Magazine | May 3, 2010, Issue

The Battle of Marja

The author (front, center-right) with Special Operations task force Commando
A report, with recommendations, from the front lines

February’s seizure of the Taliban stronghold called Marja, in Helmand Province, was the largest operation in the Afghan War since 2001. It was conducted by approximately 4,000 American and 1,500 Afghan troops, facing 400 to 800 insurgents. To follow its progress, I checked in at the U.S. Marine brigade headquarters, began the operation with Battalion 1-6, and then spent most of the month in southern Marja with a Special Operations task force, appropriately called Commando. This was my third embed in a year in Helmand Province, the opium capital of the world.

The question following the operation is whether the successful seizure of Marja was sui generis, with few techniques of general applicability, or was an example with wider implications. To answer it, let’s look at what happened, why it did, and what carries forward.

In February of 2009, the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, decided to send a Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) to Helmand, ten of whose twelve districts were under Taliban control. The MEB’s mission was to control the southern and western districts and seize Marja, the Taliban headquarters. Helmand accounted for about half of the world’s illegal opium and heroin production, with the Taliban taking in between $40 million and $100 million per annum. If Kandahar was the symbolic capital of the Taliban, then Helmand was their breadbasket.

The MEB commander, Brig. Gen. Larry D. Nicholson, who had commanded a regiment in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, was familiar with Afghanistan’s intertwined fighting, assassinations, corruption, and politics. He had handpicked his staff from Fallujah veterans, earning himself the nickname “The Poacher.”

Marja’s objective area comprised about twelve by twelve miles of canals, irrigation ditches, and flat fields, with several thousand farm compounds. The assault began on February 13 with a night landing by helicopters of three Marine companies, with Afghan soldiers attached to every squad. They attacked from the center out, aiming to link up with two battalions moving in from the northwest and the east. Thus, once the attack had begun, no politician could stop it. This was a lesson from Fallujah, where in 2004 politicians called off the attack in mid-battle.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were everywhere. At noon on D-Day, I talked with an engineer sergeant who was disarming an IED beside our vehicle. “This is my ninth today,” he said. There were some heavy firefights in the first few days, when the Taliban made the mistake of coming too close to the advancing Marines. After losing about 100 fighters, the Taliban fled the area or picked up hoes and blended into the farming communities, and the battle was effectively over.

The plan is that two Marine battalions will stay in Marja for several months, gradually turning over security control to Afghan soldiers and police. The next stage will come during the poppy harvest. Farmers will be allowed to harvest what they can, but laborers from outside the province will be turned away on the main roads.

The Taliban have taken a large hit to their finances, because they won’t be able to organize the purchase and export of raw opium, let alone refine it inside Marja. Instead, many small-time dealers will resort to smuggling modest amounts over the back roads, fracturing Taliban control and reducing the profit margin.

Why did Marja fall so quickly? The 400 or so Talibs were overwhelmed, and the rifle companies attacking out from the center precluded internal lines of defense. Once the companies linked up with the battalions coming in from the outside, it was over.

Canals became the equivalent of the protective concrete barriers that have been used with success in Iraq. Once outposts were set up at intersecting canals, the Talibs had to pull out before they were trapped inside.

Air surveillance played a huge role. No Taliban could cruise around on his motorbike, set up a checkpoint, or move ammo without fearing the Big Eye in the Sky. Firefights were usually limited to ten or fifteen minutes: Once rotary wing came overhead, things quieted down in a hurry. All Afghans hold our air force in awe and attribute to it capabilities not even seen in Star Wars.

As for what carries forward, several factors deserve mention.

Small advisory/combat task forces in 2011. Task Force Commando was an experimental Marine unit consisting of U.S. Army Special Forces Team ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) 3121. These nine soldiers, with an average age of 31, provided an experienced combat core of advisers. General Nicholson assigned to the Special Forces team a 30-man Marine engineer platoon that swept the roads for IEDs, threw up outposts, and provided firepower and backup for the ODA. In addition, four Marines with extensive experience calling in air attacks were attached to the team.

#page#Task Force Commando patrolled with and advised an Afghan battalion of 400 soldiers. The Afghan battalion fought well. There were the usual complaints about food and demands for money, but nothing that stopped the daily momentum. The insurgents could not stand up to the U.S.-Afghan combination.

Our forces go to extraordinary lengths not to strike residential compounds (where insurgents often take shelter), even after receiving fire. While there is an admirable moral aspect to this restraint, the strategic rationale is less clear-cut. If, as is sometimes charged, NATO alienates the population by accidentally killing civilians, causing many more to join the Taliban, then why can the Taliban deliberately kill three times as many without causing three times the backlash? A little less criticism of our military operations from the politicians whose nation we are trying to save, starting with Pres. Hamid Karzai, would go a long way.

As we withdraw, the budget for the Afghan army will plummet, and the army will not be able to stand on its own in 2011. It is clear that we must continue to provide an air umbrella for the Afghan soldiers, and this requires the presence of U.S. air controllers on the ground. Task forces like Commando assist and reassure the Afghan forces while providing sufficient combat power to protect our air controllers; they’re advisory units and combat units at the same time. Overall in 2011, the ratio of Afghan soldiers and police to coalition soldiers will be on the order of three to one; in Task Force Commando, the ratio was ten to one. As we reduce our combat forces in 2011, this sort of small task force makes sense as a way to help the transition along.

Patrol or lose. Nicholson’s rule of thumb was eight Afghans and Americans per patrol on foot, with no requirement for overwatch by a vehicle. ODA loved the lack of restrictions in their sector. The result was 60 patrols a day per battalion. In other provinces, some battalions made about 24 patrols a day.

The length of a serviceman’s tour of duty can have major implications for his effectiveness on patrol. Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Marines have tour lengths of seven months or less in front-line units, while Army soldiers do twelve-month tours. Under the latter system, after eight or nine months, soldiers usually need to homestead (meaning good food, cots with mattresses, air conditioning, etc.), and they pace themselves for a marathon of patrolling, not a sprint. A grunt doing seven months can push harder and get by with less.

Talk and attack. Shuras — meetings with local elders — were held wherever U.S. forces went. Nicholson talked with hundreds of elders and reached out to the mullahs. U.S. reconstruction teams came armed with millions of dollars for local projects. A “government in a box” — Afghan officials who had been chosen and briefed beforehand — was brought in as well.

These measures to win over the population have been a big help, but we have to be clear-eyed in our expectations. Marja was the tenth major operation since 2006 in Helmand alone. The Taliban recovered from the first nine ops, so the possibility of regeneration, or sleeper cells, remains vexing. What’s going on here?

Basically, Pashtuns do not betray their cousins who are fighting with the Taliban. This makes the situation very different from what happened in Anbar, in Iraq, beginning in late 2006. There, the Sunni tribes rebelled against al-Qaeda, and tribesmen revealed the identities of the terrorists hiding among them. General Petraeus was able to pay 100,000 Sunni “Sons of Iraq” to act as armed militia and drive al-Qaeda out of their neighborhoods. The peace that followed, despite sporadic bombings, has remained fairly stable for the last several years.

Nothing resembling that swing of the Sunni tribes has happened among the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. The notion that we provide security to a Pashtun population that is not excessively oppressed by the Taliban, and in return it informs on the Taliban in its midst, remains an unproven theory. Equally troubling is that in nine years of war, the Defense Department has not developed a device for the biometric identification of the male population on a large scale. Our soldiers and Marines — and the Tajik askars — have no way of knowing whether the man they are questioning comes from where he claims, or where and when he was last questioned.

#page#The Afghan police fall under the supervision of the venal and inefficient National Directorate of Security. Estimates are that for every ten actual Talibs detained at the substation level, only one will eventually stand trial, be convicted, and go to prison. There is leakage and corruption at every level, which is one reason why Afghanistan, on a per capita basis, has fewer criminals (including insurgents) in prison than does Sweden.

Nonetheless, Talib recruitment is low. They haven’t attracted large numbers of followers, even in places where they have been in charge for years, such as Marja. Even so, in the end, if we are not killing or capturing the enemy in significant numbers, it’s hard to win the war.

Which brings us to the “attack” part. Nicholson took an aggressive approach, using his units like an accordion. In the summer and fall, they spread out in the river valley; in February, they collapsed on Marja; and now they are spreading out again.

Once Marja settled down, he sent troops to remote Delaram, 60 miles to the west. Wherever the Taliban went to regroup, Nicholson attacked, a technique harkening back to Gen. George Crook in the Indian Wars. While there was some staff criticism in Kabul about violating the precept of population protection, Nicholson was unperturbed.

“Population protection? Visit any district where Marines are,” he said. “Ask the farmers how we’re doing. It’s results that count. I won’t tolerate a sanctuary anywhere in Helmand. I want to unhinge the Taliban psychologically — keep them on the run.”

Train police. Inside the province, Nicholson was training his own police force, with 2,000 graduates a year. The carefully controlled mixture was one-third local and two-thirds non-local. This balance was intended to restrict deal-making and tribal favoritism while including local contacts. Training police at the U.S. brigade level ensures that local interests are addressed, while allowing the brigade to exercise the necessary supervision to weed out the undesirables.

The big picture. The coalition in Afghanistan is pursuing a political-military strategy based on three tasks: clear, hold, build. First, clear the guerrillas from populated areas; second, hold the areas with Afghan forces; and third, build responsible governance and promote development, to win the loyalty of the population for the government in Kabul. To accomplish this, the coalition military has deployed reconstruction teams to 25 provinces.

Above the local level, however, President Karzai holds the levers of political power by controlling provincial finances and leadership appointments, including of police chiefs. Regardless of the coalition’s success at the district level, an obdurate and erratic Karzai has been an obstacle to progress. After the success at Marja, President Obama flew to Kabul to address Karzai sternly about reforms.

Obama insisted that Karzai clamp down on corruption, only to have Karzai deny that there was any. Then, after Obama left, Karzai threw one of his tantrums, threatening to join the Taliban. The ploy worked; the White House backed off. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hastened onto the Sunday talk shows to laud Karzai as a “reliable partner” who was “absolutely” stable and would soon visit the White House. Yet it is far from clear how much this policy of alternating encouragement and tough talk can accomplish.

The attributes of a leader are competence, courage of conviction, and care of subordinates. Karzai lacks all three. The analogy sometimes hopefully cited, that Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki gradually emerged as a leader after a terrible start, ignores the facts that Karzai has been in power for eight years already, and that Afghanistan lacks the educated social network that undergirds Iraq.

The only credible exit from Afghanistan would be to build a government that functions regardless of Karzai, not because of him. Clearly this must begin with a strong Afghan military, which is where small but highly effective units like Task Force Commando play such a critical role in furthering U.S. global strategy.

Mr. West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has made two dozen extended trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of The Village and The Strongest Tribe, he is currently writing a book about the War in Afghanistan.

Bing WestBing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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