Summer Plan for Afghanistan
Main focus will be Marjah, but Corps targets other hot spots
By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Jul 6, 2010 12:30:06 EDT
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — With greater influence over NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, the Corps’ game plan for this summer is clear.
Following the activation in mid-June of Regional Command-Southwest, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), now leads about 27,000 troops from eight nations, including an estimated 19,400 Marines. The move separates Marine forces from Regional Command-South, based in Kandahar province, which had overseen operations in Helmand province and surrounding areas since the Corps returned to Afghanistan from a two-year hiatus in 2008.
Development of RC-Southwest coincides with what is traditionally the prime fighting season for Taliban and other insurgent forces, meaning Marines and their NATO allies can expect more violent clashes and ambushes as they look to lock down lawless pockets of Helmand and reinforce ongoing efforts in other areas.
For now, the main focus will remain Marjah, the former Taliban stronghold Marines assaulted in February, said Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of 1st Marine Division (Fwd). Marine units continue to face routine attacks from “vestiges of the bad guys there,” he said during a June 1 interview at Camp Leatherneck, the Corps’ main base in Afghanistan.
“However, with that, we’re going to continue to push across the entire area of operations,” Osterman said. “All of the areas we invested in … we’ll continue to work those.”
A detailed look at what lies ahead:
Lots left to do in Helmand
Since the initial assault on Marjah ended earlier this year, two battalions — 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, and 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, both out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. — have done most of the work there. Those units will be replaced soon by two others from Lejeune.
Second Battalion, 6th Marines, is expected to take control of 1/6’s AO in central and southern Marjah within weeks, and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, is slated to take over for 3/6 in northern Marjah later this summer, Marines there said. The area is still hotly contested, with foot patrols prone to frequent ambushes.
Complicating matters, Marines in Marjah say they’ve seen little indication the civilians they’re trying to win over are willing to help smoke out the Taliban. Frequently, farmers deny having seen gun-wielding insurgents despite indications — spent AK47 rounds, for example — they are in the area.
“It’s hard for us out here to see the good,” said Cpl. Anthony DePrimo, a squad leader with India Company, 3/6, after a recent patrol in Marjah. “Most days, we have 5 percent of the people who are willing to help us and the other 95 percent are afraid to say anything.”
First Reconnaissance Battalion, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., will assist conventional infantry forces in Marjah this summer, covering the Sistani Desert to the west, Nad Ali to the east, and other nearby areas that 1/6 and 3/6 don’t have enough manpower to control, Osterman said. The Taliban use these and other spots around Marjah to launch ambushes, frequently using beat-up motorcycles to make their getaway.
Other areas of Helmand province have seen more progress, although violence is still common. Nawa, a district south of Camp Leatherneck along the Helmand River, is the most settled at this point, Osterman said. About 89,000 people live there. Garmser, south of Nawa along the river, also has improved, allowing for new infrastructure to be built and prompting Marine officials to consider turning the area over to Afghan security forces, he said.
“Through the course of the summer what I think you’re going to see is that the security operations are going to be consolidated,” he said. “… I fully anticipate that, for example, you’re going to see Nawa get to a point where … you actually get to a transition status as we mature the security environment.”
Marjah, Nawa and Garmser are patrolled by units that fall under Regimental Combat Team 7, which is based at Camp Dwyer and will remain in Afghanistan through October. Overseen by Col. Randy Newman, who led 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, in Ramadi, Iraq, the RCT includes 3/6; 1/6; 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii; and 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, out of Pendleton.
On June 6, 3/3 took over for Hawaii’s 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines. A ceremony was held at Combat Outpost Geronimo in Nawa. In Garmser, 3/1’s Thundering Herd took over in May for Lejeune’s 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines.
But even as hospitals, schools and roads are built, the Taliban remains active. At least 26 Marines have been killed in southern Afghanistan since May 1. Seven Marines assigned to 3/1 have died since the unit arrived in April, and the assassinations of several Afghan tribal elders also have been reported.
In southern Helmand, Pendleton’s 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion continues to patrol sprawling desert areas that lead to the Pakistan border. The speed and firepower of its light armored vehicles allow Marines there to hinder insurgent movement.
“That’s perfect open hunting ground for those guys,” Osterman said. “They’re capable of highly mobile dispersed operations, which is exactly what that area requires.”
Trouble brewing to the north
Meanwhile, units assigned to RCT-2 continue to be active west of Leatherneck and — increasingly — to the north. Commanded by Col. Paul Kennedy, who led Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, in Ramadi during the Iraq war, RCT-2 has concentrated its efforts on areas in eastern Nimroz and Farah provinces.
Marine officials intend to put pressure on insurgents throughout the region, which includes vast rural areas that require some mounted vehicle patrols through small population centers such as Delaram, where RCT-2 is based in the northeast corner of Nimroz, and Bakwa and Golestan, in southeastern Farah. The towns are within 50 miles of Camp Leatherneck.
The Corps currently has 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., deployed across the western side of its AO. Its Marines are focusing mostly on population centers while also observing insurgent activity in remote sparsely settled areas even farther west, Osterman said.
“Special operations forces are out there working with the locals and the Afghan police and security forces,” Osterman said. “It really doesn’t require that much attention in terms of the population-centric strategy” used by U.S. forces.
On March 26, the regiment added Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, which replaced a British Army unit in Musa Qala, a former Taliban stronghold that British troops had patrolled. A Royal Marine unit, 40 Commando, fell under RCT-2’s control June 1, and the 31st Georgian Battalion from the eastern European nation of Georgia joined the regiment June 12, said 1st Lt. Barry Morris, an RCT-2 spokesman.
The British commandos have operated in Kajaki and Sangin, a hotly contested district in northeast Helmand with at least 14,000 people. On June 9, four airmen were killed there after an Air Force medical evacuation helicopter was shot down by an insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade. The Georgian battalion is now operating in 3/7’s area of operations, and is “employed in the same manner in which a U.S. Marine Corps battalion would be employed,” Morris said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in London on June 7 that he has discussed the possibility of sending more U.S. forces to northeastern Helmand, where many of the insurgents in Marjah and other central Helmand districts have fled. It is unclear whether Gates will ultimately opt to do that.
The Taliban in northern Helmand supports the insurgency in Kandahar province through neighboring Uruzgan province, according to a June 10 report by the Institute for the Study of War, an independent Washington think tank. Due to the difficult terrain and a lack of resources, it is unlikely U.S. forces will conduct large-scale operations in Kajaki and Sangin, though they may focus on targeting specific enemy positions, the report said.
Osterman said it is unlikely the U.S. will have any direct involvement in increased military operations in neighboring Kandahar province, where civilians and local officials have braced for months for a large-scale assault that U.S. officials now say will not happen.
“I think they view Kandahar and central Helmand as both being very important, so as a result, they’re not looking to bleed anything off central Helmand for the sake of Kandahar,” he said of senior U.S. officials. “When you look at it in the big picture, Helmand is really almost a flank of Kandahar, if that makes sense. If we’re containing the insurgency over on this side, it makes for that much less ability for insurgent movement or reinforcements over in Kandahar.”