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

Published by

Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

5 thoughts on “The Road to Marineistan”

  1. Thank you for the set-up in prep for the next installment.

    Rather sounds like a learning curve as commanders and troops developed tactics. Unfortunately, no strategic planning that I can identify. Perhaps that has been the problem all along; how can we measure success?

    Looking forward to next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to say that there is something that limits US Army senior leadership from being able to think outside the box. Maybe there is a serious deficiency in professional schools, all of which seem designed to groom a newer generation of flag officers. Such schooling ought to groom up-and-coming officers for winning wars. There is a difference. I’m not gloating because I see the same thing happening within the Corps. There was a time when I thought that no man (or woman) should ever be promoted to flag rank unless they’ve received a combat decoration. Well, that wouldn’t work in the Army because they pass out combat decorations like candy —which depreciates the significance and importance of the award. I can’t remember the last time I saw a flag officer wearing a Silver Star medal.

      To the foregoing, I’ll add that professional military education has become more theory than operational. My guess is that COIN is presented to soldier-students by theoretical egg-heads in our service academies and advanced schools. People who never once went out on a combat patrol. People who think what might have worked in Vietnam (Strategic Hamlet, Combined Action Platoons) possibly would not work within another culture, on a different landscape, at a different time.

      Since I’m offering my opinion, I’ll also state that I think our senior officers today do too much in the way of directing and not enough leading from the front.

      I apologize for the rant. Thank you for stopping by, Pablo.

      Semper Fi

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What could we possibly accomplish by wasting our blood and treasure in Afghanistan?
    Every Provincial official is playing his own game and I don’t see any benefit to our Country.

    Liked by 1 person

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