Marines with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, walk through a field during a clearing mission in Sangin, July 28, 2010. Photo by Corporal Ned Johnson.
The Los Angeles Times covers the price paid by US Marines during the difficult campaign in Sangin:
When the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, deployed to the Sangin district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province in late September, the British soldiers who had preceded them warned the Americans that the Taliban would be waiting nearly everywhere for a chance to kill them.
But the Marines, ordered to be more aggressive than the British had been, quickly learned that the Taliban wasn’t simply waiting.
In Sangin, the Taliban was coming after them.
The Three-Five had drawn a daunting task: Push into areas where the British had not gone, areas where Taliban dominance was uncontested, areas where the opium poppy crop whose profits help fuel the insurgency is grown, areas where bomb makers lash together explosives to kill and terrorize in Sangin and neighboring Kandahar province.
The result? The battalion with the motto “Get Some” has been in more than 408 firefights and found 434 buried roadside bombs. An additional 122 bombs exploded before they could be discovered, in many instances killing or injuring Afghan civilians who travel the same roads as the Marines.
When I embedded in neighboring Musa Qala district last summer, the steady stream of casualty reports in northern Helmand province had a couple of recurring themes:
1. The British 40 Commando Royal Marines (and US Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment – the first American unit to push into Sangin as it transitioned from British control), were getting the worst of it, compared to other ISAF forces, in terms of the number of injured and killed.
2. The causes of KIA and WIA in Sangin differed from other areas. Whereas the majority of casualties in other districts were suffered via IEDs targeting dismounted patrols, UK casualties in Sangin were often caused by small arms fire. One British Marine was reported to have been killed by a hand grenade, which remains a relatively uncommon event in the asymmetric fight in the province.
I asked many Marines and Afghans the reason for the pace and differing nature of kinetics in Sangin, and some consistent explanations emerged: the district was more fiercely contested because it straddles the border of Kandahar province and because it is a hub of opium processing and distribution, which funds the insurgency. And the nature of the casualties – most via small arms fire from close firefights – varied because of the dissimilarity in how the British and Americans fight.
Afghan police and soldiers were blunt and forthcoming in their opinion that the Marines were much more aggressive than the British. This attitude was exemplified by Musa Qala District Police Chief Haji Abdul Wali, who told me, “I like both the British and the Marines, they are both good people. They both have money, equipment and everything, and that is good. … I like the Marines because they are better fighters than the British, who don’t like to fight and attack the Taliban as much.”
Marines in a position to know were more circumspect or vague in their critique of the British, but one officer who spoke on condition of anonymity believed the differences between UK and American casualties stemmed from significant differences in tactics. According to him, the British tended to first stand off when contact was initiated, to try to acquire an advantageous position on the enemy, whereas the Marines leaned into it to quickly fix, flank, and destroy their attackers.
Having never embedded with UK forces, I can’t personally verify that this specific assessment is correct. But I can attest that the story of USMC entry into northern Helmand has been invariably, incrementally the same: Wherever the Marines took over for the British, the Taliban would initially engage them in stand-up fights, attacking with small arms fire and traditional ambushes; but after a period of about three to six weeks, the insurgents alter their tactics to rely heavily on IEDs and “shoot and scoot” small arms attacks at a distance.
In each successive area, the insurgents made this tactical adjustment because they suffered far too many casualties when trying to hold their ground after engaging the Marines. For example, in late June 2010, RCT-2 officers estimated that 3/7 killed about 100 Taliban fighters in a single engagement just outside a village called Regay, in southern Musa Qala near Sangin. And the Marines were happy to show off bulletin board material: transcripts of intercepted radio communications by insurgent subcommanders expressing dismay that the Americans were more aggressive than their predecessors.
Thus, I have one criticism of the otherwise good LA Times piece linked above. The author documents the incredible cost endured by 3/5 as they try to pacify Sangin, but focuses on the idea that the Marines are hunted and bewildered by the Taliban onslaught in the district. The article mentions that US casualties have started to decline, but treats with skepticism the assertion by Marine commanders that this is a result of killing the enemy. I’d rebut that if previous Marine encroachment into Helmand is any clue, 3/5 is surely giving better than it’s getting in those “408 firefights.” And a change in Taliban aggressiveness and tactics is a result.
UPDATE: It’s necessary to caveat that the British had less manpower in Helmand, and that criticism of tactics or leadership is not criticism of the caliber of British soldiers. Nevertheless, there are persistent differences in both USMC tactics and outcomes in the province.