—Patrol Base Fires, Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
The view from this platoon outpost in southern Afghanistan is unobstructed, both visually and strategically. On all sides stretch flat, bare, winter farmlands dotted with walled compounds. The strategy is aggressive patrolling to kill and drive out the Taliban, who have acted as the rural government here for 15 years.
Beginning in 2006, British forces held on to a few square kilometers that constituted the district center. Their strategy was to fight defensively while trying to win over the population. According to British brigadier general Edward Butler, “the central theme of the counterinsurgency, winning the hearts and minds, was still core to our plans.” In accord with that plan, the British Provincial Reconstruction Team poured millions of pounds into development projects. As a result, the economy flourished. But the Pashtun farmers remained at best stolidly neutral and at worst sullenly hostile. Outside the district center, the Taliban remained entrenched in the farmlands, called the Green Zone. The farmers supported them, or at least obeyed their rules.
In the fall of 2010, the British forces left, having suffered 106 killed in four years. U.S. Marines took over and changed the strategy from trying to win the cooperation of the farmers into a straight-up assault to drive the Taliban from the 40-kilometer-long valley. The British lost an average of 26 men per year on the defensive; the Marines lost 26 men in 100 days on the offensive, while driving the Taliban north.
The patrol base, named Fires because of the intensity of the daily fighting, was at the northern edge of the Marine advance. When I arrived in mid-January, Lt. Vic Garcia, the seasoned platoon commander, handed me two tourniquets.
“If someone goes down near you on patrol,” he said, “wrap him real tight and watch where you step.”
Garcia explained that the Taliban roam in small gangs among the farm compounds, sow mines, and attack from the flanks. When we set out on a combat patrol, the 15 Marines walked in single file across brown, furrowed farmlands suggestive of New England in early spring. Lance Cpl. Colby Yazzie, a full-blooded Navajo Indian, swept a narrow path with his metal detector, while his Irish-American partner, Lance Cpl. Kyle Doyle, watched out for snipers.
Near a footbridge across an irrigation canal, Yaz clenched his fist to halt the platoon, then knelt down and scratched at the dirt. He took out wire cutters, snipped a few wires, and held up two small boards wrapped in tape. Glued to the underside of each board was a sliver of metal. When a foot pressed down on the boards, the metal plates came together, completing an electrical circuit connecting a flashlight battery to a plastic jug filled with explosives. Yaz attached a small charge to the IED (improvised explosive device) and blew it up, and the patrol continued.
In 100 days of patrolling four kilometers north of the Sangin district center, Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment had found 115 IEDs. Another 14 had exploded. Of the 136 Marines in Kilo, nine had been killed and 35 severely wounded. Of four platoon commanders, one had been killed and another had lost a leg to a mine. (The unit designations relevant to this article are, from largest to smallest, regiment, battalion, company, platoon, and squad. Lieutenant Garcia’s platoon contained 50 Marines, who were divided into three squads.)
After discovering the first IED, we walked north at a steady, careful pace. Not one farmer was out tilling the lands sown with mines. Yaz again clenched his fist, knelt down, disarmed and blew up an IED. The patrol continued for a while, then halted suspiciously at the edge of a large field. On the far side were two long compound walls, dotted with “murder holes” — small peepholes for the Taliban rifle barrels.
The Marines peered at the wall through the telescopic sights on their rifles. Suddenly, the squad leader, Sgt. Philip McCulloch, fired a single shot.
“Scratch one stinky,” he said.
(A few months earlier, in Sangin, a rocket had slammed into Mac’s vehicle, knocking him out. The doctors wanted to send him back to the States, but he kicked up such a fracas that he remained hospitalized in Afghanistan until he talked his way back to Kilo Company. A few days before I arrived, his squad had pursued a Taliban gang for two kilometers. After a bullet creased the inside of Mac’s thigh, he had avoided treatment at the aid station, fearing he might be pulled to the rear.)
Mac’s squad spread out along the edge of the field, which marked their northern patrol boundary, and waited for a fight. The rear security stopped a man driving past on a motorcycle. He wore clean clothes and his hands bore no calluses. He said he was an out-of-work mullah.
Lieutenant Garcia sensed that the man was a “dicker,” part of the Taliban’s unarmed warning network. But, lacking any evidence, he told him to leave. On his third combat tour, Garcia was the sole officer at Patrol Base Fires. He accompanied most patrols, while letting the squad leaders run the show. Garcia was the second officer to command the platoon at Fires. His predecessor had been shot and killed. The unquestioned leader, he kept a short leash on McCulloch’s attack instincts.
After waiting a while at the field, Garcia signaled to McCulloch to head back south.
“The stinkies aren’t playing,” Garcia said. “The game’s not in their favor.”
Like football teams, fighting units at the tactical level display distinct styles. The Taliban style reminded me of the rice paddies south of Da Nang in 1966, where the Viet Cong used the same tactics and the Marines countered with small, aggressive patrols.