Doing it wrong

Posted by Lex, on April 11, 2008


There are volumes to be written by anyone capable of reading between the lines on this Baltimore Sun article:

KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan–Disagreements and coordination problems high within the international military command are delaying combat operations for 2,500 Marines who arrived here last month to help root out Taliban forces, according to military officers here.

For weeks the Marines — with their light armor, infantry, artillery and a squadron of transport and attack helicopters and Harrier strike fighters — have been virtually quarantined at the international air base here, unable to operate beyond the base perimeter.

When the fighting died down in Iraq’s Anbar province, the Corps went casting for a new mission and liked what they saw in Afghanistan – a place where a highly mobile force that values speed of execution could employ light infantry and supporting arms to immediate effect. A place, furthermore, where the need for additional combat troops willing to fight has been loudly proclaimed. It seemed a natural fit.

There’s a good reason why the Corps was assigned Anbar as their own area of responsibility: They have a tightly inter-wound culture up and down the chain that shares common values, a bias towards action and the expectation of support. They have very little patience with different organizational cultures, and tend to see the kind of drawn out and methodical planning customary to the employment of large, mechanized forces as dilatory knob polishing. They don’t always play well with others.

Marines in Afghanistan are under the operational command of the multi-national ISAF structure in Afghanistan, which gets them all tied up in the NATO cultural climate – and anyone that’s ever planned or worked alongside NATO ground forces knows exactly what I’m talking about. Between the prime planning hours of say, 0930 and 1045 (before breaking for a two  hour lunch) there is at least as much political effort expended on ensuring no one’s feelings get hurt as their is determining how to match firepower to objective:

Including the Marines, there are 17,522 allied troops in southern Afghanistan, including British, Dutch, Canadians, Danes, Estonians, Australians, Romanians and representatives of nine other nations, according to the high command

(Difficulties) usually are worked out with grace and humor and with a warrior’s sense of shared mission. In response to a Marine request this week for help with supplies, a British liaison officer was accommodating. “You’ll get what we have,” he said.

Bigger problems run afoul of conflicting strategies and easily bruised national pride.

At another planning session, a question arose about the capabilities of a British combat unit. “I can tell you they have killed more people than anybody else in this room,” a British major declared hotly. There was shocked silence from the roomful of Marines, most of whom have done two or three combat tours in Iraq and don’t boast about battlefield exploits.

Such are the pleasures of coalition warfare in a far place.

Their officers may be frustrated, but at least the Marine NCOs are taking events with their customary good grace:

Meantime, the 2,500 Marines here train, clean their weapons yet again, take long conditioning runs along the dust-choked perimeter roads, and wonder when they’re going to begin what they came for.

“This is killing us,” says a staff sergeant. “There’s only so much training you can do, especially considering that most of my Marines just got back from Iraq.”

But living conditions at this huge base are comfortable, with a well-stocked PX, an off-duty recreation area with a Burger King and pizza shop and an Afghan bazaar. Marines sleep on cots in air-conditioned tents, and the food is considered above-par.

They’re only there for seven months. All of this waiting around in an air conditioned cantonment? It’s killing them.


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