post, 11 September 2010.
4. Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, “Marines Gone Rogue,” The Washington Post, 14 March 2010.