Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?
November 7, 2011
I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) arrives, the largest Marine command yet in Afghan
Marines and Afghan national army soldiers march the colors onto the parade deck to begin the transfer of authority ceremony where Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commanding general, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, transferred his authority to Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, as the commanding general of I MEF (FWD) at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 12, 2010.
On April 12, 2010, the 2nd MEB turned over command of all US Marine operations throughout southern Afghanistan to the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) (FWD), Major General Richard Mills in command. This now was the largest Marine command in Afghanistan since the war began. The 2nd MEB’s RCT-3 ground component remained.
Marine Mutch, a member of 40 Commando, Royal Marines being transported from Camp Bastion to FOB Jackson, Sangin, on a Chinook helicopter. Presented by Helmand Blog.
Just about at the same time, the British 4 Mechanized Brigade returned to command Operation Herrick XII. The 40 Commandos Royal Marines, about 670 strong, would again return to Sangin and the Kajaki dam region.
By this time, there was a feeling of hope. Helmand Governor Gulag Mangal served as a great supporter of the Allied forces and did a lot to help build up the ANA in his province and improve coordination between the ANA and its Allies.
I want to pause here for a moment. C.J. Radin, reporting for The Long War Journal’s February 14, 2010 edition, said General McChrystal had developed a “new strategic plan for Afghanistan.” The US military identified three major Taliban groups as the primary threats:
- Quetta Shura Taliban
- Haqqani Network
- Hezb-i-Islami Gulbiddin.
McChrystal believed they coordinated on occasion, but did not form any kind of single command nor have any kind of single strategic plan. Violent attacks against foreign military forces and the civilian population, provoking foreign military actions that would alienate the local population, weakening the Afghan government apparatus, and waging a war of intimidation were all in their toolboxes. Radin said that at this time, February 2010, the enemy held the initiative, after nine years of war.
But Radin said the enemy had a serious weakness, which was that it was losing the support of the local populations. So McChrystal decided to wage COIN operations instead of counter-terrorism operations, with the main emphasis being on protecting the local population. The US for the short term did not feel it necessary to control all Afghanistan, but instead key population centers. The idea was to improve the quality of life for those people quickly.
McChrystal targeted three top priority areas:
- Helmand, particularly the helmand River Valley, the Green Zone
- Kandahar City and its near environs
- Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces
McChrystal’s first challenge was that COIN is man intensive, so he needed more troops. Like General McKiernan before him, McChrystal had been pleading for more forces. The arrival of some 9,000 Marines was certainly done in response to that.
For the Helmand River Valley, the objective was to secure its entire length. The British did not have enough troops there to do that. To achieve the objective, Allied forces would have to push the enemy out of the population and agricultural centers, reduce opium cultivation to reduce income for the enemy, expand areas of security so the people could move about and move their products from place to place, and continue developing the Kajaki dam project such that it provided the required irrigation and electricity.
Prior to 2009, there were about 7,000 ISAF forces in the area, one British brigade and one Danish battalion. By spring 2010, the force was to be beefed up to 24,000, two British brigades equivalent, two US Marine regiments, one Danish battalion, and one Georgian battalion.
40 Commando Marine in overwatch position for assault near Sangin. Presented by MilitaryBlog
At the time, there was some feeling of hope, but Allied forces were still fighting in the Sangin valley and sustaining casualties. IEDs had reared their ugly face again. Royal Marines from 40 Commando conducted an operation to clear IEDs from a busy street in the village and patrol base at Pylae, which was a partner base to Sangin. The Marines put a cordon around the suspect street to keep the locals out and to limit interference from enemy. The Pylae Patrol base was on what the Commandos called the front line of enemy troops, the FLET. The Marines would clear IEDs, and the enemy would simply put them in other places. They were constantly busy finding and removing the IEDs.
For this operation, 8 troop/C/40 Commando posted themselves on some rooftops close to the roads which allowed them a full view of the road. They brought small arms and snipers to set up their observation post and warn civilians to get out of the area. The men on the ground would shout to the locals in their rudimentary Pashtu and their interpreter would also shout for them to get out of the area. Sometimes locals would speed by on motorbikes, at which time the Marines would fire mini flares over the heads which would usually bring them to an instant halt.
This is a British Ammunition Technical Officer operating in Basra, Iraq.
An Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO) would be on the team to clear the IEDs. They did receive some hostile fire that came dangerously close, but they would press on and do their job. They would have to maneuver over the rooftops to get to the IEDs and 8 Troop Marines would create smoke screens so the ATOs could move under that cover. When they found an IED, they placed a charge on it and would move away and clear the IED. Heck of a way to make a living.
The 40 Commandos considered the area to be a minefield. They found the enemy employing more sophisticated IEDs rigged with trip wires and detonated by radio or cell phone. Bravo Co. said it was an accomplishment to patrol 300 meters. Lance Corporal Harry Achilles said:
"On patrol you'll take the hardest route. Things like bridges and streams you wouldn't take, there would be IEDs. You'll go down irrigation ditches. We used to take ladders so that we wouldn't be channelled into doorways. They would put dummy IEDs in a certain place and then you'd find there would be a secondary device."
British Army Vallon-Man leading a patrol. He is from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkhas Rifles.
The “Vallon Men” led the patrols. The Vallon was a German-made metal detector. These were very useful, but not foolproof, as described by Adam Cunningham:
This photo shows the Vallon-Man, with his Vallon lying on the ground, digging for a suspected IED or landline. This is James Stephenson, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, British Army
"Every job is dangerous out there. We secure the route. But as we found out, Vallon only picks out eight out of 10 IEDs. When it's a command pull, there's no metal needed. They are just sitting on the end of a wire, dug underground, and when they know you're there, they'll connect the battery. The only way you would spot them is ground signs. Rocks piled up, a change in the color of the sand. Dips in the ground or sometimes they would put water on top of where it had been disturbed."
One of the foremost problems was to encounter IED explosions and casualties, and then, while shaken by the blasts and trying to recover their wounded friends, the 40 Commando would come under heavy attack. They worked to get their wounded out as fast as they could, and then might engage in seven hour fire fights.
"I don't think for one minute I had any doubt about what we were doing there or what we were trying to achieve ... I perhaps doubt how it is we're doing it. For me as a commander that's something I have to address. It became abundantly clear to me that we could not continue in that sort of vein. I know my predecessor had lost a lot of very brave soldiers and so did his predecessor. We were exceeding their rate of casualties."
James said that by July he began to take the offensive. US forces in the form of a company had been brought in to defend the Kajaki dam to relieve the British 40 Commando Delta Co., which could now redeploy to Sangin to add to the manpower and firepower there. He commented:
"They made a tremendous difference. I was also able to formulate a plan with our Afghan counterparts and Afghan police. I relieved my troops of static guard tasks. That allowed me to mount a series of offensive operations with the Afghan army to go into areas where the Taliban thought they had sanctuary. We pushed that relentlessly for the rest of our time there."
40 Commando Marines patrol Sangin Bazaar, August 7, 2010. Presented by Auto de Fe
This is a significant statement. Doubt about tactics led to a change in tactics, help from the US, and men on the offensive. No give up anywhere in there. James was able to reduce the attacks against his forces and it became clear that keeping men in defensive positions at patrol bases was the wrong way to go.
40 Commando Marines take a break during a routine foot patrol, Sangin, August 6, 2010. Presented by Auto de Fe
The price paid by the Commandos was high, but James noted these accomplishments:
A young Afghan boy stares at Cpl Bob Roberts of the police mentoring team as he goes static during a patrol through the bazaar in Sangin town, Helmand, Afghanistan. 7th Aug 2010. Presented by Auto de Fe
"Sangin has seen immense success in the last four years … From a bombed out shell it now has a bustling bazaar used by confidence and freedom by many many people. I don't think it will go backwards. There's almost an irreversible momentum. No one wants it to go back. The people who are going to deliver Sangin are not the British but the people of Sangin themselves."
40 Commandos give the enemy one last set of kisses goodbye east of Sangin, September 21-30, 2010. Presented by UK Forces Afghanistan
The deployment of the 40 Commando Marines would turn out to be the last for the British in Sangin. Indeed the 3-7 US Marines joined up with the 40 Commandos in the summer of 2010 and supported them.
The Commandos turned Sangin over to the US Marines on September 20, 2010. But 40 Commando was not yet done with the enemy. After the transfer of authority, the 40 Commandos immediately deployed onto their final mission which was a massive vehicle operation deep into enemy areas east of Sangin in the desert. There Bravo and Delta companies hooked up with the ANA’s “Tiger Team” to form a Mobile Operations Group (MOG) during which time they would interact with the locals in the desert and disrupt enemy activities. It was called Operation Gharset Surlanday, designed to interdict known enemy ingress routes into Sangin. This operation in turn gave the Marines a chance to set up shop in the Sangin area.
UK Forces Afghanistan reported:
“Acting Captain Ambrose Peregrine RM said, ‘Whilst out in this beautiful area I was almost moved to tears when a small group of children, who were joyfully playing outside their village, started waving and calling out to us as the sunlight swept across, illuminating the mountains and the desert plains.’ ”
“Captain Matt Shaw RM said: ‘The men were outstanding, as always, and it was great to see them successfully carry out the mission in a seamless manor and, most importantly, to all return unharmed afterwards. This operation was the culmination of our six-month tour and it has made me extremely proud to lead such outstanding Marines.’ Major Paul Lynch RM, the Officer Commanding Delta Company said, ‘We achieved our mission to disrupt the insurgents and gain a better understanding of the lives of the local nationals in the area so that efforts can be made to draw them into GIRoA and, where possible, assist them with regeneration.’ ”
And that was that, the British forces moved into central Helmand. The US Marines now took charge of northern and southern Helmand.
The 40 Commandos lost 14 during this deployment and almost 50 wounded, one a triple amputee. The Battlegroup as a whole lost 21. The statistics for the British in the Sangin region remained as bad as years past, total KIAs in Sangin counting for a third of all British losses country-wide since the war began.
Royal Marines from 40 Commando march out of the parade ground after being presented with their campaign medals following a six-month deployment in Sangin, Afghanistan at Norton Camp Barracks in the presence of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on November 16, 2010 in Taunton, England. Presented by zimbio.com
Writing for The Guardian on November 17, 2010, which is when the 40 Commando returned home, Karen McVeigh said this about their experience in Sangin:
“Sangin has become a totemic place for our armed forces. It is the deadliest area in Afghanistan, after four years under control of British forces; it has become a byword for everything that has gone wrong in Helmand. The men of 40 Commando, speaking for the first time since their return, described Sangin as a place where hardcore Taliban fighters are sent to be blooded, where a wrong step is likely to trigger a blast that can kill outright, where the enemy – invisible behind the walls of compounds rigged with booby traps – is impossible to identify among the civilian population. 40 Commando was targeted with home-made bombs, machine guns and sniper fire, day and night. Evacuating wounded and dying comrades is fraught with danger.”
She quoted Leighton Marsden of 7 Troop, Charlie Company, 40 iCommando, saying:
"It's horrible ... You see the injuries IEDs cause. You are putting tourniquets on people's stumps … all the time checking for the enemy."
Let’s pause again. General McChrystal was fired by President Obama because of a Rolling Stone magazine article that quoted his subordinates of dumping on senior civilian leaders. In April 2011, the Pentagon announced that an inquiry by the DoD IG cleared the general, his military aides and civilian advisers of any wrongdoing. This action by President Obama remain s a bit of a mystery. Obama would say, "I don't make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult. Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully. I've got great admiration for him and for his long record of service in uniform.” So a journalist from Rolling Stone did the general in for no apparent combat performance reason. In fairness to that journalist, McChrystal was known for telling it like it is, a no-no in Washington
I need to back up yet again for just a moment. While ISAF was forming, it set up a number of regional commands which I addressed in the section, “ISAF mission creep.” One was Regional Command-South, RC-S, activated in February 2006, Canadian brigadier-General David Fraser in command. The Canadians, Dutch and British would rotate commands. It would be responsible for six provinces in the south shown in yellow: Nimroz, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Urozgan and Daykundi. The latter two are the top two provinces in yellow on this map.
On June 14, 2010, ISAF split RC-S in two, RC-S and RC-Southwest (RC-SW). The dominant reason, I believe, was that Helmand and Kandahar Provinces were too hard to handle for a single command. They were both extremely volatile and deadly provinces. The US Marines were firmly entrenched in Helmand and Nimroz, the Marines said they wanted to operate largely on their own, the Marines had 20,000 there while the British had 8,000, so ISAF broke those two provinces out of RC-S and stood them up as RC-SW. RC-S, which most definitely had its hands full with Kandahar and the other provinces, remained in RC-S, Major General Nick Carter, British Army in command.
But please remember, British forces remained in central Helmand under RC-SW command.
By way of an interim summary, Dr. Mark Moyar, writing, “July 2011: The third way of COIN: Defeating the Taliban in Sangin” for Orbis Operations, remarked that from 2006 through 2011, the Allies took three different approaches to counterinsurgency in Sangin: enemy-centric, population-centric, and then a combination of the two implemented by the 3-5 Marines, enemy-centric in rural areas, population centric in populated areas.
He said the first two approaches did not work because the enemy centric approach did not suppress the enemy and id not deprive the enemy from its access to the population. Furthermore, no viable governance could be established. The population centric approach did not work because the enemy remained militarily strong and prevented any governance from getting established.
“The Marines conducted enemy centric security operations in unpopulated areas, to disrupt and destroy enemy forces, and population-centric security operations in populous areas, to obstruct the insurgent shadow government and allow the government to supplant it. Small-unit leaders received great latitude in selecting and implementing the mix of enemy-centric and population-centric methods, and success depended heavily on their leadership capabilities, earning this hybrid approach the moniker of leader-centric COIN. With roughly the same number of troops as the forces they had replaced, the Marines gained control over the entire operational area in a period of three months and largely suppressed the insurgency by the time their seven-month tour ended. During this time, they also captured or killed a substantial number of high-value individuals who had eluded special operations forces.”
I want to pause for a moment to talk about the Marine Osprey aircraft, specifically Marine Medium Tilt Rotor Squadron 264, VMM-264 “Black Knights.” I have concentrated for most of the report on the guys on the ground, but wanted to highlight a very difficult Osprey mission o resupply Marines in the Sangin Valley. The mission occurred on June 12, 2011.
The problem was that several ground missions failed to re-supply Marines fighting in the sang in Valley. As a result, a MV-22 Osprey from VMM-264 was tasked to conduct a re-supply mission for them. Their load consisted of food, water, medical supplies and ammunition for the 1-5 Marines who had sustained heavy casualties throughout the day. The aircraft arrived and landed. While unloading the supplies, the crew and their aircraft came under heavy small arms and machine gun fire. The pilots called in for air cover while they kept unloading. The crew estimated it was on the ground and under fire for three minutes.
Once unloaded, the crew got her airborne and fired her ramp-mounted machine gun at the enemy. This was the aircraft’s only weapon. One crewman called out targets while the other fired. This was the first combat engagement for the Osprey. The crew landed at its base safely, immediately provided intelligence on the location of the enemy, and support aircraft rushed to the scene and paid their respects to the enemy with rocket fire. The crew received the Air Medal with combat distinguishing device for valor, an unusual award: Capt. Matthew Cave, Capt. Thomas Keech, Sgt. Justin Barfield-Smith and Cpl. John Cederholm. Cederholm was the one to fire his machine gun while Barfield-Smith identified the targets bidding the enemy farewell.
Marines with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, walk through a field during a clearing mission in Sangin, July 28, 2010. Photo by Corporal Ned Johnson. Presented by Long War Journal.
The 3-7 Marines had been working with the 40 Commandos during the summer 2010. The 3-7 were the first Marine regiment to push into the Sangin area.
LCpl. Jared Slattery, USMC, an infantryman with the Police Mentoring Team, 3-7 Marines, walks on patrol near the Sangin Bazaar, September 15, 2010. The Marines joined forces with the British 40 Commandos to conduct security patrols throughout the Sangin district. Presented by libnot.com
Then the 3-7 arrived en masse in Sangin in September 2010 to relieve the 40 Commando and take over. Life for the 3-7 changed drastically once they arrived in Sangin itself. The 3-7 lost five KIAs and more than 150 wounded before they turned Sangin over to the 3-5 Marines in October 2010.
As early as March 2010, the Americans had drawn up plans to relieve the British in southern Helmand and turn over the region to the US Marines, in this case the I MEF. Under this plan, the US Marines were to take over Helmand and Nimroz provinces while the British would go to Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul. This was a part of General McChrystal’s plan to reorganize ISAF in the south, dividing it into the south and southwest.
Given their investment in blood, lessons learned, and ability to improve relations with the locals, many British officers opposed the plan. But that argument did not sell. The Marines convinced senior NATO commanders that they did not like being stuck in defensive positions, they far preferred the offense, and they preferred operating alone in an area of responsibility. The British redeployment made sense anyway since the Canadians planned to leave Kandahar in 2011 and the Dutch planned to leave Uruzgan in August 2010.
Some cynics called Helmand “Helmandshire” and said it would now turn into “Marine-istan.”
Whatever the case, the US took over responsibility for northern and southern Helmand in July 2010 while the British took charge in central Helmand along with the Danes and Estonians, responsible for working in the heavily populated areas.
US Marines now had the deck and the con for Sangin and southern Helmand.A s mentioned previously, the 3-7 Marines worked with the 40 Commandos since at least summer 2010, and took over responsibility for the Sangin District in September 2010. They were promptly replaced by the 3-5 “Dark Horse” Marines in October, about 950 strong.
3-5 Marines in a fight in Sangin, presented by Foreign Policy
The 3-5 Marines were instructed to push into areas where the British had not been, areas where the enemy was dominant and where no one had contested that domination.
Mark Moyer interviewed Marines from the 3-5 after they came home. He said, “On October 13 (2010), the day the 3-5 took control of Sangin, the first Marine patrol to leave the wire came under fire 150 ft. from the perimeter. One member of the patrol was shot dead.
Within the next four days, the 3-5 another eight Marines were killed in a four day period and a tenth later in the month. Four were killed by an IED explosion under their Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected all-terrain vehicle. Three more were killed by small arms fire. The rest were killed by IEDs while on dismounted foot patrols. It’s almost as though nothing had changed.
Frankly, the Marine officers could not understand how the British had failed to pacify this area after having been here so long and having shed so much blood. The Marines decided to tear down half the 22 bases that some 106 British soldiers had died defending. The Marines also abandoned some territory for which the British had paid a price.
What arguably amazed the Marines the most, however, was the volume of roadside bombs. In an NPR interview, Tom Bowman of NPR said:
“The key here was the volume of roadside bombs. The Marines had never seen anything like this before. They were everywhere, almost every other step.”
Bowman highlighted what he saw as a difference between the British and American approach. He opined the British saw the populated areas as the most important and wanted to focus on the area just south of Sangin. The US Marines, however saw the Sangin area as a historic Taliban safe haven, a place psychologically very important to the Taliban, and place where the enemy could stockpile weapons, run drug labs, and completely cover the area with roadside bombs for their own protection.
The British warned the 3-5 that the enemy would be lying in wait for them. But what the 3-5 learned very quickly was the enemy was not lying in wait, but instead launching aggressive offensive operations against them. The enemy was met by an equally aggressive offensive-minded 3-5 Marines. But unlike previous experiences in Afghanistan, the Taliban kept attacking in large numbers. They would fall back after the Marines bested them, but they would simply regroup and conduct a counter-attack.
Commanders insisted that the Sangin valley remained a critical district because it was the last remaining sanctuary for the Taliban where they could cultivate and process their opium and fund their war. Even now, in late 2010, commanders acknowledged that the area remained a key crossroad to move drugs, weapons and fighters through Helmand and Kandahar. Some saw Sangin as the final obstacle to evicting the Taliban from its southern stronghold.
“There was never a question of taking 3-5 out of the fight, nor was there ever any question that they would be anything but successful. What's often lost in the story of 3-5 is the number of casualties they inflicted, a tremendous number. We were pounding the enemy. And I would say that we were taking down 10 of them to every one of us that we lost.”
In another quote I saw, General Mills said this:
"My world is the Helmand province, the southern Pashtun area. And I can tell you that by any metric that you can think of, we are winning. We are pushing the enemy back, he is in disarray and he has now resorted to the last card he has to play in his deck, which is murder and intimidation."
He would also say:
“(Sangin is) key terrain... the anchor for the whole center (of Helmand) … It is a battle up there. No question about it... [The Marines] are out every day, there's contact [fighting] every day... They pulled a very difficult mission."
While there was criticism of the British, and the Marines did become more aggressive, Capt. Matthew Peterson, commander L/3-5, said:
"The British shed a lot of blood here ... They sacrificed a lot of men holding on to Sangin. Let's not forget that the British started what we are doing . . . We are building on [that]."
“Listen, our Marines always prepared for a gunfight or for Marines calling in artillery, calling in airstrikes. But this volume of IEDs, we really hadn't trained enough for that. And listen to what Colonel Morris had to say.”
During the interview with Bowman, Morris said:
“I actually enjoyed the fact that guys were in firefights, because they were fighting this enemy face-to-face and had an opportunity to kill them. The problem with the IED fight is they're ghosts. The only thing that really was different from what we had trained all our lives for as Marines was the IED threat.”
As an editorial aside, and I am very reluctant to be critical, but it is hard to understand why, after all these years of experience in the Sangin valley accrued by the British, how it could possibly be that the Marines were not prepared for these IEDs and had not trained for them. That’s all I’ll say.
Corporal Travis Buchholz said:
"It all just happened so fast ... We knew Sangin would be tough but we didn't realize how fast it would happen. As soon as we got here it was, like, bam. There was no time to ease into it. People started dying immediately."
On November 9, 2010, Buchholz experienced a horrific death of his platoon commander, Lt. Robert Kelly. Buchholz held on to a tree branch to steady himself and jumped over a ditch. Kelly was behind him and jumped into knee high water in the ditch. He put his knee on the bank to pull himself out, and detonated hidden explosives. Buchholz and another raced out to him. Both legs were blown off above the knees. Buchholz went to apply tourniquets, but turned his officer over to see half his face blown off. He was dead.
The men were stunned. Only an attack against them later caused them to get Kelly’s loss out of their minds. L/3-5 would take 19 casualties in the first 10 weeks of their deployment. The Marines came to understand what the British had gone through.
As an aside, the 3-5 was no untested outfit. It led the charge at Fallujah in Iraq where, as one writer, a former Marine officer, put it, some among them thought they were an “electron shit magnet.” One Marine said, “We always get the shit assignments.”
By late January 2011, the 3-5 had lost 24 KIA and 140 wounded. Many of those wounded lost limbs and there were a handful of triple amputees. During the pervious month, December 2010, a rifle company from the 3-9 Marines, which was operating in Marjah, arrived in Sangin as reinforcement and lost three of their Marines in a matter of days.
So the total loss for the Marines by January 2011 since the 3-7 took over in Sangin from the British in September 2010 was 40 KIA.
3-5 Marines on patrol in Sangin, February 18, 2011. Photo credit: LCpl Dexter Saulisbury, presented by Marine Times Battle Alert
Throughout this 3-5 tour, the Marines refused to reduce the number of their patrols, but instead kept on the attack until they killed as many enemy as they could. This surprised the enemy, especially as they saw the Marines go into areas previously avoided. The ramped up the umber of men to go on a patrol from one squad to two
I know I have put you through the meat grinder on this story, and compliment you if you have read this far. As I write this, and since you have read it, we all must wonder why so many losses and why such a great investment in Sangin? I’ve provided various rationales, but looking at this war from this distance, one must really wonder.
Major General Mills, now commanding ISAFs Regional Command-Southwest (RC-SW) offered this opinion of what was happening:
“He (enemy) is fighting with a growing desperation with the realization if he loses Sangin he’s lost the fight in Helmand Province ... We are running into prepared defenses and troops that are willing to fight to death to hold onto the ground that they have.”
In short, he felt that the Taliban was making its last stand in Sangin. The Taliban by February was setting up flags marking its territory. The Marines’ job was to push through those markers. Despite their losses, the 3-5 fought as courageously as has been its legacy.
Helmand's governor Gulab Mangal, left, shakes hand with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, January 10, 2011.
In January 2011, there was hope that a peace deal would be achieved in the Sangin District. Leaders of an influential tribe had been working to broker a deal between 40 members of the Alikozai tribe and a coalition of villages in the Sangin area. Members of the Afghan government and US Marines participated in the talks. Some seven Taliban leaders were said to have agreed. The Alikozai agreed to stop fighting against the Marines and to support the Marines, in exchange for development aid.
That the locals, mostly Pashtun, would agree to stand up against the Taliban would be a big deal. But the Taliban lashed out at those who participated, kidnapping and beating some, murdering others. The challenge for the 3-5 now was to protect the area in a way that would cause the deal to hold.
Perhaps the tension had been building among the Afghans, but they saw that the Taliban was itself infested with many foreign fighters which caused a loss of popular support for them.
As security improved, development projects started to pick up pace. By Spring 2011 the Marines were able to recruit local self-defense forces. The spring, April - May, quieted down.
The 1-5 Marines replaced the 3-5 in late March-early April 2011. The 3-5 came home having lost a total of 25 dead and 140 wounded, with at least a dozen amputees.
Mark Moyer interviewed men from the 3-5 after they came home. He wrote that in the end, the following seemed to work for the Marines:
- “Military success stimulates reconciliation and population mobilization.
- “The Marines put stabilization ahead of transition.
- “Development aid was provided only when coalition personel could visit the projects.
- “Counternarcotics took a back seat to stabilization.”
I have not mentioned these yet, so now is a good time. The 1-5 Marines, like others, set up Listening Post and Observation Posts (LPOP) outside friendly lines to monitor activity deeper into the Sangin valley with a view toward limiting enemy movement. In May 2011, the 2/C/1-5 Marines set one up outside Patrol Base (PB) Fulod in an uninhabited building. The photo shows 2/C/1-5 Marines along with their ANA counterparts departing the listening and observation post they set up, May 9, 2011. The Marines of 2nd Platoon set up the post to obtain a better vantage point on areas in the Sangin River Valley near Patrol Base Fulod, Sangin.
Cpl. James Leitch, a radio operator for the 2nd Platoon, said:
“The LPOPs give us a different vantage point on the battle space ... This is crucial because sometimes you catch things and see things the enemy is doing at night when they don’t expect it.”
The platoon brought ANA soldiers with it, in the main to teach them first how to provide security for such a site.
The 1-5, as mentioned earlier, arrived in Sangin in August 2011. There is a very good video about them entitled, “Make Peace or Die” and I commend it to you. I found it interesting that during their first few months in Sangin, the Marines said things were pretty quiet and that their main job was counter-insurgency, COIN, which had them out meeting the people and befriending them, and at the same time being ready for combat. Some found the environment initially as very permissive, very quiet, not much activity, some of which lured them into a false sense of security, some of which left the Marines with with a bit of apprehension, even anxiety about when a fight might occur.
The toughest fighting was on the northern part of the battlespace in a village I believe Col. Savage called “Karesze, which if correct called is about seven miles north-northwest of Sangin. In any event, he said they decided to go up there and clear the enemy out so they could not attack the population or the Marines. The found they had to clear zones, experiencing ambushes all along the way. The fighting was intense but the Marines killed a lot of enemy and found a lot of materials.
While the village was outside their battlespace, the enemy kept attacking, so the Marines decided to go after them and finish them off. The enemy would fight but was unable to push the Marines off any ground.
The 1-5 ended up conducting 17 separate operations while they were in the Sangin area. Most operations were designed to disrupt the enemy. Col. Savage said his Marines would not just sit there and take it from the enemy, but instead “we wanted to give it to him. So rather than waiting for him to hit us, we hit him first.”
During June 2011, the enemy became very aggressive, with nighttime firefights and detonation of many more IEDs than previously experienced. It appeared that the enemy had concluded its poppy and wheat harvests and was now ready to fight again. Savage said:
“This place is a sieve for the Taliban. There are literally thousands of IEDs here ... We find some but not all, and they keep putting in more. We just have to get through the summer fighting season.”
In another interview, he said, “(Sangin is) a minefield.”
Keeping morale high is not easy, even for these gun-ho Marines. Their morale seems to rise when they are firing weapons at the enemy. They work hard at seeing themselves as the hunters instead of the hunted. Once in a tough firefight, the best thing for them is to get up the next day and go back at it.
Capt. Ryun Hunt took command of B/3-5 in June 2011, and commented on morale:
“I knew it was more kinetic, morale was down. But we did a lot of talking about things, and they’re pulling together ... Some squads pulled together faster, but they’re all back in the fight and ready to close with and destroy the enemy.” His 1st Platoon had been hit the hardest, but he observed that the experience had “bonded those guys.”
It’s worth mentioning here that quite often if not most often corporals lead the squads, an enormous responsibility.
LCpl. John Farias told a reporter in August 2011:
“If you don’t take your responsibility to the fullest, one of our friends might die.”
A reporter for The Marine Times said this in an August 17, 2011 edition:
“Sangin is considered one of the last population centers in Helmand where Taliban factions are still holding strong.”
He said IEDs remain the number one threat. Savage said this:
“We’re taking more casualties than anybody else, but this isn’t Tarawa — I’m not taking 50 percent casualties ... The sky isn’t falling in Sangin ... We’re going to take casualties this summer, but it’s because this place is a minefield.”
His mission was clear. Hold on to the gains made by the Marines before him.
Even since the British were here, the Marines acknowledged that only small inroads had been made to allow the local government to take hold. In contrast, Marjah and Garmser had made considerable progress and were close to a full transition to Afghan government control. But Sangin was going to take more time.
1-5 Marines deliberately detonate IED they found.
The 1-5 had unearthed some 400 unexploded bombs, but Marines had detonated about 50 others, killing and badly wounding about 100. These Marines lost 11 KIAs in their first 81 days.
USN Petty Officer 2nd Class Lamonte Hammond and Petty Officer 3rd Class Simon Trujillo with B/1-5 Marines treat a Marine who was wounded during a firefight in the Nawa district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, on August 14, 2009. Navy corpsmen are first responders to wounded Marines on the battlefield.
A note about the Navy corpsmen who travel with these Marines. Most Marines call them “Doc.” They are embedded in the individual units of the Marines, in this case, the 1-5. In the other services you will hear calls for “Medic!” Here you usually hear, “Corpsman up!” And the corpsman jumps to the wounded Marine, often under heavy fire. Medics of all the services are phenomenal people.
Officer in Charge of the Shock Trauma Platoon Commander Mark Duncan, left, and Battalion Surgeon for the 1/5 Marines Lt. Richard Whitehead finish a dressing change on a 2-year-old Afghan boy who suffered burns on 60 percent of his body in Sangin, Afghanistan, on July 5, 2011. The boy was severely burned when an oil lamp exploded.
Doctors serving the Marines are for the most part Naval doctors. In August 2011, Lt. Rich Whitehead, USN, was the 1-5’s battalion surgeon. He commented:
“We’ve seen Marines come through here who survive a gunshot or an IED, then they go back out and they get killed, or come back with their legs blown off.”
Commander Mark Duncan, USN, a family physician who worked with emergency medicine physician Commander Erik Sergienko, USN, two nurses, four corpsmen and two Marines formed the Shock Trauma Platoon in Sangin. I should mention that many, in some cases most, of the patients seen by the Shock Trauma Unit are Afghans who were victims of IEDs and battles between the Marines and the enemy.
Lt. Whitehead talked a bit about the impact of these IEDs and other wounds on the Navy corpsmen who are the first to treat the wounded Marines:
“Some of these guys haven’t even been in the Navy yet, and they’re out there ... doing trauma medicine on patrol.”
With his patient medevaced out, Navy Corpsman Jonathan Duhart takes a smoke break as he and his Marines try to dissect how the attack happened and how their fellow Marine was hit. Photo Courtesy Drew Brown/Stars and Stripes, presented by The Oneida Daily Dispatch.
Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Scott Adessa noted:
“You can see it in their (the corpsman’s) face, the shock. We talk to them afterward, they put on a front and say they’re OK, but you can see it. (Other than the training they get in school, which includes working to save the life of a dying pig), there’s really no other way we can prepare them for seeing trauma.”
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Alberto Cisneros commented this way:
“There’s always a point in a corpsman’s career when he loses his first casualty. You start to doubt yourself, asking, ‘What could I have done? … I believe I did everything I could. It was just unfortunate. It was an IED.”
Let’s switch gears.
I watched a 1-5 Platoon out on patrol on You Tube. I’d like to draw on it and provide some video clips from it. This is about 2nd Platoon, B/1-5 Marines out on a security patrol in Sangin.
While in a fairly open area, they took hostile fire from a tree line not far away. I was surprised to see the Marines crouched down in the open, firing back, instead of lying down. After some seconds of returning fire, they ceased firing. They used this time to identify the location from where the fire was coming, and one Marine spotted the shooter and was able to describe what he was wearing.
They then started moving forward to hunt the shooter. I noted they had what looked like a 4x8 board which they used to get across the ditch, in order to avoid IEDs that might be in the ditch. Note the Vallon in the lead.
Hunter McGuinness is back home in Connecticut now, but he served as a Vallon with the Marines in Afghanistan. His local TV station asked him why he volunteered for this job. His answer was:
“So no one else had to. It’s definitely the most dangerous job. It was scary and exciting at the same time.”
By the time he left Afghan, he had found 20 bombs, and he and engineers had more than 70 bombs confirmed. He said with a bit of pride: “There were a lot of limbs and lives saved.”
The patrol crossed the ditch and still remained crouched in an open field facing the treeline. One of these Marines coordinated what was happening with his boss by radio, and requested that his boss hold fire from the rear while his men moved toward the target.
The patrol’s leader instructed his men that as they move forward, if they take fire, “light that (expletive deleted) place up because there’s no one near there.”
As the patrol moved ahead, notice the lead Vallon Marine with a mine detector followed closely by another providing him security. The rest followed their track.
They entered a more dense area of trees, brush and cornfields. They wove their way through the dense cornfield and again out into the open.
They approached a building and once again, crouched to one knee, looking all around, until told to move. A farmer moved a flock of what I think were goats, perhaps sheep, and the patrol stood still letting them by. Then off again they moved across open fields with irrigation ditches.
The approached the large building which was a small village housing area, stopped and assembled a plan. The instructions sounded complicated to me but each man seemed to track with it. The boss was briefing the men on how Alpha Co.’s play in the action would work and how the two would coordinate. The leader said if they started taking fire, Alpha would start maneuvering into position to attack. If anyone tried to egress, Alpha’s men would block them off.
Off they went again, through a cornfield, and gingerly onto a very small path.
Down through an irrigation ditch and into high grass. Back into the open, mine detector still leading, into a cornfield and back to the point where they had started.
Once back at their PB, the unit started receiving fire. One Marine assembled his RPG while other Marines returned fire. His officer instructed him to fire at a building. He first fired a tracer and his colleague confirmed a good shot. He then fired his round and the hostile fire ceased. I was amazed to see the RPG shooter standing up in the open while receiving hostile fire; his comrades opened up with suppressive fire, to me amazing courage.
And that was that.
By the time they left Afghanistan, the 1-5 lost 17 Marines with close to 200 wounded. But Col. Savage said his men had made great strides:
“Even during the height of the fighting season, we were able to expand the security bubble further, increase the efficiency of the ANSF (Afghan Security Forces) and we worked very closely with (inaudible). The atmospherics within the population improved greatly, huge strides in security. We’ve also made huge strides in governance. We have formed an interim district community council, for the first time they’ve ever had that here, we’ve got representatives from across the Sangin district that will come once a week to a meeting, discuss their issues and concerns and we help them with their problems and make Sangin a better place.”
While giving a speech about Sangin in San Clemente, Savage said:
“The success of this thing was based on 20, 22 year-old men. They are some of the bravest and best people I’ve known, they’re the ones winning this war."
He said the Afghan uniformed police expand in numbers, the Afghan National Army has been able to do platoon and sometimes company-minus size operations independently.
Toolan said this:
“Now he did this because he understands that at this stage in Helmand province, he sees the writing on the wall ... He understands that we’re making progress. He understands, for example, that in Sangin today, there is very, very little violence. And when you compare it with six months, five months, a year ago, he realizes that now is the time. And that actually has become sort of the motto, is that now’s the time, Taliban, to come back and join the government.”
Toolan said his Marines had launched a major offensive to reestablish the Kajaki Dam and get on with the construction projects needed to get the hydroelectric operation in full swing. The US intends to spend $750 million to improve the irrigation and facility’s power output. At the time, the E/1-12 Marines, an artillery ourfit, were protecting the dam and patrolling the area.
“There’s nothing better than having a living, breathing symbol of Afghan sovereignty, than to have a dam that is no longer being used by the insurgents to collect illegal taxes and revenues ... It’s now a piece of infrastructure that the government owns, the government controls and – oh, by the way – is being improved by our projects.”
These two maps reflect the ISAF assessment of changes in enemy control in Afghanistan’s southern area, April 2010 and April 2011: