Just last month, the Marine Corps executed a carefully planned pullout from Sangin district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a region best known as one of the most deadly battlegrounds of the war. I was on the ground with some of the units for the final withdrawal.
Less than two months on, the news out of Sangin isn’t good: AP reports that some 27 people, including five civilians, have been killed since Sunday, when the Taliban launched an attack on police checkpoints in the district, swarming the region with between 800 and 1,0o0 enemy fighters. The fighting has also spread the nearby Kajaki and Now Zad districts, a spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense said. The good news, according to NATO officials, is that no checkpoints have been overrun so far in the fighting.
Amid the fray, the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps–the unit responsible for all of Helmand province–fired off a statement from Corps commander Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk declaring victory and saying the Taliban were on the run.
“Unfortunately, media outlets have broadcasted news that we have been defeated, but this is false,” the release reads. “…120 Taliban have been killed and 200 wounded, many of which have been captured. The enemy has failed and they are on the run, leaving behind heavy and light weapons, ammunition, and vehicles and have left many of their dead on the battlefield.”
The statement closes with a promise that “life will return to normal” with the Afghan National Security Forces in control.
It’s hard to know exactly how to interpret this release. A BBC report from today quotes “local officials” saying more than 100 Taliban have been killed in the five days of fighting in Sangin, but acknowledges no independent confirmation exists for this figure.
The statement from the 215th Corps also seems strangely optimistic given the reports from the ground in Sangin. That said, Afghan officials emphasized to Marine Corps Times the importance of a robust information campaign as an element of warfighting, noting that the Taliban have relied heavily on propaganda to maintain authority. To that end, the 215th Corps public affairs office set up a Facebook page, with the help of public affairs Marines aboard Camp Leatherneck, during the time I spent in Helmand.
The reality of the situation in Sangin has yet to be made completely clear. But will life “return to normal” within the district in the near future? Consider me skeptical.
The Marine Corps made national headlines in fall 2010 when it sent tanks to northern Helmand province to bolster firepower there. It was a first for the U.S. in the war, which was nine years old at the time.
Nearly three years later, the tanks are coming home. Delta Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., will redeploy to the U.S. soon, and will not be replaced by a similar unit, said 1st Lt. Philip Kulczewski, a Marine spokesman in Afghanistan.
It’s one of the most tangible indications recently that that the U.S. drawdown in forces in Afghanistan continues. There are currently more than 60,000 U.S. troops deployed across the country, including about 7,000 Marines in Helmand province. That’s down from a peak of about 108,000 troops and 20,000 Marines in 2011.
The tanks offered not only heavy 120mm cannon fire, but also advanced optics that were used to observe Taliban fighters from more than a mile away. Shortly after deploying, they were teamed early in 2011 with elements of Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, which was flown in from Navy ships while underway with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Lejeune. Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, then the two-star commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan, used them to improve security in northern Helmand province at a time when the Corps was taking heavy losses in and around famously violent Sangin district.
Later that year, the tanks were paired with scout snipers with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Lejeune. In a novel concept, the Marines used the optics from the tanks to establish positive identification on who was an insurgent in Musa Qala district, and then targeted them with sniper fire.
“They’ve been highly effective,” said Lt. Gen. John Toolan, then the two-star commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan, in a Sept 2011 interview. “Just in the past 10 days, the tank and snipers teams have contributed to about 50 enemy insurgents killed, using the snipers as sharpshooters and the tanks for the surveillance capability. It’s really a great combo, and 3/2 is spearheading that.”
Some of those same scout snipers eventually found themselves in hot water for urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters, but the tank operations continued. In one spring 2012 example, tanks combined with Marine infantrymen in Operation Jaws to raid Taliban outposts in Zamindawar, an insurgent-controlled area in between the population centers in Kajaki and Musa Qala districts.
The operation highlighted a common Marine Corps strategy at the time. Grunts spent months using reconnaissance and surveillance to gather intelligence about insurgents in areas like Zamindawar, leading to bold raids aimed at disrupting the Taliban and targeting their headquarters.
“I guess I can say that now I know what a cop feels like on a stakeout,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Hutchenson, a platoon sergeant for Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, during a 2012 observation mission observed by Marine Corps Times. “You wait, and wait, and wait — and then you get what you need and move on them.”
As noted here on Battle Rattle last week, the arrival of fighting season in Afghanistan this year has meant a series of attacks in Helmand province, especially in Sangin district. Fighting has been underway there for several days straight, with Taliban fighters attacking Afghan forces repeatedly.
Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller, the top commander in southwestern Afghanistan, briefed the media from his headquarters at Camp Leatherneck yesterday (A transcript of that conversation is available here). A couple key takeaways:
Heavy fighting in Sangin is back
For much of late 2010 and 2011, the war in Sangin dominated media coverage of Afghanistan, in large part because things were so awful. More than 50 Marines died there alone, and at least 500 more were severely wounded.
Things calmed down a bit last summer, comparatively speaking. Casualties plummeted and Lt. Col. David Bradney, the battalion commander there at the time, said afterward that the Taliban “kind of limped into the fall season.”
Clearly, the Taliban want Sangin back. They’ve launched a series of attacks this month, leading to sustained fighting between Afghan forces and insurgents since May 25, Miller told reporters. Many of the insurgents came in from Baghran, a mountainous, sparsely populated district north of Kajaki, as well as from the east in Kandahar province, he added.
Attacks in other parts of Helmand
The Taliban has been active in more than just Sangin, however. Miller cited recent attacks in Musa Qala and Reg-e Khanashin districts, saying the enemy is looking for holes in security to exploit. In most cases, Afghan local police selected to defend their own villages are holding their ground, the general said.
The Taliban in Sangin has been bolstered in part by foreign fighters, Miller said. He declined to say where they came from, but it seems reasonable to assume it’s the usual suspects, particularly Pakistan.
Afghans take the lead
While the Afghan army and police have taken casualties, the top Afghan army commander in the region, Maj. Gen. Sayeed Malook, has asked only for limited help from coalition forces, leaving Marines in the advising role they shifted to last year as part the U.S. drawdown in forces, Miller said.
“I asked him specifically if he needed help with getting rearming done and some ammunition moved forward, and the answer was, quite honestly, no,” Miller said.
The start of the 12th fighting season for U.S. forces in Afghanistan has meant continued transition for Marines in Helmand province — including mostly standing by as the Taliban launches attacks in the region.
A large number of Taliban insurgents, along with foreign fighters, tried to overrun Sangin district this week, prompting a two-day engagement with Afghan National Security Forces, military officials said. The fight was outlined by a Wall Street Journal reporter in Afghanistan this week, launching it into the limelight.
In past years — even last year — Marines would have been in the middle of the fracas. That’s not the case anymore, however, said officials with Regional Command Southwest, the region overseen by Marine forces.
“Although several adviser teams are assigned to the ANSF units which repelled the initial insurgent attacks, they were not directly involved in combat,” said Lt. Col. Cliff Gillmore, a Marine spokesman in Afghanistan. “The only resource provided directly by RC(SW) was ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) platforms, although the adviser teams continue to work with the ANSF as they array their forces, coordinate logistics and ongoing operations, and conduct after-action assessments to identify lessons learned to improve in the future.”
That’s a far cry even from a year ago, when Marines conducted partnered operations through the summer, until swapping over to a security force assistance model that pushed Afghans into the lead. Marines faced tough fights even then, as I pointed out in this story last spring while embedded in Sangin.
Marines have continued to close bases across Helmand as the drawdown progresses, as well. That includes sizable outposts like Forward Operating Base Payne, which 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., began demilitarizing in April. That effort was later taken over by 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, which replaced 3/9 in theater this spring as part of regularly scheduled troop rotations.
While 2/8 is now the main maneuver unit in central and southern Helmand, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., has taken over for 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, in the northern part of the province. That places them in an advise-and-assist mission in Sangin, Kajaki, Musa Qala and several other areas that have remained more hostile.
Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman with the International Security Assistance Force overseeing coalition forces, downplayed the attacks in Helmand.
“The enemy remains capable of sporadic attacks,” he said. “They attacked several police checkpoints in Sangin roughly simultaneously, but they were unable to take or hold the ground. They inflicted some casualties on Afghan security forces, but they suffered far more and were never a serious threat. These attacks failed.”
This will bear more watching in coming months — especially considering the sacrifices so many U.S. troops already have made.
As you may have seen today in this story, Marine officials in Afghanistan released to me statistics outlining enemy-initiated attacks. The numbers compared 2011 and 2012 by district, shedding light on an interesting period of transition in southwestern Afghanistan.
Among the details that stuck out for me:
Lt. Col. David Bradney, head of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, told me in an interview in October that his Marines had “punched them in throat in Afghanistan.” The numbers back that claim. Between 2011 and 2012, attacks in Sangin fell from 2,778 to 1,216, a 56 percent decrease.
The most noteworthy increase in violence came in Kajaki, where attacks increased from 493 in 2011 to 1,196 in 2012. That’s not necessarily a huge shock, considering Marine forces launched a major operation in Kajaki, Eastern Storm, in late 2011. A number of hornet’s nests that had not been dealt with regularly prior to then got significant attention in the first half of 2012, before the drawdown kicked in.
Musa Qala, Marjah
Marines had been in Musa Qala and Marjah longer this year than in Sangin, and the decrease in attacks between 2011 and 2012 reflects that. Once home to daily fighting, the districts both saw significant reductions in attacks. In Marjah, the number dropped from 1,592 to 782, a 51 percent drop. In Musa Qala, attacks dropped from 1,648 to 1,156, a 30 percent decrease.
We’ve covered it before and we’ll say it again: Nahr-e Saraj is still a messy neighborhood. In 2012, there were 3,927 attacks recorded there, about a third of all the attacks in RC-Southwest and three times more than any other district in Helmand.
The following districts had more than 1,000 attacks in Helmand in 2012: Nahr-e Saraj (3,927), Nad Ali (1,518), Sangin (1,216), Kajaki (1,196), Musa Qala (1,156), Now Zad (1,025). There’s hardly any surprises there, other than a spike in violence recorded in Nad Ali. The district, overseen by Afghan and British forces, had 984 attacks in 2011.
If you’re curious what a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan looks like, search no farther than northern Helmand province.
The region was once the site of massive fighting that killed dozens of Marines in Sangin district alone in fall 2010. Musa Qala, Kajaki and Now Zad districts also have seen their fair share of violence and casualties.
Since spending a fair share of the fall in Helmand, the battalion in northern Helmand rotated. Second Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., replaced its sister unit, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.
Lt. Col. Donald Tomich discussed the battalion’s deployment with me recently, noting shifts in the way the Taliban conducts its business. The group is now more “Mafia-like,” he said, focusing on protecting its own existence and its drug smuggling.
Tomich also outlined how his units are spread across northern Helmand, where multiple Marine infantry units were deployed as recently as last summer. His battalion has headquarters in Sangin, and is broadly laid out with Echo Company in Kajaki, Headquarters and Service and Golf companies in Sangin, and Fox Company split between Now Zad and Musa Qala.
Tomich’s battalion deployed with about 800 Marines. That’s down from the 1,000-plus Marines 1/7 had in the region through early in the fall.
Ten years after the war in Afghanistan began, thousands of Marines pushed northeast from Sangin district up Route 611 in Helmand province in 2011 during Operation Eastern Storm. They tangled with the Taliban in a variety of areas of volatile Kajaki district that had rarely been touched by coalition forces, and engaged in a number of ugly fights along the way.
That operation marked one of the last major offensives for the Marines in Afghanistan. As we reported while embedded last spring here, here and here, Marine officers transition within months of that operation to turning Kajaki over to Afghan forces, making the fight in Kajaki one of the quickest — and most complicated — in Helmand.
One of the main stated purposes for that assault was to create security so the coalition could increase capacity at the landmark Kajaki Dam, a hydroelectric facility that was isolated in Taliban country for years, with only a small bubble of security around it provided by Marines. Putting in a planned third turbine would require trucking in hundreds of tons of concrete — and having enough security in the countryside to make the delivery.
As The Associated Press outlined this weekend, USAID is forging ahead with the project, relying on the premise that Afghan forces will be able to provide the security needed to get the job done. Afghans interviewed in the story sound doubtful it’ll work:
In the latest phase of the Kajaki saga, fighting as well as limited oversight of spending has led to huge delays and cost overruns. Now Helmand province, home of the dam, is seeing the first and largest wave of U.S. troop reductions, with 10,000 of 17,000 U.S. Marines already gone. That means most of the Kajaki project is going forward with Afghan forces providing nearly all the security in an area that was a Taliban stronghold until a year ago.
Afghans here are already hedging their bets.
The number of workers on a U.S.-funded construction project next to Kajaki has dwindled from 200 to 20 since last fall, and those remaining say workers feel the risk isn’t worth the $6 daily paycheck.
“They can’t come here because all the routes to the district are controlled by the Taliban,” said Abdul Razziq, a 28-year-old villager working on construction of a new district government center next to the dam.
I’ve discussed assertions along those lines with Marine officials in Afghanistan in recent weeks, and they reject that the Taliban has control of the countryside. They acknowledge Afghan forces lost ground last summer after being put in the lead, but assert that they have since taken control of the situation.
This project will bear watching in 2013.
Ever since U.S Marines killed three children in an airstrike in Helmand province in October, a debate has raged online: Is the U.S. deliberately killing kids in Afghanistan?
It’s a frustrating conversation, fed in part recently by an inflammatory piece published by Robert Dreyfuss for The Nation this month. Taking an article I wrote with assistance from Army Times colleague Joe Gould out of context, Dreyfuss said a U.S. officer acknowledged “the military isn’t just out to bomb ‘military age males,’ anymore, but kids, too.”
There’s a major problem, though: the officer quoted, Army Lt. Col. Marion “Ced” Carrington, never said anything of the sort.
What Carrington did say is that the Taliban’s use of children “kind of opens our aperture” on what U.S. forces on the ground must observe.
“In addition to looking for military-age males, it’s looking for children with potential hostile intent,” Carrington told Gould in an interview, published at even greater length in another story published in Army Times this summer.
Yes, Carrington used a weapons reference — “open the aperture” — in the process. Those are commonplace in the military, though, and in no way should be construed to mean that military officers want children dead — even children working for the Taliban. In the Army Times story, Carrington added that he believed the kids his unit had seen emplacing improvised explosive devices were likely “doing favors by coercion or threats.”
There are many U.S. strategies and actions that are easy to question about the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. detainment of children is one. The frequency of airstrikes is another, although it’s important to note that some of them save the lives of Americans who are pinned down under gunfire.
Here’s what I’ve seen in Afghanistan, though:
Snipers holding fire on insurgents until children were out of sight.
Children likely spotting for the Taliban, then disappearing from sight moments before insurgents ambushed a Marine unit with machine guns.
And that’s to say nothing of U.S. forces holding fire this spring in an incident in Sangin district in which a Marine was wounded in the face by a slingshot badly enough by a 12-year-old boy that he needed stitches.
There’s no denying that three kids getting killed by a U.S. rocket is a horribly regrettable incident, whether the children were involved in insurgent activities, or merely just in the neighborhood. It’s something those involved are going to have to live with, and it’s the kind of mistake that turns Afghan civilians into insurgents.
Let’s hold fire on demonizing the entire military infrastructure and everyone in it, however. To imply that the U.S. is deliberately killing children as a matter of policy based on the reporting we’ve done is, quite simply, irresponsible and over the top.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Nearly five years after Marines first kicked in the door in Helmand province, the area remains one Afghanistan’s most violent, according to a new Defense Department report released Monday. In fact, Helmand is home to Afghanistan’s most violent district — Nahr-e Saraj — and eight of the 10 most violent districts overall.
Those details are outlined in a Pentagon publication released for Congress. Nahr-e Saraj was the site of 10 percent of all enemy initiated attacks in Afghanistan from April to October of this year despite being home to less than 1 percent of the country’s population, the report said.
Overall, 30 percent of all enemy-initiated attacks reported from April to October in Afghanistan occurred in Regional Command Southwest, which includes Helmand and Nimroz provinces. Only Regional Command East, which includes Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar and other volatile districts, had more attacks reported, with 41 percent of all those documented across the country.
More than 2,500 enemy-initiated attacks were recorded in Afghanistan each month from May to September of this year. That’s comparable to last year, although there was only one month in 2012 — June — with at least 3,000 reported. In 2011, there were at least 3,000 in May, June and July.
Overall, the Pentagon reported that security in populated areas of Afghanistan has improved significantly in 2012 — no surprise for observers who have been tracking details this year. However, the Pentagon also reported that there was a 2 percent increase in enemy-intiated attacks in RC-Southwest over the same period last year.
If you’ve been following the news out of Helmand, the numbers out of RC-Southwest aren’t a surprise. As I reported while embedded with Marine units in October, the Taliban made gains in portions of Sangin and Kajaki districts, in particular, as Afghan forces were put in the lead providing security there this summer.
“It goes back to the question that everyone asks: When we pull out, can the Afghan forces do what needs to be done to secure Helmand province?” said Lt. Col. David Bradney, who commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, in Sangin this summer. “I would tell you that, yes, the Afghan National Security Forces are absolutely capable enough to beat the Taliban.
“It’s all a question of gumption and will,” Bradney said. “Do they have the leadership to force the discipline of action, and the commitment to get their forces into the field and risk, perhaps at times, being unsuccessful, to achieve success?”
The full report is posted online here.
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. – Officer candidates will now be training and running on trails named for some of the hardest battles fought by Marines during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Col. Kris Stillings, commanding officer at Officer Candidates School, led a ceremony today here at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. He stood with officer candidates lined up in formation at the newly named intersection of Fallujah and Kunar trails. Sangin Trail, the third to be named, runs slightly to the north.
“These trails, just like the other trails we have here … these names mean something,” Stillings said. “Candidates will run on them, they will hike on them and at times there will be tears on them, just like in the places that they’re named after.”
Navy Cross recipient Capt. Ademola Fabayo was the guest of honor. Stillings said he was there to represent Marine Corps history, since the event was about more than just the naming of trails.
Fabayo was presented with the nation’s second highest valor award in June 2011 for his actions in Kunar province, Afghanistan. Fabayo was credited with extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Ganjgal – the same that earned former Cpl. Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor.
As previously reported, then 1st Lt. Fabayo and other members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa Japan, were ambushed Sept. 8, 2009, in the village near the Pakistan border. Fabayo repeatedly braved enemy fire on foot in order to reestablish connection with Marines and a corpsman at the front of the patrol. Later, he took the gunner’s position in a vehicle and reentered the kill zone to help recover the bodies of missing Marines.
“This captain standing in front of you exemplifies everything that we’re trying to teach you here,” Stillings told the candidates. “Everything that is good about the Marine Corps, everything that we want from our officers – firm leadership, courage under fire, decisiveness and the ability to always look out for Marines.”
Fabayo then told the candidates that any of them are capable of demonstrating the same type of leadership in the future. The key, he told them, was to pay attention to Marine Corps history.
“The trails that you see here are telling a story, our story as Marines,” Fabayo said. “I remember running the trails and stopping to read the citations. … When you run down these trails you need to stop and read the citations and see what these Marines actually did.”
Stillings said his operations officer, Maj. Adam Jeppe, approached him with the idea of naming some of the trails for recent battles a few months ago. Since Marines have been involved in many important areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, deciding on the names took some deliberation, he said. The candidates at OCS learn about historic battles, and they decided to include Kunar province and Sangin district in Afghanistan and Fallujah, Iraq.
Candidates Michael Choate, Alicia Peterson and Sky Colvil are all prior enlisted service members who served in the three areas of Iraq and Afghanistan that were honored today. They called the captain’s presence there motivating.
“It’s good to see that Marines are being rewarded,” said Choate, a staff sergeant, now officer candidate, who served in Fallujah. “Marines of his caliber show that any officer can do it if we put our minds to it.”
Seeing a trail named for Fallujah brought back a lot of memories for Colvil, an officer candidate who served there as a Navy corpsman. As someone who hopes to lead Marines in the future, he took Fabayo’s message to heart.
“It’s good to know that he passes it onto everyone else and challenges you to say, ‘Hey, you can do it too. You do have it if you want to – you can look out for your Marines just as I have done.’ ”
Stay tuned for more from exclusive interviews with Stillings and Fabayo.