Published: January 15, 2008

Sending Marines to Afghanistan Makes Sense

Tom Ordeman, Jr.

Since 2003, the world has shifted much of its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. As coalition troops in Iraq have turned a worsening situation into the beginning stages of a decisive victory, people have largely forgotten about the continuing challenges of confronting a resurgent Taliban movement. These challenges continue to this day.

The United States Marines have consolidated unprecedented security gains in the Anbar province of Iraq, supported in no small part by the growing "Awakening" movement that is spreading throughout the country. As this consolidation has led to ever-decreasing levels of violence in Anbar, the Marines have looked abroad for another opportunity to engage an insurgent enemy in the counterinsurgency operations they are so well qualified for. In October of 2007, the Marines suggested that a sizable contingent of Marines be redeployed from Anbar to Afghanistan.

No living generation of Afghans has lived without violence. Since 1970, Afghanistan has suffered under two civil wars and two invasions: an imperialistic invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979, and a retaliatory intervention by a broad-based coalition in 2001. In each of these conflicts, Afghan fighters eschewed the traditional tactics for which they were poorly equipped and trained, focusing instead on insurgent tactics. With its mountainous terrain, Afghanistan is well suited for insurgent warfare; until a coalition of primarily Western troops arrived, it was also an excellent sanctuary for terrorists.

As poorly as the Taliban performed as a military unit in 2001 against a coalition of Western nations working in concert with the Afghan Northern Alliance, years of conflict taught them where they could find refuge: the rugged, poorly defined border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban and al Qaeda ringleaders like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zwahiri, and Mullah Mohammed Omar are believed to be hiding somewhere in Waziristan or the Northwest Frontier Province, both of them arbitrarily in Pakistani territory. Due to political and diplomatic concerns, the ability of both Pakistani and coalition troops to enter these ungovernable areas of Pakistan in search of the terrorist leaders is extremely limited. In this area of the world, where tribe and clan hold far more authority than comparatively arbitrary governments, counterinsurgency is extremely difficult.

Enter another tribe: the United States Marine Corps.

Although the last 50 years have seen the atrophy of the counterinsurgent skill set among America's conventional military forces, the history of the Marine Corps is one of both military and political insurgency. In 1945, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal remarked that the raising of the iconic flag atop Mount Suribachi meant "a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years," a tacit admission that the Marines had faced the threat of dissolution previously, and would face it again. The Marines' storied capability to fight wars is well-known; their fight during the first half of the 20th Century to preserve their very existence is known almost exclusively to those in military circles. Both conflicts have shaped the very ethos of the Marine Corps, and this point deserves a bit more explanation.

Although a contingent of Marines has existed since 10th November 1775, there have been numerous attempts to disband the Marine Corps. Following World War I, General John A. Lejeune recognized the vulnerability of the Marine Corps, and institutionalized a sort of political self-preservation instinct into the culture of the Marine Corps. Unlike any other service, possibly in the world, the Marines hold fast to their traditions. They possess a military institutional knowledge that is unrivalled, passed down to every new generation of Marines. On the tenth day of November of each year, the Corps celebrates its birthday by recognizing the day in 1775 when a resolution of the Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing the creation of a contingent of marines – this birthday celebration is unparalleled elsewhere in the Department of Defense. Officers of Marines still carry a Mameluke sword, and each and every Marine can tell any bystander that this sword is retained in remembrance of the sword presented to Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon by the Pasha of Tripoli in 1805. These are only a few examples of the culture that Marines hold so dear – a culture that shapes the way they live and fight.

Part of this ethos led to the transition in the 1920s from a sort of miscellaneous naval infantry force into a service dedicated to a specialized focus: amphibious warfare. This would eventually take the form of the famous "Island Hopping Campaign" of World War II. Since that time, the leaders of the Marine Corps have consistently sought out opportunities to serve national security while simultaneously proving and reproving the indispensability and uniqueness of the Marine Corps.

These things having been noted, the question remains: why is it a good decision to send 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan? There are several reasons.

First, the NATO-led task force has encountered mounting difficulties on the Pakistani border. While only a handful of NATO countries have actually authorized their troops to participate in combat operations (most notably the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, and Denmark), the Taliban and al Qaeda have used the porous southern border region to regroup and stage attacks and kidnappings within Afghanistan. American, Afghan, and NATO leaders have asked the NATO and EU member countries to send more than seven thousand additional troops in order to decisively guard against an expected spring offensive. However, NATO member countries have been less than forthcoming. As the Marines have largely completed their mission in Anbar, with control of Anbar expected to be turned over to the Anbar government soon, they are able to fill some of these needs.

Second, the Marines are well suited to counterinsurgent operations. Throughout the course of operations in Iraq, the Marine Corps has consistently demonstrated itself to be better as an institution at winning the hearts and minds of indigenous populations than other services – this is not to say that other services do this poorly, but rather, the Marines do it exceptionally well. Those most experienced at counterinsurgency and civil military operations are the unconventional warfare community – particularly the Navy SEAL teams and the Army's Special Forces. While the Marines are not technically "special forces," their organic institution of a self-contained Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF), embodied by the Marine Expeditionary Unit - Special Operations Capable (MEUSOC) allow them to bridge the gap between conventional and unconventional operations. In short, the Marine Corps is the only entity in America's arsenal big enough to provide both the skill set and sheer numbers needed to begin consolidating a decisive victory against the Taliban.

Third, the Marines are uniquely suited to the role of counterinsurgents. From the days of the American Revolution on, Marines have utilized maneuver and "fighting smart," one of the hallmarks of counterinsurgency. Aside from having endured a trial by fire in former terrorist strongholds like Ramadi and Fallujah, the Marines have a better understanding than most Americans of what it means to operate within a tribal society. As the advent of Christianity broke down the prominence of tribalism in Europe more than a thousand years ago, cultures of European ancestry have lost the institutional understanding of what it means to belong to a tribe. Underestimating tribalism has led to a steep learning curve in Iraq and Afghanistan – but less so among the Marines. Whether they realize it or not, the Marine Corps has developed an understanding of both the danger of enemy tribes, and the necessity of preserving relations with friendly or neutral tribes.

As Marine-friendly as this piece may seem, it should not be seen as a claim that sending 3,000 Marines into this theater will serve as a sort of "magic bullet." Not surprisingly, this has led other services, most notably the Army, to raise questions regarding both the legitimacy and feasibility of the proposal – especially since Marines will require existing U.S. Army bases and logistical support. Also, a single service taking such an open lead on an operation like this is contrary to the current military focus on joint and coalition operations. Further, the Taliban are willing to fight with a clan, tribe, ethnic, and faith based fervor that nearly all Americans are incapable of fully understanding. If this weren't the case, Afghanistan would have shared the same post-Soviet fate as neighboring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

Coalition efforts in Afghanistan are complex, and operations there will continue for some time to come. Providing security and stability, while simultaneously nurturing the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces to the point of independence, has not been and will not be an easy, overnight task. However, following through with the suggestion of sending in the Marines would be an excellent start.