Marines push south in Operation Dagger

Click map for full view. Taliban presence, by district, in Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Helmand provinces. Information on Taliban presence obtained from open source and derived by The Long War Journal based on the presence of Taliban shadow governments, levels of fighting, and statements from ISAF commanders. Map created by Bill Raymond for The Long War Journal. Last updated May 26, 2009.

The US Marine Corps has established a new combat outpost in southern Helmand province to block the Taliban’s movement from the Pakistani border and deny the Taliban a safe haven.

Combat Outpost Payne is “the farthest south Marine Unit in Afghanistan,” said Captain Chris Annunziata. “Everything that happens south of the river depends on us.”

Payne “will serve as a logistical center for all operations that will eventually take place south of the river along the border with Pakistan,” the US military reported. Another combat outpost is planned for the region. The Marines have yet to secure the district center of Dishu, southwest of Khanishin.

The establishment of Combat Outpost Payne, which overlooks the city of Khanishin on the Helmand River, is part Operation Dagger, a massive operation designed to secure the southern half of Helmand province. The Marines took control of Khanishin during the first day of Dagger.

Coalition and Afghan forces “are entering areas where few – if any – coalition forces have been in the past,” the US military said in a press release during the opening days of the operation.

“Helmand province is a stronghold of the Taliban, and the coalition mission is to secure the area and make it safe for Afghans to live without the threats of militant groups,” the US military continued.

Operation Dagger and its sister operation, Panther’s Claw, went into full effect on July 2, when more than 4,000 US Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers were air assaulted into the districts of Nawa, Reg, and Garmsir.

Weeks before, more than 3,000 British, Danish, Estonian, and US troops from Task Force Helmand had laid the groundwork for Dagger by seizing 15 river and canal crossings along the Helmand River between Gereshk in Nawa and the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The move was designed to block Taliban forces from crossing the river as well as to secure the local population in the heavily populated Lashkar Gah – Gereshk region.

In a complementary move, the Pakistani Army arrayed forces along the border in the district of Chagai, according to Major Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman.

“We’ve mustered more troops from the other areas of the border” and put them along the border with Helmand province, Abbas said. “It is sort of a reorganization.”

During the past six days of fighting, Coalition and Afghan forces have met relatively little resistance from the Taliban. Although US Marines killed an estimated 30 Taliban during a single engagement, the Taliban by and large have “gone to ground,” said Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the commander of the more than 10,000-strong Marine Expeditionary Brigade operating in Helmand. Only one Marine and three British soldiers, including a battalion commander, have been killed during fighting in the operation.

Coalition forces have been careful to avoid causing civilian casualties, following the directive of General Stanley McChrystal, the newly-minted commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. This approach has its complexities, however: In a recent engagement, a group of Taliban fighters escaped while wearing burkas after a compound was surrounded and an interpreter convinced the Taliban to free women and children.

Dagger is the opening phase of a larger operation to secure southern Afghanistan

While the operation has been hyped as being the largest in Afghanistan since the US invaded in late 2001, the reports are incorrect. The operation is the largest air assault by the Marine Corps since Vietnam. Operations Medusa and Mountain Thrust during the summer of 2006 involved tens of thousands of troops and spanned Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan provinces. The Taliban lost hundreds of fighters, but were able to regroup in neighboring provinces and sought safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Baluchistan.

Operation Dagger has the somewhat limited objective of securing the southern half of Helmand province. The Taliban still maintain safe havens in the districts of Naw Zad, Nad Ali, Baghran, Sangin, and Washer; and numerous districts in Kandahar and Uruzgan are still under Taliban control.

Naw Zad, Nad Ali, and Baghran are known to host Taliban and al Qaeda training camps. While Dagger is designed to cut off the southern routes to these northern districts, the Taliban will still maintain supply lines from the east and the west until more forces are pushed into these regions.

Dagger and Panther’s Claw are “foreign heavy and Afghan lite”

The composition of the forces for Operations Daggar and Panther’s Claw highlight serious shortcomings in the growth of the Afghan security forces [for more information of the development of the Afghan security forces, see LWJ‘s Afghan Security Forces Order of Battle (OOB)].

The Afghan Army is thin in the south. Only 650 Afghan soldiers are accompanying the more than 7,000 Coalition forces in both operations.

“This operation is foreign heavy and Afghan lite,” a US military officer involved in the planning of Dagger told The Long War Journal. “We must get more Afghan forces involved for this operation to be credible in the eyes of the Afghan people, and to sustain this over the long haul.”

With the NATO command’s change in the rules of engagement to further limit civilian casualties and respect cultural sensitivities, searches in compounds must be conducted by Afghan, not Coalition, troops. And there are too few Afghan troops available to conduct these searches. The Taliban fighters who escaped in burkas did so partly because Afghan troops were not available to conduct the required searches of those leaving the compound.

There are also too few members from the US State Department and USAID to follow up the military operation with development and governance programs. According to some reports, there are only two members of the State Department in Helmand. The US is planning to surge a dozen or so more members to augment the development.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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