(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.
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 took 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.
The 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 . 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 . 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  )-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).
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 . 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.
Foot 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 very long 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 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.”
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.
 And, it’s been going downhill ever since.
 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.
 A Marine Air Ground Task Force may also be designated a “Special Purpose” mission. Additional designations might include “crisis response” and/or “Central Command.”
 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.