A Report from embedded journalist Andrew Lubin
[We’ll be hearing again from Maj. Jim Gant in three weeks, but for this Monday and the next, I’m very pleased and honored to feature a “report from the trenches” from independent foreign correspondent Andrew Lubin, who has just returned from six weeks in Afghanistan where he was embedded with Army and Marine troops. Mr. Lubin’s son Phil is a Marine artilleryman; Andy loves the troops; nothing gives him greater pleasure than to get out there in the tall cane with young Marines and soldiers and come back with the straight, unfiltered scoop. This recent trip is his 10th to Iraq, Afghanistan and Beirut. Andy’s work appears regularly in Jane’s Intelligence Review, Leatherneck and Proceedings. He is the author of the award-winning book, Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Battery in Iraq.]
Success Starts in the Villages
By Andrew Lubin
It’s more than just numbers of troops, it’s getting them off the Forward Operating Bases
The recent debate over troop strength is finally over; President Obama is sending 30,000 Marines and soldiers to bolster the 21,000 he added in March. As before, the Marine Corps will be leading the charge; 1st Bn, 6th Marines (infantry) will heading out in the next weeks, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force will join them in the following months. The Army is sending three brigades, along with 7,000 headquarters troops.
Are the 34,000 enough? Too little? Too many? That question is best answered by defining the troops’ mission and how it is expected to be accomplished. Judging by the results of the Marine efforts in Helmand and Nimroz Provinces, the real issue is not one of troop strength, but rather one of how those troops are utilized once they’re on the ground.
“It’s really very simple,” Col. Dale Alford said at the recent Marine Corps University Counterinsurgency Symposium in Washington, D.C, “we want to make them pick our side.” Alford is correct; for all the different theories on counterinsurgency (COIN) from “oilspots” to “trickle down” to “governance,” American and NATO success in Afghanistan depends on the farmers and laborers in the countryside believing that “our way” is more beneficial to them and their families than what the Taliban offers.
ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal knows that the Coalition needs the cooperation of the locals, regardless of how many troops are in-country. “The key to success,” he wrote to Sectretary of Defense Robert Gates, “will be strong personal relationships forged between security forces and local populations.” These relationships are not hard to initiate; Afghanistan’s Pashtunwali code of hospitality and honor lends itself to the tribesmen wanting good relationships with the Marines and soldiers–but the troops need to get off those FOB’s and meet the people.
Down in Helmand Province, Marines of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade are meeting the people. On the morning of 2 July, Afghan citizens and Taliban along the Helmand River Valley found 4,000 Marines had flown through the night and were on the ground, patrolling through their villages, engaging the bad guys and establishing multiple new bases. “We go out to where the people are,” 2MEB commanding officer Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson said. “We don’t drive to work; we walk to work.”
This was the first time many of the villagers had seen Coalition forces, and they are responding positively to the Marine efforts. In Nawa, C Company, 1st Bn, 5th Marines was attacked by the Taliban within hours of its arrival–and responded by driving the enemy back where they came from. “The bad guys weren’t used to Marines,” explained 1st Sgt David Wilson. “We pursued them, we didn’t break contact, we hunted them down and we shot them–and in 10 days the area was secure.”
The first sign of successful “COIN” is when the local citizenry realizes that cooperating with Coalition troops improves their lives, and Charlie Company’s killing or driving the Taliban out of Nawa was an important first step. The next step was to build relationships with the locals, and to do that, the Marines went out on patrol two and three times daily. Showing up again and again in Nawa and the outlying villages, the Marines talked with shop owners, the money lender, farmers, children, the local Mullah, and everyone who would talk with them. In addition to becoming a familiar part of the landscape, their continued presence enabled them to ask questions as they bought small amounts of sodas, fruits, and vegetables from the shop owners: “What is the biggest problem facing your village? How would you solve it? Do your children go to school? Do you work?” Gathering this sort of intelligence, plus identifying key leaders and people of influence, enables the Marines along with Civil Affairs and USAID teams to sit with the village elders and address the issues of jobs and governance that will make Nawa a successful district again.
Listening to the villagers helps the Marines understand what sort of jobs are required to make the area viable. As opposed to the big dollar projects ISAF touts, the Marines now have 260+ locals earning $5.00/day cleaning the irrigation canals–and with these canals now flowing freely, the locals are growing grapes, wheat and corn instead of opium.
But none of this would be happening if the Marines weren’t out patrolling, which is why recent comments from the Pentagon are worrisome. Concerns were raised that more big FOB’s need to be built before more soldiers are dispatched, that the soldiers need more chow halls, MRW shops, and hardened bunks with wireless internet. This is wrong; the troops need to live and work with their Afghan partners, abandon their MRAPs [heavily armored vehicles] and walk through the villages meeting those local citizens who are looking to be their friends. If you don’t get out and work with the locals and instead simply patrol from inside an MRAP, it makes no difference how many troops Mr. Obama dispatches.
Next week: It’s “Clear-Hold-Build-Transition” – Training the ANA