Marines of India company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division in Sangin, Afghanistan. Photo by Dusan Vranic / Associated Press.
Bing West files a report from his time embedded with Third Platoon of Kilo Company, Fifth Marine Regiment, in Sangin. His March dispatch adds another anecdote about the issue I raised in January: that the US Marines seem more aggressive than their predecessors in the volatile district, and Helmand province as a whole, and the Taliban react to this difference accordingly [emphasis mine]:
I had embedded with the platoon once before, in January, so the routine was familiar. A point man on a patrol detects one or more IEDs, and then a Taliban gang in civilian clothes usually opens fire. Marine snipers and machine-gunners shoot back, while a squad maneuvers around the flank, forcing the enemy to retreat.
Since September, the Third Platoon has shot somewhere between 125 and 208 Taliban–as many as one enemy killed per patrol. That rate may not seem high, but the cumulative effect has been crushing. Marine tactics, like Ohio State football, have the subtle inevitability of a steamroller.
“We got a radio intercept yesterday,” Lt. Garcia said. “Some Talib leaders in Pakistan were chewing out the local fighters for quitting. The locals yelled back, ‘Marines run toward our bullets.'”
West’s football metaphor and anecdote more efficiently echo my assessment, which was based on my embed in northern Helmand last summer:
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.
Notably, stand-up Taliban resistance in Sangin has lasted longer than “three to six weeks.” This is certainly due to the district’s proximity to the border of Kandahar province and its status as a nexus for the insurgents’ opium trade.