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.
The tactics are simple and effective. The Taliban’s warning net allows small teams to slip into tree lines in front of the Marine patrols. When the patrol file crosses an open field, the Taliban open fire, hoping for a hit or a rash rush by the Marines across a minefield.
The Marines’ counter is equally simple. One element peels off to flank the enemy, while another keeps aimed fire on the enemy position. If the Taliban remains too long in a fixed location, indirect fire (fire without a line of sight to the target, as from artillery) is called in. Every Marine has a telescopic rifle, and most of the fleeting targets are about 400 meters distant.
Yaz was leading the patrol back by a different route across a furrowed field when he stopped a third time. Again he uncovered a pressure-plate IED.
“That’s crazy,” McCulloch said. “An IED in the middle of nowhere.”
That IED was sure to blow the legs off a passing farmer — or a Marine. Yaz pointed to three small rocks several feet away, a tipoff for a passing Taliban gang that there was a mine in the vicinity.
A few minutes later, we walked past a crumbled wall, startling two dark brown coyotes. Again Yaz stopped, knelt, and disarmed a pressure plate. Four mines in the path of one patrol, and he had found them all.
When Kilo arrived in early October, 1st Sgt. Chris Melendez said to the troops, “I’m telling you now — some of you will go home missing arms or legs. I know that sounds hard, but God won’t give you any burden you can’t handle. So go out there, kill the enemy, and don’t flinch.”
The worst incident occurred in mid-October, just after the Marines moved into Patrol Base Fires. When a squad patrol slipped into a canal to avoid machine-gun fire, one Marine stepped on a pressure plate. Rushing to staunch his bleeding, another Marine ran forward and detonated another mine. The squad leader went down next, hit by the machine gun. A corpsman running to help the injured triggered the third mine, losing both legs.
As the dead and wounded were evacuated by helicopter, the Taliban pressed forward. They had diverted a nearby canal to flood the fields around the patrol base. Capt. Nick Johnson, the Kilo Company commander, and every available Marine at the nearby company base waded through the fields in chest-high mud to carry ammunition to the patrol base. Johnson then gathered the exhausted Marines inside Fires.
“In 1950,” he said, “this battalion walked out of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, beating off thousands of Chinese soldiers. Now it’s your turn. Come morning, we’re taking the fight to them.”
After that, every day that the platoon went out, they killed more and learned more.
Back at the crumbled wall, Garcia decided to leave the mines that lurked among the ruins to the coyotes and return to base. As they were walking by the field where Yaz had found the third IED, the crack! from a high-powered sniper rifle sent everyone to the prone. They flopped down just as a PKM machine gun (a long-range, reliable weapon) opened up with short bursts. Garcia sent McCulloch around to the left to outflank the machine gun. Mac saw one man sprinting away, leaving behind a jug of explosives, and he heard the bolt of a sniper rifle open and close, a sure sign the sniper was nearby. But it took Yaz a while to sweep for hidden mines. This gave the sniper and the machine-gun crew time to flee the area. Mac found a pile of spent cartridges behind a wall and retraced his steps back to Garcia.
The tone of a combat outfit is set from the top. The regimental commander, Col. Paul Kennedy, insisted upon discipline and aggressiveness. That ethos permeated the regiment. The Marines shaved every morning in the field and left no plastic food wrappings in the farm fields. On-call mortars tracked every patrol movement. “Close to zero” was the watchword, meaning that every engagement should end with Marines standing on the enemy positions.
In this case, having closed to zero only to find the enemy had fled, Mac’s squad returned to Patrol Base Fires shortly before dark. The Taliban don’t move at night in areas where the American thermal sights can detect them; and the Marines don’t patrol in the dark, when they can’t detect the mines.
At Fires, there were no showers, no lights, and no Internet. Evening talk centered on how to stay alive and kill. Snail mail took three to four weeks. Bountiful packages from the States included delicious cookies, warm socks, fleece linings for the sleeping bags, touching notes from third-graders, and piles of leftover Halloween candies. The men slept warmly in their bags inside small cave-like indentations in the side of a thick compound wall.
In the morning, the patrol went out again, pushing north two kilometers to a cluster of compounds flying the white flag of the Taliban. Through the centuries, armies have held aloft their battle streamers to signify group solidarity and power. It is a way of saying, “Here we are, all ye foolish enough to give challenge.” In response, the platoon had rigged a flagpole at the patrol base and proudly flew the Stars and Stripes, with the maroon-and-gold Marine flag beneath.
The Taliban bluffed as though they would defend their flags. Their opening machine-gun burst kicked up a dust line just two feet to the right of Yaz and McCulloch. The Marines lost no time in falling prone and establishing return fire.
The Taliban were split into three firing positions. The nearest was a tree line along a ditch 300 meters to the Marines’ front. Tiny figures were darting back and forth, popping off a few shots from behind one tree trunk and then another. When the Marine snipers hit one and a first sergeant visiting from regimental headquarters hit a second one, the Taliban fire slackened.
Garcia directed Mac to flank the compound from the west. He then told another sergeant to call in mortars. An F-18 radioed to Garcia that from 8,000 feet their camera pod had zoomed in on two men with rifles on the roof of Compound 38. Garcia confirmed that a prior patrol had reported 38 as abandoned. He radioed to battalion, where the air officer cleared the F-18 to make a gun-strafing run. Unfortunately, it was low on fuel and had to return to base. So Garcia authorized a mortar strike on the tree line in front of the compound.
Garcia’s coordinated moves took about ten minutes to execute and ten decades to develop. No infantry unit in the world can match the intelligence, the teamwork, and the coordination of an American squad working with mortars, artillery, and air.
Usually Taliban in the open pull back rapidly once under indirect fire. Sure enough, the Taliban fire stopped. Mac’s squad moved forward, blew a breach in the compound wall, searched inside, and found only blankets and cooking utensils. The Marines pulled down one Taliban flag, ignored a few others, and returned to base.
When we got in from the patrol, Sgt. John Browning, the leader of the snipers in the platoon, walked over to a wall with stick figures carved into the baked mud. Taking out his knife, he carved in two more figures. The Marines at Fires loathe the Taliban. They call them “stinkies” after the repellent smell of feces. They scorn their tactic, when under fire, of running to a group of women and children, knowing the Marines will not shoot. The Pashtun farmers tolerate or cooperate with the Taliban, who walk in their midst and are not pointed out. The Taliban grab children to shield them on their motorcycles, and the parents let it happen. The people will point out mines on the roads they use, but they won’t reveal who put the mines there.
The platoon at Outpost Fires has killed 121 of the enemy. We applaud pilots who shoot down five enemy aircraft by calling them “aces”; grunts win no such public praise, but they do keep score. At Patrol Base Fires, Garcia’s 50 Marines engaged in the heaviest sustained combat in Afghanistan. In just three months, two Marines were killed, two others had limbs amputated, and eight more were evacuated with other severe wounds. In response to this 20 percent loss rate, Garcia’s platoon has asked for a larger battle space to pursue the Taliban.
In Sangin, the British had spent tens of millions of pounds on “non-kinetic” (non-shooting) counterinsurgency, trying to win support by building clinics and schools. They opened up the main market, expanding trade and production. They focused on the people, but the people did not respond. When the British left Sangin, the Taliban still held the countryside and the roads leading to the market.
The U.S. Marines focused on clearing the enemy, with no expectation that the people would shift allegiances until the Taliban were soundly beaten. This approach has a price, because you can’t clear heavily mined farmlands without losses; but you can’t win a war by staying on the defensive. On the battlefields, the British are our closest allies and comrades; they will attack side-by-side with us. At the top level, though, there is a political divergence between us and them about risk-taking and casualties.
Our grunts in Sangin view the Pashtun farmers as bystanders, often aligned with the Taliban. Generally the farmers are seen fleeing or closing the compound gates when a patrol approaches. The people know the Taliban shoot anytime from anywhere. Whether the passivity and self-sacrifice of the farmers is due to intimidation or to religious or tribal solidarity is of no interest to the passing Marines, who know the fight is between them and the Taliban. Although they recognize the sheer hard work and misery of the farmers and say time and again that “the kids back in the States don’t know how good they have it,” there’s no talk of liberating the people.
Down to the squad level, most leaders are on their second or third combat tour. When they are hit, they hit back twice as hard. They are sympathetic to the people, but they’re not persuaded they can win over the tribes enough to make them go against the Taliban, including members of their own families.
The Americans at Sangin see themselves first and foremost as warriors, reflecting the sentiments of the regimental commander, Colonel Kennedy. I first met him in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004, when he was a battalion commander fighting up and down the streets as the battle exploded in nearby Fallujah. Kennedy’s battalion of 800 Marines had 35 killed in action. During that battle, he wrote to the families back in the States, “Previous to yesterday the terrorists thought that we were soft enough to challenge. . . . By the end of the evening, the local hospital was full of their dead. . . . It will be a cold day in Hell before we are taken for granted again.”
In Sangin, an assassin almost killed Kennedy during a meeting with tribal elders to discuss the withdrawal of the Taliban. The next day, Lieutenant Garcia responded by pushing his patrol base one kilometer farther north into Taliban territory. The Taliban had read the situation correctly: Kennedy was their enemy, implacably moving forward. The Taliban throughout Helmand Province were not accustomed to the warrior ethos of the Marines. Marja and Garmsir, the enemy hubs at the southern end of the province, collapsed in 2010. At the northern end, the campaign in Sangin is likely to force the Taliban out of the valley by the end of this summer.
After that, it’s an open question whether the Marine battalions will stay to manage economic projects and mentor officials appointed by Pres. Hamid Karzai, or will pull back, placing Afghan soldiers with Marine advisers in the lead.
Sangin is not a microcosm of the war. It is not possible to extrapolate from Sangin to all of Afghanistan. Across the east and south of Afghanistan, the scale of the fighting and the performance of coalition units are too varied to single out any one district as typical. At the tip of the spear in the south, the morale of the grunts in Kilo Company is high. They don’t reflect on past policy errors or the future of Afghanistan. Strategy is the business of generals and elected officials. The grunts understand that American or Afghan politics may create a good, bad, or murky ending to America’s involvement. Instead of becoming entangled in academic theories about winning hearts and minds, Sergeant McCulloch, Lieutenant Garcia, and Colonel Kennedy measure themselves by whether they dominate on the battlefield.
That spirit — that warrior ethos — will always be critical to our nation’s security.
– Mr. West’s latest book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, is reviewed in this issue.