The situation in Afghanistan has gotten me pretty pissed off these days. I got off the phone a little while ago with the commander of a battalion of Marines -- 2nd battalion, 7th Marine Regiment -- who's trying to hold back the waters of "Taliban" violence manning the ramparts of a 28,000 square kilometer area of operations ... a swath the size of Vermont, he said.
Because of this lack of forces, Lt. Col. Richard Hall, the battalion CO, has lost by my count 13 Marines in the short time he's been in Afghanistan. That's getting close to the total number of Marines killed in Iraq this year. Hall's been extended once already -- and he's praying for relief by November if Gates will free up some Marines from Anbar (Iraq) as the commandant reiterated his desire to do today at the Pentagon.
My fundamental question is how could we have let it get this bad? Hall said he's got no coalition forces buffering his provinces (Helmand and Farah) to the north, so the enemy slips back and forth with impunity. He says the "Taliban" that are killing his men aren't religious fanatics -- they're criminals who are pissed about the disruption of their smuggling routes.
A couple weeks ago, we talked to the deputy director for operations at Centcom, Brig. Gen. Robert Holmes. He said the enemy in Afghanistan has gotten "more organized" and in some cases stronger. Stronger!?
"Well, we've seen, fighting season after fighting season, the Taliban have become more organized. And their fighting, in terms of being in units, has become more organized, and in some cases stronger."
How can that have been allowed to happen after more than six years in-country?
There's no excuse. Other than the obvious, I guess. the USG put Afghanistan on the back burner to get Iraq squared away and now it's turning back to the fight. Hall said his Marines are getting attacked in the "spaces in between the districts" -- the no man's land of rock and sand roads that connect the arid villages of his AO to one another. Hall said he doesn't have enough men to "hold" the villages and that his original mandate was to train and mentor the Afghan army and police there.
"There are not enough forces here to completely control those districts, so there is going to be risks. And consequently, the casualties do come. ... The way I'm task-organized right now, I as a infantry battalion don't have the numbers of Marines that can effectively operate within all these different districts as well as influence the area in between those districts. And that is where we normally get hit by the enemy, is in between those districts that we don't control."
Ummm, didn't we figure out that more troops were needed to "hold" Iraqi towns after the insurgents and AQ guys were kicked out? And somehow we didn't know we need to do that in Afghanistan...?
And most of Hall's casualties are from IEDs. Why? Because he can't patrol enough to keep bad guys from building and emplacing them. The commandant said there's about 40 MRAPs with Marines in Afghanistan. MRAPs aren't going to defeat IEDs; counterinsurgency tactics will. And the risk of rollover and getting stuck on some dirt road in one of those "bank safes on wheels" makes it a heck of a juicy ambush target.
It's not about tech, it's about tactics and manpower. Let's hope now that Petraeus is taking over Centcom he can have some influence over pushing more troops to Afghanistan to get this thing back in the bottle.