Saturday, May 23, 2009

With Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, U.S. Marines, in Afghanistan

This piece in today's Wall Street Journal shows why troop numbers are so important in modern anti-insurgency conflicts: "Stalemate: A single company of U.S. Marines is slugging it out with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s toughest ghost town. The battle shows how limited troop numbers have hurt the war—and why the U.S. is changing its strategy."

The report is from the town of Zad, in Helmand Province:

The inability of the Marines to dominate the area is an extreme example of how limited troop numbers, especially in the country’s strategically vital south, have hampered the U.S. ability to eradicate the Taliban threat. The U.S. and NATO-led coalition has easily defeated the Taliban in battle, but struggled to prevent insurgents returning to towns and villages across the country.

As part of President Barack Obama’s Afghan “surge,” the military has ordered 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to around 60,000. The beefed-up force is a central element of the military’s new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, which aims to replicate the successes of the Bush surge in Iraq, in particular the way it was able to both “clear” important areas of insurgents and “hold” the territory long enough for the government to solidify its position.

The strategic shift gelled earlier this month when Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for the resignation of Gen. David McKiernan, the Pentagon’s top general in Afghanistan, in a bid to further instill counterinsurgency tactics throughout the war. The successor, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is a former Green Beret who recently commanded the military’s secretive special operations forces in Iraq.

Still, the new approach won’t bring enough troops to put overwhelming force into every hotspot, suggesting that Now Zad and other pockets won’t see relief any time soon. Afghanistan’s terrain, replete with inaccessible valleys and remote villages, exacerbates the shortfall.

“We’re still only at half of what we had in Iraq,” says Col. Greg Julian, the military’s chief spokesman in Afghanistan. “In counterinsurgency doctrine, it should really be a 10-to-one ratio of population [to troops], and we’re nowhere near that.”

Soon after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, charities from the United Nations and European Union installed clean-water wells and a mother-child health clinic in Now Zad. But by 2007, fighting between insurgents and small British and Gurkha contingents prompted the estimated 10,000 to 30,000 residents to flee. An Estonian force joined the British before a company of U.S. Marines arrived last year. None was big enough to clear the town of insurgents.

The Marines here now, Lima Co. of 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, number fewer than 300 men and are currently training their replacements. Being a sideshow to the main effort has meant a daily routine of dangerous patrols through a no man’s land littered with land mines, all the while accepting the fact that at best they’ll go home next month with a tie.

Matthew Nolen, a 27-year-old Navy corpsman from Memphis, Tenn., insists that each man on his patrols carry two Velcro tourniquets. The assumption is that if a Marine steps on a mine, he’ll likely lose both legs at once, and the corpsman will have two arterial bleeds to stem. Some infantrymen wear tourniquets loose around their ankles, like bracelets, so they can get at them quickly.

“It’s not for me,” said Sgt. Roy Taylor, a 23-year-old squad leader from New Orleans. “It’s for the guy next to me.”
For more on Lima Company, see Steve Moyer, "Combat Camera: US Marines Operate in Now Zad, Afghanistan."