The Battle of Danny Boy

It ought to be comforting to the American people, in an odd sort of way, to realize that when it comes to idiotic politicians and bureaucrats, self-serving senior flag officers, and agenda-driven anti-nationalists, we aren’t standing alone in the world.  Somehow, though, this is not at all reassuring —it’s downright worrisome.  Like our own government, the United Kingdom decided to send its young men off to war. These well-trained warriors did their jobs and completed their missions and were officially recognized for their performance above and beyond the call of duty. But then the British government publicly called into question their honor and their courage on the field of battle.

What kind of people are we?

(Then) Lance Corporal Brian Wood, British Army, 1stBattalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, was called in to reinforce an insurgency attack directed against a combat patrol of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders near a checkpoint known as “Danny Boy.”  The incident took place near Majar al-Kabir on 14 May 2004.  It was one of the most ferocious engagements involving British forces in Iraq; it involved close-quarter combat against a larger force of the so-called Mahdi Army fighting to the death.

In the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, British forces were sent there to act as peacekeepers.  They were in Iraq to demonstrate solidarity with the western world, to win the hearts and minds of the local people, the goal of which was to help reconstruct the nation after the Iraq War.  This, quite naturally, was all political rubbish.  If these peacekeepers accomplished anything at all, they became the targets of a ruthless insurgency.  American and British forces were routinely sniped at, mortared, and attacked by armed extremists who were being cleverly manipulated by Moqtada al-Sadr. In this initial stage, and for the sake of brevity, we can call peacekeeping what it was: standing around looking stupid while senior military leaders figured out what was going on. Meanwhile, combat soldiers suffered the around-the-clock rocket and mortar fire,

When the leaders of these coalition forces finally decided that enough was enough, they planned several operations intending to confront the Mahdi army, locate and arrest key leaders, bomb-makers, and those who had no hesitation in sending children wrapped in explosives toward coalition camps.

Warrior Armored Vehicle 00114 May began with the usual rocket attack of the British position at Abu Naji.  The command ordered Corporal Wood and his men into the Warrior fighting vehicle; his mission: discover the location of insurgent (enemy) mortar positions. While on patrol, the Wood’s unit was redirected to reinforce elements of the Argyll Sutherland Highland, a platoon being ambushed near checkpoint Danny Boy.  As they sped to reinforce the beleaguered unit, vehicle commander Sergeant Broome provided Wood and his team with constant updates on the situation. Wood and his men, sitting in the rear compartment, had no way of observing the vehicle’s surroundings.

Suddenly, the Warrior began to receive overwhelming small-arms fire.  The vehicle commander hit the brakes and the gunner began delivering return fire. Wood and his men were completely in the dark as to what was happening outside the vehicle.  Broome evaluated the situation: there were ten to fifteen insurgents dug in some 125 yards from the highway directing fire at the Warrior. Entrenched, the firepower generated by the vehicle’s gunner is having no effect on the insurgent’s position. Broome ordered Wood and his men to dismount.  Wood said to his men, “prepare for a close-quarter assault.”  Wood informed his sergeant they were ready to go.  Broome replied, “On my mark … there’s a gully to the left, go for that, I’ll provide covering fire.”  On the count of three, Wood and his men exited the vehicle.

Brian Wood 001Woods (shown right, Royal Army photo) could see the enemy, well entrenched, their heads bobbing up and down as they fired the weapons and then took cover.  Wood realized immediately that his radio wasn’t working; there was no way to receive any further instructions from Broome.  He decided to attack the insurgents “hard and fast.”  His team of five scrambled out of the gully in team formation, running a zig-zag pattern across the open ground, stopping, kneeling, returning fire, advancing in a leap-frog pattern.  Enemy bullets whipped around them.  It was a demonstration of pure courage … and hope.

As the British team reached the trench, the insurgents seemed surprised.  What kind of crazy men were these to attack their well-manned and fortified position? Some of the insurgents began an immediate withdrawal.  Some threw down their weapons and raised their hands.  The Brits jumped into the trench, suddenly faced with dead bodies, prisoners, loosed weapons, shouting, and overhead fire.  The adrenalin was pumping.  Wood ordered those with their hands in the air to get on the ground; he ordered his men to ceasefire.  One insurgent was acting “jumpy,” as if he was getting ready to do something stupid, and the British team was still receiving fire from the withdrawn insurgents; they’d taken up a new position further back.  Wood grabbed Abu-Jumpy and threw him to the ground —for that man’s own protection, and his own.  He tied his hands with plastic cuffs, at the same time ordering his men to collect the enemy’s weapons and safe them.

Wood and his team were quickly augmented with reinforcements: two additional Warriors and a couple of battle tanks. Sergeant Major Dave Falconer made his presence known.  “Is the battlefield clear?”  It wasn’t clear.  Falconer ordered a clearing patrol, directing Wood to lead him in the direction of the withdrawing insurgents.  The two of them had just set off when an insurgent popped up and began firing at them.  Falconer dispatched him.  Another fighter stood up —but not for long before Wood shot him.  Two more Iraqis stood up, but they had their hands in the air. Wood recognized one of these men: an Iraqi policeman who had been working with the British forces.  Apparently, he’d switched sides.  It was a common occurrence among the Iraqis.  None of these people could be trusted.  Out of plastic cuffs, Wood and Falconer frog-walked these two men back to the British line.

The ordeal wasn’t over.  Falconer ordered Wood and his men to collect the bodies. It was a gruesome task and having to do these kinds of things are part of what causes combat veterans to have bad dreams.  The smell of death lingers for a lifetime.  In any case, a few days after the battle, military police conducted an inquiry of what had happened on the morning of 14 May.  Wood and his men made their statements.  As far as he was concerned, the issue was history.  In time, Wood rotated back home with his unit.

A few months later, while undergoing additional training, a couple of men from the special investigations branch appeared. They wanted to ask Corporal Wood a few more questions.  A few things needed clarification, they said.  They showed him some pictures of dead Iraqis and asked him to identify them.  It isn’t pleasant having to look at pictures of dead men, particularly men who’ve been killed in combat.  Wood didn’t recognize any of these men.  The interview lasted more than an hour.

Time progressed and Wood was notified that he was being awarded the Military Cross [1]. He received his medal from Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth.  It was an honor for Wood to have been so recognized. Her Majesty was kind toward Wood and offered him her thanks and appreciation for his service.

Phil Shiner 001In 2009, Wood learned of the so-called Al-Sweady investigation.  It had been five years since the Battle of Danny Boy.  The investigation had been initiated by a civil rights attorney named Phil Shiner (shown right, photo from the public domain).  A number of soldiers had been accused of assault, along with inhumane treatment of detainees.  One of these soldiers copped a plea and served one year in prison.  As a result of one man admitting inappropriate conduct, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) paid out £3-million to the aggrieved Iraqis for “substantive breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.”  The admission also led the liberal press to assume that human rights violations were prevalent within the British forces. A witch-hunt was started.  The Battle of Danny Boy resurfaced.

A group of six Iraqis and the uncle of Hamid al-Sweady, one of those killed at Danny Boy, claimed that they had been ill-treated by British forces in the aftermath of the battle.  They claimed to be innocent bystanders, simple farmers who were not part of the insurgency.  They were simply caught up in the crossfire.  They also claimed that the fighters who had been captured had been murdered in cold blood by the British troopers.  The MoD dismissed these allegations, but Solicitor Shiner persisted with his claims.  He suggested to the press that as many as 20 Iraqis had been murdered by British forces. In November 2009, it was announced that a public inquiry would be held to look into these claims.

Colour Sergeant [2] Wood was called to give evidence in 2013 … nine years later.  It wasn’t a trial; it was a public inquiry, but Wood was still placed in the dock and questioned by the attorneys representing the Iraqi complainers.  Wood thought the whole show was ridiculous—and indeed, it was.  Lacking any familiarity with military training or front line experience, the attorneys did not even know what questions to ask, and so they focused on the idiotic.  It was a fishing expedition: they wanted to know how long the firefight lasted, they asked Wood whether he went to the right or left when he exited the Warrior, and they wanted to know “how tightly” the plastic cuffs were placed on the Iraqi prisoners.  Was it true that Wood had denied a prisoner a drink of water?  Wood asked himself, “Why are we even discussing this?”

Wood gave his evidence and retired from the courtroom.  The result of the inquiry wasn’t announced for another nine months.  Meanwhile, Wood wondered what might happen next.  He’d not done anything wrong, so why was he now being made to suffer the stress of these unsubstantiated accusations?  And the liberal British press was having a field day. One might think that Wood was the reincarnated Jack the Ripper.

On 17 December 2014, the final report summed up 189-days of testimony from 55 Iraqi witnesses and 222 British servicemen. There were 328 statements from additional witnesses.  The final report consisted of more than 1,200 pages.  What were the findings?  “The vast majority of allegations made against British military were wholly and entirely without merit or foundation.  Very many of those baseless allegations were the product of deliberate and calculated lies on the part of those who made them, and who then gave evidence to this inquiry in order to support and perpetuate them.  Other false allegations were the result of inappropriate and reckless speculation on the part of witnesses.  The evidence clearly showed that the British soldiers responded to this deadly ambush with exemplary courage, resolution, and professionalism.”

The inquiry cost the British taxpayer £31 million. The firm called Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, a second law firm involved in cases against British troops were referred to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority.  In August 2016 Public Interest Lawyers went out of business, while the British government announced it would take steps to prevent further spurious claims against Her Majesty’s troops.  In December 2016, Phil Shiner was compelled to attend a hearing seated to consider the misconduct of attorneys.  He admitted guilt in relation to claims of wrongdoing by Wood and his men and.  The evidence against these lawyers was that they knew far in advance of the 2009 inquiry that allegations of murder and torture were false.  They knew that Hamid al-Sweady was a member of the Mahdi army —and knowing this, they allowed the allegations to go forward.

Martyn Day and Phil Shiner (and others) lost their license to practice law in 2017, but it didn’t undo the years of anguish and suffering among the British troopers and their families.

Neither Day or Shiner has ever apologized to these men.

John F. Kennedy once said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”  How does the United States and the United Kingdom honor the men who serve?

It could be argued, of course, by distinguished jurists that the legal process must begin with allegations that are either substantiated or defeated in a court of law.  But there is another point of view.  Nations spend billions of dollars training and equipping their soldiers to fight; they spend billions more sending them into combat.  Some of these men never come home.  Far more are permanently injured while fighting these wars. What right do lawyers or politicians have to constantly look over the shoulders of these men, second-guessing what goes on within the space of mere seconds in lethal combat?  What right do these people have to question the actions of these men in moments of adrenalin, fear, and their quest for survival?  More to the point, what right do they have in accepting the testimony of known liars [3] (the insurgents) over the word of the men who fought against them?

Ed Gallagher 001Presently, in the United States, another warrior is facing life in prison owing to allegations of war crimes.  According to the New York Times, decorated Navy SEAL, Special Operations Chief Ed Gallagher (Shown right, photo from public domain) has been charged with indiscriminately shooting at civilians, premeditated murder of a “teenage [4]” ISIS fighter, obstruction of justice, and bringing discredit upon the armed forces by posing in a picture next to the body of aforementioned teenager.

Ed Gallagher has achieved 19 years of honorable service. He is a trained hospital corpsman and a sniper.  He is the recipient of his country’s third highest combat decoration, the Silver Star. Now, aged 39, Gallagher is facing life in prison.  He isn’t the first combat soldier or sailor to face such accusations.

Chief Gallagher denies all charges.  I hope he has a good defense team; he’ll need one, because there are other Navy chiefs who are lined up to testify against him, now claiming that he was blood-thirsty, reckless, and out of control. But one has to wonder, if these characterizations are true, then why didn’t his officers in charge and senior enlisted supervisors take action to remove him from the combat force?  Why wasn’t he referred to medical authorities for a proper psychiatric evaluation?

We cannot now know what actually happened in Gallagher’s case.  This is why we have courts of inquiry and, when necessary, formal court-martial proceedings.  And yet, here we are, once more examining a situation in which governments send their young men into battle, and have the audacity to question them about what actually happened in the heat of combat.  Last week, we learned about the plight of Major Fred Galvin and the Marines of Fox Company, MARSOC-7. In Galvin’s case, the exalted leadership didn’t have his back, and the British government sure didn’t support Brian Wood and twenty others who were falsely accused.  Now we are witness to another set of allegations unfolding in the liberal press.

The British and Americans have a long history of the warrior ethos.  Whenever called upon, young men from these two countries have always stepped up —twice against one another.  But despite this proud history, I have to wonder how much longer anyone, in either country, with any common sense at all, will willingly place themselves in harm’s way if all they can ever expect is punishment for doing what their governments paid them to do —which, for the record, is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.

Sources:

  1. Wood, B.  Double Crossed.  Virgin Books, London, 2019
  2. “Decorated Navy Seal is Accused of War Crimes in Iraq,” Dave Phillips, The New York Times, 15 November 2018
  3. “Lawyers in Foxholes,” Vassar Bushmills (vassarbushmills.com)

Endnotes:

[1] The Military Cross (MC) is awarded to all ranks of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army, and Royal Air Force in recognition of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.  It is an ornamental cross in silver, with straight arms terminating in broad finals decorated with the Imperial Crown.  The Queen does not usually present this decoration but may do so at her pleasure, which she did on this occasion.

[2] In the British Army, a colour sergeant ranks above sergeant and just below warrant officer.

[3] See also: Fox Company, MARSOC-7.

[4] The age, sex, socio-economic status, level of education, or the worthiness of his or her parents do not matter when someone is trying to kill you.  It is either kill the enemy or be killed by the enemy. Choose wisely.

Fox Company MARSOC Seven

MARSOC 001On 4thMarch 2007, a platoon of thirty Marines were being transported in a six-vehicle convoy when it was ambushed in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.  The area was notorious as a terrorist route into Afghanistan from Pakistan.  The smoke hadn’t cleared over the point of contact when the news media began reporting that these Marines had gone on a wild rampage, killing massive numbers of innocent civilians in the process.  The unit was called Task Force Violent.  In reality, it was the direct-action platoon of Fox Company, Marine Special Operations Command.  In the press, they were undisciplined cowboys who brought shame upon the United States Marine Corps.  The characterization was both unfair, and untrue.

The facts are these: Fox Company was sent into a war zone under-manned, with muddled orders, confusing rules of engagement, and un-prepared for the political environment within which they were destined to serve; they were sent to war with equipment that was inadequate to their mission.  By under-manned, there was but one mechanic to maintain 45 company vehicles.  The Marines did not even know where they were going until after they boarded the ships that would carry them into harm’s way. Their specific mission wasn’t finally communicated to Major Galvin until his company was at sea for two weeks, which was to train the Afghani security forces.

When Fox Company arrived in Afghanistan, they were assigned to a facility at the Jalalabad airfield that had been allocated to French troops.  The facility was in a state of disrepair.  Fecal matter had tainted their well-water.  The Marines were not within the logistics system, so obtaining food was a problem.  They were borrowing food from adjacent units.  The Marine Corps’ first deployment of a special operations capable infantry company was an orphaned unit.  Worse, the Army hierarchy didn’t want these Marines in-country and found themselves at odds with the command structure.

NangarharThe ambush took place on 4thMarch.  The Marines departed their base of operations at 0600 for a pre-approved three-phase mission. The patrol took them toward the Bora Bora mountains, which were snow covered.  The roads were muck.  The Marines proceeded through Bati Kot to a key border crossing.  There, they met with an army military police unit.  The patrol continued on to search for suspected insertion points along the base of the mountains.  Having discovered no clear evidence of insertion points, the Marine turned back toward Bati Kot, where they intended to meet with village elders to learn more about enemy activities in the area.

The attack, when it came, was alarming.  Entering Bati Kot, the Marines noticed several military-aged men lining the street.  A bomber driving a van packed with fuel, raced toward the convoy and attempted to wedge himself between the first two vehicles before detonating the bomb.  When the explosion came, there was a massive ball of fire that rose into the air and briefly engulfed the second vehicle.  Small arms immediately erupted from both sides of the roadway.  The Marines immediately responded in the manner in which they were trained: they fired disabling shots to get the convoy free of danger … moving meant avoiding being pinned down by enemy fire. Warning shots were fired to disperse a forming crowd.  It was, in fact, a textbook response.

Afghan witnesses, however, had a different story to tell.  They said that the Marines panicked and started killing everyone in sight. Some of these witnesses claimed that the Marines exited their vehicles and threatened local journalists who were snapping pictures of the attack.  Other Afghans said that the Marines appeared drunk.  None of these claims were true, but this was the story that appeared in the international press.

Upon return to base, one injured Marine was taken in for medical treatment.  The experience was scary, but the Marines weathered it and took it in stride.  They’d survived the mission.  They saved the convoy.  But later, in the mess hall, a television new report was reporting about the incident … claiming that the Marines had killed noncombatant civilians.

Pihana P 001
Believed to be Pihana, Photo from Public doman

The Special Operations Command convened an investigation almost immediately.  Upon order of Major General Frank Kearney, US Army, commanding the Special Operations Command, Colonel Patrick Pihana, U. S. Air Force, was appointed to conduct a fact-finding investigation.  At the time, Pihana was serving as Kearny’s Chief of Staff —and, as such, was not a disinterested party to the investigation.

Nevertheless, during this investigation, Pihana attempted to convince an Army EOD expert to recant his conclusion that in-coming small arms fire damaged one of the Marine vehicles. When the expert refused to abandon his evaluation, Colonel Pihana excluded his statement.  Ultimately, Colonel Pihana recommended charges against four Marines for negligent homicide.  In order for Pihana to reach this conclusion, it was necessary that he disregard the statements of every Marine in the convoy.

In time, Kearny, who retired from active duty in 2012 as a three-star general, would himself be implicated; not only for his repeated misconduct the handling of the investigation against Fox Company, but also in another matter involving an Army Special Forces detachment (Green Berets).  Under scrutiny, Kearny later claimed that he only convened his investigation at the request of the Marine Corps.  Pihana maintained that his investigation was properly conducted.

Within one week of this incident, the Marines were ordered out of the war zone.  Fox Company’s commanding officer, Major Fred Galvin, was relieved of his command.  A board of inquiry was subsequently convened at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to evaluate the facts … but only after Galvin suffered the shame of his relief for cause and his Marines unceremoniously dispersed.

Meanwhile, in May 2007, Colonel John Nicholson [1], U. S. Army, addressed the Pentagon Press Corps via satellite hookup from Afghanistan.  As the commander of Task Force Spartan, Nicholson had oversight of the region within which Fox Company was operating, including Bati Kot. Nicholson reported that the Army had paid claims to Afghan citizens in Bati Kot.  Nicholson opined that what happened that day was a “stain on our honor,” and a “terrible, terrible mistake.”  This is the narrative placed against the Marines of Fox Company; this is the narrative that stuck.

The inquiry convened ten months later.  The question was whether sufficient credible evidence existed to warrant criminal charges: negligent homicide being the recommendation of the initial investigating officer.  The inquiry lasted three weeks.  During this time, the press was excluded for attendance due to the presence of classified information.  Not being present to hear first-hand testimony, certain members of the media invented their own narrative.  It was a rush to judgment by senior army officers and the press.

After the board of inquiry, a Marine Corps 3-star general determined that Major Fred Galvin and his Marines had acted appropriately in combat and pursuant to the rules governing the use of lethal force … but the damage to these Marines had already been done. Galvin was not offered a subsequent command and was forced into retirement in 2014.  Fox Company Marines were cleared of any wrong-doing, but the judicial incompetence of senior officers left the Marines, including Galvin, with a stigma that has dogged them ever since 2007.  In Major Galvin’s case, his superiors constructed fitness reports that were designed for no other reason than to prevent him from advancing in rank … all of this in spite of the fact that a Navy Department conclusion rebuked those who condemned these men even before the facts were clear.

What actually happened here was an episode that unleased international outrage against good Marines, based on proven fabrications, engineered by the enemy to fuel distrust of the American military.  Their dupes were the three senior officers who “rushed to judgment.”  In other words, American warriors were betrayed by senior officers who have been “trained” to remain objective in matters relating to the administration of justice.

Murtha 001
Rep. John Murtha, D-PA Photo taken from public domain

This wasn’t the first assault upon military justice arising from a combat zone.  There was the matter of Haditha, where judgment was rendered far in advance of known facts.  In this case, Congressman John Murtha [2] (D-PA), joined by then Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, condemned the Marines in the press and claimed that there never was an IED attack, that the Marines killed innocent civilians in cold blood.  Only one Marine was ever convicted from this event, one count of dereliction of duty. That one Marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich (reduced to private) sued Murtha for defamation, but his lawsuit was later dismissed because Murtha, in his congressional capacity, was above the law.

In another case, arising in 2011, Marines were accused of urinating on the dead corpses of Taliban fighters [3].  Then Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos attempted to interfere in the legal proceedings —applying unlawful command influence over a pending judicial matter— by firing the Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser (the lawful convening authority in the case).  Waldhauser refused Amos’ order to “crush and discharge” the accused Marines.  To make matters worse, Amos attempted to hide the fact that he’d crossed the line of proper judicial supervision and provided photographs to the press that showed Marines urinating on the corpses, which accompanied the words, “What Does America Think of Her Marines Today.”

It would thus appear that there is a serious problem within that small circle of flag rank officers within the Department of Defense.  What kind of leader conspires against his own combat troops?  In the case of Kearney and Nicholson, it may have been a byproduct of an age-old rivalry between the Army and Marines; rather that than simply a matter of inexcusable incompetence.  It may have also been a case of simple vindictiveness.  See also: MarineistanColonel Pihana’s inexcusable behavior was a matter of a senior officer exhibiting his flawed character by giving his boss what he wanted —rather than doing what was right and honorable.  And, of course, Pihana wanted to be a general too, someday.

Major Fred Galvin offered a correct analysis: Fox Company suffered the consequences of political pressure in an unpopular war.  The US military in 2007 was committed to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized protecting Afghan civilians.  A situation in which building trust and confidence with local Afghans took precedence over killing insurgents.  In actuality, Fox Company Marines did nothing beyond defending themselves against a sudden ambush.

Nevertheless, the stress attached to being investigated as war criminals, and the shame of being accused of something they never did, has been a heavy burden to bear among the Fox Company Marines. They have suffered as much as any combat veteran from substance abuse, divorce, and having thoughts of suicide. For what?  They did nothing wrong.

There was a substantial failure within the small enclave of Marine Corps leadership as well.  What kind of leader constructs fitness reports that were only written with one purpose: to force a fellow officer out of the Corps?  Major Galvin, however, never gave up his efforts to urge the Marine Corps to do more for his Marines, to set the record straight. Major Galvin kept faith with his men —the sign of a true leader.

Beginning in 2015, members of Congress petitioned then Commandant of the Marine Corps Joseph F. Dunford and later, Commandant of the Marine Corps Robert B. Neller to do the right thing.  Both of these officers “declined” to revisit the plight of Fox Company Marines.  In his letter to members of Congress, Dunford simply restated the court’s findings from years prior; he merely emphasized that neither Galvin nor his men faced any punitive measures. “Nor is there any adverse information in their military records associated with this incident,” Dunford wrote.  But Dunford was either wrong, or he was lying.  Galvin was systematically damned to failure through faint praise.

Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) would not back off, however and as a result, Major General Frederick M. Padilla, then serving as Neller’s chief of staff, pledged that the Corps would provide counseling and such other assistance to Galvin and his men as necessary to help them recover from this trauma.  Of course, Major Galvin never heard about this until several weeks later when he read it in The Washington Post.  So much for “following up,” eh General Padilla?

Dunford, now serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon has acknowledged the Navy Review Board’s directive.  Dunford’s spokesman said, “General Dunford was pleased to learn about Maj. Galvin’s exoneration and also appreciates his efforts to take care of the Marines from Fox Company.”  Commandant Neller added, “We have a system through which Marines can try to remediate actions believed to have been unfair or incorrect.  In this case, it seems the system worked as designed, and Maj. Galvin had his record cleared. We all wish him well.”

If these were in fact Dunford’s words, they were only this: underwhelming.

I can’t speak for the Army leadership, but I can say something about the Marines.  From Amos on, the Marine Corps’ senior leadership has established a new low record of performance.  They’d better get this fixed because if we allow this squalid condition to fester, no one with a strong warrior ethos will ever want to serve as Marine, or in any outfit that won’t back up their combat leaders.  Mere platitudes twelve years after the fact doesn’t cut it.

Sources:

  1. Military Times, Task Force Violent: The unforgiven (and five-part series), Andrew deGrandpre, 4 March 2015
  2. LA Times: For a Marine Unit, the battle to restore reputation goes on, David Zucchino, 14 June 2015
  3. NewsRep:The Untold Story of the Leadership that Failed MARSOC Fox Company: Ambushed (and five-part series), Nick Coffman, 29 March 2016
  4. The Washington Post, The Marines were falsely accused of war crimes. Twelve years later, they have vindication, Andrew deGrandpre. 31 January 2019

Acknowledgment: My sincere thanks to former Marine Corps staff sergeant Carol Martin, who now serves Marines in her capacity as a Defense Investigator, who edited and offered advice concerning this article.  Additionally, my deep appreciation to Major Paul Webb Chapman USMC (Retired) for taking the time to read this post and offer suggestions, which I have incorporated.

Endnotes:

[1] Eventually achieved 3-star rank

[2] Member of the USMC Reserve (1952-1990), one of the “congressional colonels.”

[3] There is little doubt that these Marines behaved in a despicable way, and yet, few others have walked a mile in their shoes.  Combat does things to people.  We ought to worry about the effects of sending our young men into a war zone, particularly when there has never been a credible effort to win that war.  In any case, the behavior of these Marines was regrettable, and they ought to have been punished at nonjudicial proceedings, not “crushed” as their commandant suggested.

Marineistan

(Continued from last week)

By the end of 2007, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan had reached a stalemate.  A de facto border was established east of Garmsir along the banks of the Helmand River that divided British-held and Taliban controlled territory.  By this time, British forces were far outnumbered by Taliban insurgents because there was no shortage of Pakistani men with nothing better to do than fight the good fight.  Our British cousins had access to NATO artillery and airstrikes, but these, without adequate ground forces, do not a victory make.  Given this paucity of infantry forces, senior coalition officers seemed unsure about how to proceed.

Helmand Prov 001
BLT 1/6 Advances

One thing everyone agreed on was that NATO needed more ground forces in Afghanistan. In early April 2006, American Marines were sent to bolster the flagging NATO command.  The 24th MEU, which included Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/6 (First Battalion, Sixth Marines) began their Afghan tour by initiating an attack on the Taliban-held town of Garmsir on 28 April.  US Marines joined up with British troops from the Sixteenth Air Assault Brigade (16 AAB).  The Taliban, however, as they are wont to do, withdrew from the town and taken up a position further south.

After Garmsir was taken, the Marines pushed south into an area where the Taliban had, over many months, constructed bunkers and tunnels capable of withstanding airstrikes. Initially, planners anticipated that the mission would only take a few days; the operation ended up lasting more than a month.  Based on Taliban behavior, General David D. McKiernan, U. S. Army, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), determined that Garmsir was important to the Taliban, so the Marines were ordered to remain in the area.  McKiernan, concerned that the Taliban would likely reemerge after the Marines left and claim that they had run off the ISAF, changed the operational playbook.  Now the Marine mission would include both combat operations and civil affairs. Colonel Peter Petronzio, commanding 24th MEU, now faced the task of splitting his force to give attention to both of these missions.  Marines provided security to local Afghans as they began to return to their homes after having been displaced by the Taliban.  Between April and July 2008, US Marines killed more than 400 Taliban insurgents.  On 8 September 24th MEU returned control of Garmsir to British forces.

Deployed independently from 24th MEU, BLT 2/7 dispatched elements to Sangin, Gereshk, Musa Qala, and Nawzad, as well as districts within Farah Province.  2/7 worked with the Afghan National Police and Combined Security Transition Command in implementing police training and important reform programs.  Despite being deployed independently, 2/7 was also engaged in heavy fighting.  As a sign that the United States had renewed its commitment to Afghanistan, 2/7 was relieved by 3/8 and the Special Purpose MAGTF in December 2008.

Marine Corps arrival in Helmand Province was no small accomplishment.  Most people think of amphibious operations as involving a multitude of amphibian tractors cutting through the surf to land Marines on an exotic beach.  This was the likely scenario in the 20thCentury, but today’s Marine Corps has advanced its military capability —in the same way the Marines first developed amphibious and vertical assaults.

Afghanistan is land-locked.  The southern-most tip of Helmand Province is 400 miles from the shoreline of the northern Arabian Sea.  This geographic fact led some defense experts to opine that there was no role for the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan.  They must have forgotten that Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) have trained for long-range insertions from the sea for several decades.  They must have overlooked the fact that MEUs are capable of performing more than twenty special operational missions, and many of these are long-range assignments.

The way the Marines look at these missions is simple: “If one wants to tango, one has to be inside the dancehall.”  It is also certain that Marines don’t go through the trouble of a rather complex forward deployment just to come in second place.

Two combat ready MEUs (4,400 US Marines) were already poised for action when the US Central Command sent them into action.  But, why the Marines?  Because the Marines were already there, and because the Marines are always looking for a fight “at any climb and place.”  Marines and their commanders know combat and view it from a distinctively Marine Corps point of view.

It wasn’t long before the US Army hierarchy in Kabul started complaining that these Leathernecks were “going Rogue” inside Helmand Province.  It wasn’t that Marines were ignoring their senior Army commanders; it was only that the Marines have their own way of getting the job done.  Thinking outside the box is what Marines are trained to do; ultimately, it is this mindset that saves the lives of Marines and terrifies an enemy.  The US Marines know how to win battles.  They’ve been doing this for over 243 years.  They didn’t need any armchair quarterbacking from people who were, after all, not Marines.

As previously explained, Helmand Province is one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan.  By area, it is the largest (20,000 square miles).  There are 13 political districts, 1,000 villages, and just under a million inhabitants.  For all intents and purposes, Helmand Province was similar to the Comancheria: it was Indian Country.

Helmand Map 001The Helmand Province campaigns were a series of operations conducted by the ISAF against Taliban insurgents.  The Taliban intended to control Helmand Province and its opium production.  British forces and their American Marine counterparts intended to destroy the Taliban. Initially, the Helmand mandate fell to British forces as part of a three-stage expansion of the ISAF mandate to exert authority over the southern regions of Afghanistan.  Until then, Helmand Province had only seen sporadic ISAF activities.  In the spring of 2008, a battalion of US Marines arrived to reinforce the British. One year later, an additional 11,000 Marines arrived pursuant to President Obama’s authorization, as discussed in the introductory paragraphs (above).  In June 2009, British Army forces (supported by ISAF and ANA troops) launched Operation Panther’s Claw; on 2 July the Marines began Operation Khanjar. Both of these were major offensives with the goal of securing Helmand Province in advance of national elections.

There were two US/NATO encampments in Helmand Province: Camp Bastion, manned by our British cousins, and Camp Leatherneck —both of which are only a short distance from the capital of Lashkar Gah. Culturally, Helmand province dates back to the Bronze Age.  It was invaded by Alexander the Great, became part of the Indian Empire under Ashoka, and then fell under the influence of Islam [1].  Genghis Khan was not a great admirer of the Afghan living in Helmand Province —which he illustrated quite clearly in the Thirteenth Century.

Not long after Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, he ordered an additional 17,000 troops sent to Afghanistan. This deployment would include 8,000 Marines of the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2ndMEB), then commanded by Brigadier General Lawrence D. Nicholson [2].  President Obama subsequently appointed U. S. Army General Stanley A. McChrystal to Command the ISAF.  McChrystal’s orders were to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan.

General McChrystal’s approach was to isolate the general Afghan population away from insurgent elements, and, in so doing, he argued, improve Afghanistan’s stability as an emerging nation. McChrystal’s revamped US strategy was to focus on a population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) effort based on lessons learned in Iraq.  He presented his plan to the President, recommending a troop surge to bring Afghanistan back from the brink of collapse.  In December 2009, President Obama authorized an additional 30,000 troops. The majority of these men would be US Marines.

Before BGen Nicholson’s arrival at the head of the 2ndMEB, the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF [3] )-Afghanistan had laid a foundation for the MEB’s operations, which commenced on 2 July 2009.  Four-thousand Marines and several hundred Afghan National Army (ANA) troops were rapidly introduced into the major population centers of the Helmand River valley that had been previously dominated by Taliban insurgents.  BGen Nicholson orchestrated operations named Khanjar, Eastern Resolve, and Cobra Anger from July 2009 into the fall season.  In February 2010, 2nd MEB closed in on Marjah during Operation Mostarak.  Marine successes cleared the way for an Afghan government and Coalition presence in previously enemy-held areas.

American Marines also had to contend with vast poppy fields that helped to finance the Taliban insurgency.  Nicholson maintained a dynamic vision for COIN operations with non-traditional maneuverings, such as an interaction with local mullahs, the employment of female teams, and the establishment of the Joint Security Academy, a Marine Corps led police training facility.

Some of General Nicholson’s methods were considered controversial by more-senior Army commanders and State Department officials. Nicholson, however, would not be bullied into adopting tactics that he knew were foolish, wasteful, or an unnecessary risk to his Marines.  His insistence on autonomy and his doctrinal reliance on the MAGTF operations prompted his critics to label Marine Corps operations in Helmand Province as “Marineistan.”  The Marines, senior officials claimed, had gone rogue in Helmand Province; they wouldn’t do anything the Army wanted them to do.  Marines had long learned one important lesson: a dangerous enemy can be foreign or domestic.

The NATO command structure in Afghanistan was nothing if not complicated —and political.  This was necessary, perhaps, given the complex nature of saving Afghanistan from itself and the fact that the NATO command was a multi-national organization.  Overall command authority rested with the Commander, ISAF in Kabul.  He directed three subordinate formations after the reorganization in 2009.  These consisted of the ISAF Joint Command, responsible for directing tactical operations, NATO Training Mission and Special Operations, and regional commands designated North, West, South, East, and Southwest.

Regional Command Southwest was responsible for security in Helmand and Nimruz Provinces.  Regional Command Southwest included military forces from the United States, United Kingdom, Georgia, Denmark, Bahrain, and Estonia.  The southwest command also included Task Force Helmand (UK and Danish), Task Force Leatherneck (US Marines operating in northern, southern, and western Helmand Province), and Provincial Reconstruction Teams operating from Lashkar Gah (UK, Denmark, Estonia).

BGen Nicholson 001
L. D. Nicholson, BrigGen USMC

Commanding Task Force Leatherneck, of course, was (then) Brigadier General Lawrence D. Nicholson.  Nicholson was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1979.  As a company-grade officer, he served as a platoon commander in the 1stMarines and commanded a recruit training company at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.  As a field grade officer, Nicholson commanded Regimental Combat Team One during Operation Phantom Fury (the Second Battle of Fallujah) where he was wounded in action, commanded the 5thMarine Regiment, 2ndMarine Expeditionary Brigade, and later served as Deputy Commander for Operations, ISAF.  Lieutenant General Nicholson retired in August 2018 after serving as the Commanding General, III Marine Expeditionary Force.

For eight years, the Obama administration believed that it knew more about fighting a war than did the senior military officers tasked with prosecuting it.  They didn’t —and no one demonstrated this better than General Nicholson and the Marines of Task Force Leatherneck.

Delaram, Afghanistan is regarded by some as the end of the earth —which is precisely where one should expect to find US Marines. It is the location of several truckstops populated by a handful of locals.  It is in the center of hundreds of miles of desert.  Delaram is so far “out there” that it had no strategic importance to senior officers in Kabul.  After all, McChrystal’s priority was protecting Afghanis in their largest cities [4].  General Nicholson had a different view: Afghan cities are best protected by destroying Taliban insurgents in outlying areas.  Controlling rural areas is essential to promoting economic development; the one-million inhabitants of Helmand Province deserved as much protection as the people in Kandahar or Kabul.

So —the Marines went to Delaram —to wage war in their own way.  The Marines pushed into Taliban-held strongholds and invited them out to the dance floor.  Next, they set up a school to train Afghan police officers.  They took with them Moslem chaplains to pray with local mullahs. They deployed teams of women Marines to reach out to Afghani women.  The Marine Corps approach was creative, aggressive, and unorthodox.  Marines don’t patrol in helicopters at 500 feet ASL; Marines patrol on foot.

Marine Patrol 001Foot patrols are a risky business, but that’s what Marines do for a living.  Patrolling on the ground allowed the Marines to interact with local populations, and it was this interaction that stabilized local communities.    These strategies soon resulted in thriving bazaars, functioning schools, and communities of people who prefer living free to dying enslaved by religious tyrants.  It did not take most Afghans in Helmand Province to align themselves with the Marines; those deciding to remain unaligned soon learned that they had made a very bad choice.

Yet, despite Marine successes in Helmand Province, Army commanders continued to resent these efforts; the Marines continued to resist arm-chair quarterbacking from Kabul.  General McChrystal, in particular, was unhappy with the Marines because, or at least it would seem to be, that the Marines had discovered the right mixture of stick vs. carrot.  This was the result of doing COIN the Marine Corps way.  McChrystal wasn’t alone.  One Washington bureaucrat moaned, “We have better operational coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we do with the US Marines.”  This could be an accurate observation, but Marines weren’t as focused on coherence with Army units as they were in stabilizing Helmand Province.  They did that.

These differences in strategies and combat operations are more than a simple matter of conflicting opinions.  While senior officials in the White House, at the Pentagon, and in McChrystal’s headquarters would rather have had many of the 20,000 Marines deployed to Kandahar, the fact is that General Nicholson was right, and all of those others were wrong.  Success within Helmand Province generated the perception of momentum in the U.S.-led military campaign and it caused severe uncertainty within Taliban elements.  This is exactly what the Marines should do: never let the enemy read your playbook.  What McChrystal never seemed to understand is that one increases combat effectiveness by allowing Marines to operate together, as a team; the opposite is achieved by breaking them apart and/or deploying them piecemeal.

Marines fight the way they’ve been trained to fight.  Every Marine is a rifleman.  Every Marine Corps officer is first trained as an infantry leader.  This is why Marine Corps helicopter units know how to best support the ground forces, how logistics officers know how to push supplies to forward units.  The Marines did not have to rely on Army units or depend on NATO forces to resupply them. Marine Corps units have been mutually supporting since World War II; there is no reason to change what works to something that doesn’t.

Nevertheless, General McChrystal continued to fight the Marines, eventually bringing in the White House.  He “tattled.” In early March, General David H. Petraeus, who then headed Central Command, issued an order giving McChrystal operational control of Marine Corps forces in Afghanistan —but with one important caveat: McChrystal had to obtain Central Command authority before he could break Marine infantry units apart from their air and logistical support mechanisms. The caveat limited McChrystal’s ability to move the Marines within Afghanistan.

Here’s something else McChrystal didn’t understand: when Marines move out, they do it quickly and smartly.  When they arrive in-theater, they’re ready to fight.  Army units move at the speed of molasses in January.  One senior defense official commented, “The Marines are a double-edged sword for McChrystal: he got them fast, but he only gets to use them in one place.”

The fact was that the Marines didn’t choose Helmand Province; they were asked to go there by McChrystal’s predecessor, General McKiernan.  He needed the Marines because, lacking adequate resources, the British contingent was unable to contain an intensifying insurgency.  Once there, the Marines were determined to make their deployment a success —but they would do it, as they always have, the Marine Corps way— which is how the Marines straightened out Anbar Province in Iraq. One final note on this topic: The Marine concentration in Helmand Province gave the Marines “pride of place.” They owned it —along with their successes or their failures.

Nawzad 001Nawzad is a city in northern Helmand Province.  At one time, the city was the province’s second largest.  Over a period of four years, Taliban insurgents took control of the city and its surrounding area.  All roads leading into the city were mined, along with key buildings inside the city.  The Afghan people living there moved away.  British and US Army units attempted to do something about this situation, but in the end, they found themselves confined to the city.  Anyone venturing into outlying areas was either shot at or bombed.  The Marines fixed this problem by reclaiming the town within a few weeks.  It was an outstanding demonstration to every insurgent in Helmand Province that first, the Marines owned the deed to Nawzad, and second, would not countenance any Taliban terrorizing of local citizens.

Nothing the Marines did in Nawzad corresponded to McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy. One senior Army official in the JTF commented, “If our focus is supposed to be protecting the population, why are we focusing on a ghost town?”  General Nicholson could not have cared less about what the Coalition thought.  What he did care about was what the Afghan provincial governor thought about it.  The governor approved, and so did local tribal leaders.  The people moved back to Nawzad.  General Nicholson observed, “Protecting the population means allowing people to return to their homes.  We’ve taken a grim, tough place, a place where there was no hope, and we’ve given it a future.”

Nimruz Province
Nimruz Province, Afghanistan

Next up, Nicholson assigned Marines units to control the desert to put an end to the flow of insurgents, drugs, and weapons from Pakistan.  This is where Delaram came to the fore.  From Delaram, Marines mounted further operations in Nimruz Province, which the NATO command regarded as so unimportant that not a single US or NATO reconstruction team ever went there.  NATO’s lack of attention opened that province up to large numbers of insurgents. General Nicholson was determined to clean it up.

The bellyaching of US and NATO military officials continued.  They argued that what the Marines are doing only made sense if there were not a greater demand for troops elsewhere.  Okay … so? The fact was that British diplomats and military professionals wanted to enlarge the US Marine Corps footprint. What they were doing in Helmand Province was getting results … but time was the only thing the Marines didn’t have enough of.  General Nicholson reminded his Marines, “The clock is ticking.  The drawdown will begin next year, and we still have a lot to do.”

What Taliban insurgents never quite absorbed in their dealings with US Marines were these important lessons: (1) A Marine can become a trusted ally or your absolute worst nightmare: choose wisely. (2) Never shoot at an American Marine because it will only piss him off.  (3) Marines never run from a fight: a pissed-off Marine will attack you and beat you into the ground, and (4) You can run and hide, but you’ll only die tuckered out.

If an enemy of the United States could learn important lessons about the United States Marines, so too could a few self-serving American politicians: (1) Never send a Marine into combat expecting anything less than combat; (2) Before labeling any combat soldier or Marine as a war criminal, walk a mile in their shoes —preferably while on combat patrol; (3) When it comes to combat operations, there are two ways of doing things: the wrong way, and the Marine Corps way.  Marines always complete their mission.  Reputation matters —and will matter— unless a potential enemy has a serious mental defect.

We need more senior military leaders like General Nicholson.  We need fewer boy scouts in the Department of Defense; more professionals —like the American Marines.

Endnotes:

[1] And, it’s been going downhill ever since.

[2] LtGen Nicholson retired from active duty in 2018; during his service, he held command positions at every echelon of the Marine Corps through the Marine Expeditionary Force. He participated in wartime service in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

[3] A Marine Air Ground Task Force may also be designated a “Special Purpose” mission.  Additional designations might include “crisis response” and/or “Central Command.”

[4] It is no doubt important to defend large population centers, but such operations must be in addition to controlling outlying areas.  The Army has not learned this lesson from the days when it created named forts throughout the western United States.

The Road to Marineistan

Helmand Province
Helmand Province

Helmand Province, Afghanistan is one of 34 Afghani jurisdictions. Located in the southwest of the country, Helmand is the largest province by area, around 20,000 square miles.  It has 13 political districts, which encompass over 1,000 villages, and it is populated by just under a million people. Its capital city is Lashkar Gah.

In 2001, Afghanistan became the focus of America’s 911-force, but the war in Iraq diverted significant assets away from Afghanistan.  The so-called “nation-building” efforts between 2001 and 2007 were ineffective; the America of the twenty-first century was proving itself incapable of fighting a two-front war.  Between 2005-2006, a much-revitalized Taliban were able to conduct several large-scale offensives against coalition forces in Helmand Province, Kandahar, and areas bordering Pakistan.  The Afghan government exercised only limited influence over Helmand Province and then only as it applied to the capital city of Lashkar Gah.  Within Helmand Province, NATO forces were thin; American personnel numbered around 130 soldiers who were involved in anti-terrorist missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

In April 2006, a British Task Force deployed to Helmand, ostensibly to challenge the supremacy of Taliban insurgents.  The Sixteenth Air Assault Brigade numbered around 3,000 men, but only about one-third of these were combat infantry.

If the Taliban weren’t enough of a challenge, the command structure under which the British Task Force operated was a tangled mess.  As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Brits served under Major General Benjamin Freakley, US Army, Commander, Combined Task Force 76.  However, as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the British Commander also answered to the NATO regional command, southern district, then led by Brigadier General David Fraser, Canadian Army.  British missions inside Helmand Province ranged from the contradictory to the impossible.  On the one hand, the British brigade was tasked with winning the hearts and minds of local populations; on the other, they were charged to confront the Taliban and eliminating them.

The initial mission of the Helmand task force was to carry out a series of construction projects and counterinsurgency operations in the area known as “The Triangle” around Lashkar Gah and Gereshk.  The Taliban, observing the weakened condition of coalition forces, launched a series of well-coordinated attacks, seizing the Baghran District in April 2006.  On 18 May, they raided Musa Qala killing twenty Afghani policemen.  The intensity of these attacks prompted the coalition to rethink their general strategy.

The very possibility that a Taliban offensive could sweep across the entire province moved the provincial governor to demand that already limited ISAF troops be deployed to districts that were under imminent danger of aggressive Taliban operations. Sangin, Nawzad, Musa Qala, and the hydroelectric installations at Kajaki were of particular concern.  What evolved from these demands was the implementation of a “platoon house” [1] strategy; its effect was a significant weakening of lethal forces by tying them to remote locations throughout the province.  Disbursed British forces remained under siege for long periods of time and the platoon house concept placed the entire command at risk.

The Sangin Insurgency

Sangin is a town of about 30,000 people and an important trade center in southern Afghanistan, largely controlled by the Taliban before June 2006.  It was also among the largest opium markets in Helmand Province.  On 18 June, a former district chief and his bodyguards were ambushed and killed in Sangin.  The assassination may have been a clash between drug lords, but it did trigger the deployment of additional ISAF troops to Sangin.  A company of British paratroopers moved into Sangin on 21 June, supposedly to rescue the son of the current district chief who was wounded in the ambush.  In an effort to assert central authority over Sangin, President Hamid Karzai ordered these troops to remain within the city.  Initially, the city seemed to stabilize, but this changed a week later when two British soldiers were killed during an area raid.

On 30 June, insurgents launched an attack on the district center, then garrisoned by British troops.  The attack was repelled with British forces killing twelve insurgents, but the Taliban were undeterred.  They renewed their attacks every night using small arms, RPGs, and 107mm rockets; the British answered with effective automatic weapons fire, mortars, Javelin missiles, artillery, and air strikes.  Isolated, resupply of the British garrison became a critical issue.

The Battle for Musa Qala

Coalition forces were deployed to Musa Qala in much the same way as they had been sent to Sangin. Their mission was to defend the town center, which served as both police station and local jail.  As with Sangin, the crowded town center actually hampered the efforts of British composite forces to defend the town.  Afghan forces consisted of around 80 unpopular militiamen.

The first heavy Taliban attack was launched on 16 July.  British forces, consisting mainly of pathfinders, repelled the attack inflicting heavy losses on the insurgents.  Ten days later, British forces were relieved by a Danish Light Reconnaissance Squadron (The Griffins).  Taliban activity was so intense outside the city that British forces could not be extracted until 8 August.  Insurgents continued their attacks on Musa Qala until finally driven out of the town with the help of air support.

NATO pulled the Danish unit out of Musa Qala on 24 August to join Canadians in Operation Medusa. Replacing the Danes was a mixed detachment of British Paratroopers and Royal Irish Rangers —none of whom were armed with heavy weapons.  Sensing an advantaged and encouraged by the constant turnover of NATO forces, the Taliban launched a massive attack involving 150 fighters on 26-27 August. The assault was repelled, but the Taliban continued to direct mortars and rockets at the beleaguered British garrison.

By the end of September, the fighting in Musa Qala had come down to a stalemate.  The Taliban suffered heavy losses and rendered incapable of driving ISAF forces out of the town, but the coalition had also suffered combat losses and their control of Musa Qala was confined to the space inside the town’s limits.  As with Sangin, resupply of the garrison at Musa Qala became a serious issue.  The propaganda victory went to the Taliban.

The Truce

One of the city elders decided that enough was enough.  He was able to broker a truce between Taliban and British forces.  The officer responsible for this calamity was Lieutenant General David J. Richards, RA.  The agreement called for a British withdrawal from Musa Qala; local tribesmen promised to deny aid and comfort to Taliban insurgents.  Of course, after the British departure, the Taliban reasserted their control over the city, imposing fundamentalist rules over the citizens. Movement of women was restricted, citizens were taxed to support the insurgency, and the people were summarily executed for violating Islamic rules or for being suspected coalition spies. In spite of the reemergence of fundamentalism, British and Afghan forces stayed away.  General Richards wanted to avoid civilian casualties, he said.

The truce fell apart after a local mullah was accidentally killed by an American B-1 bombing mission. The Taliban claimed that the mullah’s death took place in a zone that the truce defined as off-limits.  On 1 Feb 2007, three hundred insurgents stormed the town and executed the elder who had helped broker the agreement.  The “truce” lasted 143 days.  On that same day, General Dan K. McNeil, U. S. Army replaced Richards.  McNeill favored a more aggressive strategy —but not too much more.

In early April 2007, coalition forces launched Operation Silver.  It was part of a wider operation codenamed Achilles that involved more than one-thousand troops.  After giving advance warning of this offensive, coalition forces advanced into Sangin to install a new district chief.  McNeill announced that the city was now pacified.  Sangin may have been pacified, but Taliban controlled all outlying areas.

Eventually, British engineers were able to draw the Taliban’s attention away from Sangin by constructing two forward operating bases outside the city.  These, then, became the focus of subsequent Taliban attacks.

The Kajaki Dam

Helmand British Getty
British forces in Helmand Province Getty Image

The dam was critical to Helmand Province for two reasons: providing water for irrigation in the Helmand Valley, and electricity for the entire province.  The Taliban began to display a keen interest in the damn in June 2006.  Sent to defend this structure was a mixture of Afghan policemen and security guards hired by an American contractor, all of whom were thoroughly demoralized by nightly mortar attacks.

In late June, a team of British Paratroopers set up an ambush intending to destroy a Taliban mortar team.  The Brits killed 10 Taliban and wounded two.  After this, the British deployed a permanent team at the dam.  They occupied fortified posts that had been constructed by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan.  The Taliban grew a bit more cautious, but they continued harassing fires throughout the summer months.

In February 2007, British Marines from 42 Commando launched Operation Volcano.  It was a clearing operation designed to establish a “safe zone” around the dam and driving Taliban mortar crews out of range of the dam.  Experts note that the Kajaki Dam is one of the rare occasions during the entire war where both sides of the conflict established fixed positions and where an actual “front” developed between warring factions.  The stalemate continued.

The NATO Counter-offensive

British troops prepare to depart upon the end of operations for U.S. Marines and British combat troops in Helmand
British Reinforcements Reuters Image

British forces were finally reinforced in April 2007; troop strengths increased from 3,300 to around 5,800 men.  They also received heavier equipment, such as the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle, MRAP vehicles, and the M270 rocket launcher system.

Brigadier John Lorimer, the new British commander ordered a series of large-scale operations designed to systematically clear the province of insurgent forces.  Operation Achilles was the first of these.  More than 4,500 British led ISAF troops were involved, reinforced by 1,000 ANA [2] personnel.  This time, however, the Taliban avoided a direct confrontation with the ISAF.  They instead implemented guerilla tactics.

Operation Achilles involved a number of sub-operations, each of which targeted specific sectors of Helmand Province:  Operation Kryptonite sought to clear the area around the Kajaki Dam.  Operation Silver employed US Heliborne paratroopers from the 82ndAirborne Division with 250 Royal Marines, and 100 Dutch assault troops to clear the area surrounding Sangin.  Operation Silicon was undertaken by the Royal Anglian Regiment (Vikings) supported by ANA, who sought to clear the area around Gereshk and the lower Sangin valley.  During Silicon, the Taliban second in command was killed near Gereshk.

With these successes, the British constructed a number of patrol bases, manned by British and ANA troops.  This gave the Task Force a permanent presence in areas where the Taliban had previously exercised almost complete control.  NATO now had a permanent foothold in Helmand Province.  A permanent foothold wasn’t sufficient, however, and the Taliban continued to control the narrative in several areas of Helmand Province.

Operation Pickaxe-handle

This operation took over where Achilles ended.  On 30 May 2007, ISAF and ANA troops advanced toward the village of Kajaki Sofle, which lay six miles southwest of Kajaki.  The purpose of this operation was to remove Taliban insurgents who threatened the security of the lower Sangin valley.  During a night assault of a Taliban compound, a CH-47 helicopter was shot down.  Five Americans, one Brit, and a Canadian were killed in the crash.  The operation ended on 14 June with both sides claiming success. Taliban claims were confirmed by local residents, who said that Taliban forces always return to threaten and intimidate local citizens as soon as NATO forces withdraw.

Several additional operations were conducted between 24 July and 31 December 2007.  These included Operation Hammer, and Operation Sledgehammer —both of which produced positive results and significant losses among Taliban insurgents.  On 1 November, 40 Commando (Royal Marines) pushed north in armored vehicles, creating a bridgehead for an important Scots Guards convoy.  Having reestablished positions around Musa Qala, the British initiated a series of reconnaissance patrols which were intended to confuse and disrupt Taliban operations and disrupt their supply routes.

Musa Qala had become a major drug trade station; it was of symbolic importance to both sides of the conflict.  On 6 December, British and Afghan forces assaulted the town.  They were supported by several hundred US troops who came in via helicopter during the night.  Taliban defenses included dozens, if not hundreds of landmines.  The 2,000 Taliban fighters inside the city were confident that they held the upper hand.  In the first day, one Brit and twelve Taliban fighters were killed; two civilian children were also killed.

On the second day, NATO troops captured two villages south of Musa Qala and advanced to within a mile or so of the city border.  Taliban reinforcements poured into the city.  On the third day, Taliban became less confident in their ability to withstand a NATO assault and withdrew from Musa Qala into the surrounding mountains.  When Afghan troops entered the city, they encountered no resistance.

By the end of 2007, the most optimistic description of Helmand Province was that of a stalemate. A de facto border was established east of Garmsir along the banks of the Helmand River that divided British-held and Taliban controlled territory.  With Taliban replacements flowing into the Helmand Province from Pakistan, the British were far outnumbered.  NATO artillery and airstrikes could only do so much.  What was needed at this point were more NATO forces.

This was when the US Marines were sent back to Afghanistan.

Continued Next Week

Endnotes:

[1] Small fortified bases defended by British forces in the towns of Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawzad and Garmsir.

[2] Afghan National Army