By lex, on July 12th, 2011
It wasn’t easy bringing security to Sangin, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines endured great hardships, took heavy casualties and had to improvise new tactics on the fly:
On Oct. 13, the day 3/5 took control of Sangin, the first Marine patrol to leave the wire came under fire 150 feet from the perimeter. One member of this patrol was shot dead. Within the next four days, another eight Marines died.
The extent of the resistance encountered in Sangin surprised many of the Marines. It was stronger than any Taliban resistance that Marines had witnessed previously in Afghanistan. During prior major Marine operations in Helmand, the insurgents had fought toe-to-toe for a few days and then relied primarily on IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and small hit-and-run ambushes. The insurgents in Sangin kept attacking in large numbers, and regrouped for counter-attacks after the initial volleys instead of dispersing.
If the Marines were surprised by the ferocity of the Taliban attacks, the Taliban had a little surprise of their own coming to them:
In the face of numerous and often gruesome casualties, Marine officers refused to reduce the frequency of patrols into dangerous areas or decrease the fraction of patrols conducted on foot, which remained constant at ninety-five percent to the end of the year. When confronted by insurgent fighters, the Marines did not fire warning shots or back away in order to avoid harming civilians or insurgents, but instead kept fighting until the enemy was destroyed or driven off.
The insurgents were also caught off guard by the willingness of the Marines to go on the offensive in areas that coalition forces had previously avoided. When the insurgent forces attempted to mass in areas outside the “security bubble” for attacks into the bubble, the Marines arrived in force and inflicted heavy losses. After a few such incidents, the insurgents stopped assembling in large numbers, which reduced their ability to ambush the Marines and intimidate the population.
The number of casualties sustained caused senior Marine leadership to consider withdrawing the force for “physical and psychological recuperation”. Commanders of 3/5 refused:
The Marines of 3/5 said that they wanted to finish what they had started, and Mills and Morris thought that pulling them out in the middle of the struggle would be the most demoralizing action possible.
In January 2011, local insurgent commanders sought permission from the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to pull out of Sangin. Permission was denied. The Taliban high command decided instead to inject commanders and fighters who were natives of Pakistan or other parts of Afghanistan. Because of either a lack of will or lack of capability, however, the new arrivals did not engage the Marines with the intensity witnessed during the battalion’s first months. There was a sharp drop in insurgent attacks. For the remainder of the Marine battalion’s tour, the insurgents relied mainly on IEDs to hinder and hurt the Marines and their Afghan partners.
What the Marines of 3/5 realized is that you have to be willing to endure hardship and take hits in order to inflict back-breaking punishment. They also learned how to pick their fights; the heroin trade will have to wait.
Read the whole thing. Really.