Marines with 4th Platoon,
Charlie Company, 1/2 Marines patrol the village of Karamanda in
northern Musa Qala. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.
Part 2 in a three-part series on Musa Qala. For Part 1, see The checkered history of Musa Qala.
ISAF transferred official responsibility for Musa Qala from British forces to the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment in March 2010. The British had relatively stabilized the district center (DC) by the time the Marines arrived, though occasional small arms and bomb attacks persisted. The Taliban continued infiltrating back into significant areas surrounding the DC, intimidating civilians suspected of working with the government, and they outright held villages and compounds at or near the northern and southern edges of the district.
“It was very kinetic when we first got here,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Mike Manning, commander of the 1/2 Marines. “The Taliban had dug defensive trenches, had four discernible lines of troops, and occupied individual compounds and villages.”
Marines waged a 36-hour battle to take Karamanda, a suburb a few miles north of the district center, and engaged in a weeklong fight in the Salaam Bazaar to the southwest of Musa Qala, in the contiguous district of Now Zad. After this initial gasp of regular defense, the Taliban switched to hit and run tactics utilizing snipers and small arms fire for about a month. Finally, the insurgents largely abandoned conventional tactics in favor of their current habit of laying hidden bombs, which regularly explode among American convoys and foot patrols in the rural edges of the district center, as well as roadways transiting the AO.
Security has somewhat improved in the middle of Musa Qala, loosely described as the “downtown” that includes the local bazaar and the densest concentration of mud-daubed residences and businesses. The British had largely secured the populous area by the time the Marines arrived, and the increased tempo of joint US-Afghan patrols since has built on this progress. Occasional shootings and Improvised-Explosive Devices (IEDs) are the main threat around the bazaar, though insurgents had not staged a significant attack for months.
“Two bombs went off in the bazaar [in March and April], each injuring five to eight people,” explained HM3 Erik Marker, a medical corpsman with a civil affairs team. “The first one hit ANA (Afghan National Army) or ANP (Afghan National Police), and a couple of those came in KIA (Killed in Action). The last one, all eight injured civilians were treated [by the Americans] and left the FOB breathing and alive, got them to Camp Leatherneck, and all returned to their homes within a month. But we haven’t had an incident in a while.”
Several days after Marker’s assessment, the long period of calm in Musa Qala’s District Center was broken. On July 4th, insurgents deployed two IEDs in the bazaar. One, strapped to a donkey, failed to detonate before it was discovered and destroyed. A second bomb, filled with ball bearings and 12.7 mm rounds, was attached to the side of a motorcycle and remotely detonated at the market. The explosion killed five Afghan civilians, including two children, and injured another.
The rural areas on the edges of the district remain highly kinetic. Frequent IED strikes target US convoys and foot patrols, and are augmented by occasional small arms engagements. The Marines’ abandonment of Humvees for the exclusive use of Mine Resistant Ambush Vehicles (MRAPs) and their off-road variant, M-ATVs, has proven a dramatic success. Insurgent bombs are capable of destroying or disabling the vehicles, but rarely kill or grievously injure American occupants, beyond inflicting mild to serious concussions. Dismounted patrols however, are suffering killed and wounded from the use of pressure sensitive and Remote-Controlled IEDs.
Efforts are ongoing to secure the roadways and trouble spots, though Taliban infiltration – primarily from the north and east – continues. On the northern edge of the district, Patrol Bases Griffin and Panda Ridge keep significant Taliban forces bottled up in a narrow northern section of the valley, while American surveillance assets throughout the AO have started to make the well-paid job of planting bombs a riskier proposition.
“We are beginning to stop a lot of the IEDs,” said Manning. “We’ve killed quite a few of the IED emplacers.”
And conventional battles are not unheard of in the southern portion of Musa Qala, toward the troublesome Sangin district. Almost three weeks ago, portions of Weapons and Kilo Companies of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, began to take sporadic gunfire and roadside bombs as they pushed eastward into Musa Qala from Now Zad district. A little more than a week ago, the resistance became intense enough to slow their advance near an area called Ladaar Bazaar. In addition to small arms fire, “hundreds of IEDs were built into the walls, because they knew we were coming,” according to Colonel Paul Kennedy, commander of Regimental Combat Team 2, whose area of operations includes Musa Qala.
The Marines flanked around the bazaar, and the Taliban finally made a concerted stand at a village called Regay. As the contact intensified, the 1/2 Marines threw additional forces into the fight: two rifle platoons, two heavy machine gun sections, and an HQ element attacked from the north and east. Helicopter gunships and fixed wing aircraft also battered insurgent positions, dropping several guided munitions.
“As [the Marines] were moving up, they’d see truckloads of [insurgents] getting off to load the treelines up,” said Kennedy. “There was a high value target in there, and they decided to defend. We dropped three 2,000-pound bombs on a treeline that had heavy machine gun fire and RPGs coming out of it.”
After nearly 10 days of fighting, many of the insurgents exfiltrated to the east, and the Marines with 3/7 pulled back west to rest and refit. Several Marines were seriously injured in the engagement, but the losses to the Taliban are thought to have been much heavier.
“By the end of it, [the Marines] accounted for about 100-120 guys [Taliban killed], to include a couple of lower level commanders,” said Kennedy. “In an area where we usually kill one or two at a time, that’s big news.”
‘Hold’ and combined effects
With central portions of Musa Qala cleared and enjoying sufficient forces to increase their operational tempo, the Marines have quickly moved into the ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases of counterinsurgency. Besides taking over the famously contested compound in the center of the population center and dubbing it “Forward Operating Base Musa Qala,” the 1/2 Marines have established 10 patrol bases and observation posts manned by a combination of US Marines, Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and Afghan National Police (ANP) officers throughout the district. The neighboring Now Zad District has an additional six patrol bases, combat outposts, and observation posts.
About 1,350 Marines – including three rifle companies, one weapons company, and one headquarters company – and roughly 500 Afghan soldiers and 200 Afghan cops patrol the two districts every day. The Marines and Afghan security forces typically patrol in concert, to enhance the Afghan training, legitimize both forces, assuage local sentiment about searches by foreigners, and drastically improve the Marines’ effectiveness.
“They see things we can’t see,” explains H&S Company Commander First Lieutenant Joshua Hartley, who regularly leads patrols through Musa Qala. “Just the way that you growing up in a neighborhood know your neighborhood, they know what right looks like, and they know when something isn’t right.”
In addition, the Marine Civil Affairs Group (CAG) teams, in concert with Provincial Reconstruction Teams and private organizations like Spirit of America, are attempting to quickly infuse aid into the area. Projects fall into two categories: small projects under $5,000, and larger projects above that amount.
The small projects require minimal approval or paperwork, allowing junior CAG and regular infantry officers great discretion, speed, and flexibility to assist local civilians.
“They are able to be done quickly and they can make an impact at the local village level,” explains Major Jason Aragon, the team leader of the Civil Affairs Group responsible for Musa Qala. “The Marines at the outlying patrol bases have the ability to vet and pay for small-scale projects without a lot of delay due to approval process from a higher level.”
A number of quick, easier projects have been initiated to try to demonstrate progress and legitimize the American presence. Digging wells, installing electrical transformers, refurbishing mosques and schools, and clearing canals are examples of efforts underway for less than $5,000.
Larger projects inevitably take time, hampered by a frustrating bureaucratic and political nexus of US Military procedure, Afghan government cooperation, and local approval.
“When I got here (in March), the ANA Brigade Commander and I flew in (to Musa Qala) and had a shura with about 200 of their elders,” said Kennedy. “We asked them: give us five projects you want.”
The elders prioritized the following: electricity in the bazaar, a bridge across the wadi, refurbishment of the Grand Mosque destroyed in previous Taliban combat with UK troops, cellphone service, and the paving of several major roads in the area.
Of these, temporary bridges have now been placed across the wadi, electricity was restored in the bazaar via the quick addition of a generator, and roadwork has begun, but the rest of the projects remain in administrative channels, with the mosque refurbishment assigned to the engineers of the British Military Stabilization Support Team (MSST).
“And if they fail to do it in the next few weeks, then I’m going to rebuild it,” said Kennedy.
In addition, some of the improvements have encountered problems when responsibility for the finished product is handed over to the local government. After a generator was installed in the bazaar, DABS, the local Afghan electric company, installed meters and levied fees on the merchants using the energy. After collecting the taxes for a time, several employees skipped town with 80,000 Afghanis (currency), equal to about $1,600 US dollars. This money was slated to maintain and buy fuel for the generator, and Americans are now holding the Afghan government responsible for the issue.
“At the end of the day, the government and municipality took control of the power, and it is up to them,” said Aragon.
ISAF officials walk a fine line while providing aid: failure to show discernible progress will lead to less cooperation from locals in improving security, such as tips on the location of hidden bombs. But backstopping the government when it fails to maintain these improvements can create unnatural and unsustainable dependencies.
“Nothing is easy here,” adds Aragon.
Despite a range of ongoing American projects – small and large – since the Marines’ arrival in March , the efforts haven’t yet widely percolated into the local consciousness. Civilian Human Terrain Team observers responsible for gauging local opinion note that many of Musa Qala’s civilians affect a jaded attitude about international assistance, and do not expect ISAF forces to deliver on their promises. Examples of this sentiment were expressed to this reporter during a recent patrol in the local bazaar.
“They haven’t started in these areas in the time they are here,” said a merchant who declined to be named. “We don’t know about the future, but in the past, we haven’t seen anything from them.”
“No [reconstruction progress],” added another passerby. “They just build a bridge from sand.” [A reference to the temporary bridges Marines have placed across the wadi]
In addition to combating local perception of inaction on reconstruction, the Marines are also facing challenges from the local rumor mill about the nature of their military operations.
“I know the Marines, when they go on some other operations in other places, they shoot innocent people,” said one elderly man resting in front of a shop in the bazaar.
American civilian officials who are otherwise critical of the pace of US military reconstruction efforts reject this assertion, along with the common charge that Marines conduct roughly executed raids in the middle of the night, believing that these opinions are mostly the result of Taliban information operations. Both military and civilian officials note that the Marines have practiced restrained rules of engagement and typically put Afghan Security Forces in the lead when conducting searches, in order to avoid civilian casualties and respect cultural sensibilities.
Certain areas are showing progress, specifically with the small projects, however.
“Right now, we’ve turned on the power in two villages, I have a small mosque project going, we’re getting ready to build a wall around a religious shrine and we’re also getting ready to do some wells in and around the mosque,” said Staff Sergeant Scott McIntire of Charlie Company, 1/2 Marines. These efforts have apparently improved local opinion in the villages of Wosak, Ratatala and Hogalbaba, located to the west of the district center.
An energetic man, McIntire enthusiastically engaged several villagers at an elders’ shura on Monday, explaining to them the difficulty of getting a more expensive mosque refurbishment project started.
“That’s why I came here today, I want to show everyone that I care and I do want to finish these things,” McIntire said to three village elders, in between a consistent stream of friendly stories and jokes. “We want this mosque done more than you know. The time it’s taking is out of my control, but I will do everything I can to make this happen. At the very least, when my time to leave comes, I want to make sure we’ve started on this. I’m trying, I’m trying, but like I’m saying, the paperwork is going to be the biggest hurdle. When politicians and money are involved, it slows down.”
McIntire’s demeanor was well received by smiling elders. An interpreter proactively volunteered an enthusiastic assessment of the staff sergeant’s rapport with the civilians in his area: “He is such a very nice man, and they (the Afghan civilians) love him up there.”
The Afghan security forces and “Project Mujahedeen”
Though individual units vary in quality, the Afghan National Army (ANA) typically receives decent to good reviews from US commanders throughout northern Helmand, whereas the Afghan National Police (ANP) are generally regarded as a much younger, more corrupt, and less effective organization. And aside from corruption and ineffectiveness, Afghan Provincial authorities claimed last year that 70% of all ANP personnel in Helmand tested positive for drug use. Musa Qala seems to be an exception to the wider province’s issues, however.
The ANA soldiers receive mixed reviews from the Marines who work with them on a daily basis, but they are considered an effective force overall. Common issues cited by advisors to the ANA are poor communication and administrative skills, and a notable rate of desertion resulting from pay issues and a harsh lifestyle. The soldiers are paid on time with direct deposit into their bank accounts, but cannot access their money in remote outposts without any banks, like Musa Qala. This makes it difficult for ANA to get the money to their families, and some disappear to return home and access their accounts. In addition, some find the draconian lifestyle and mandatory 12 months away from home without leave distasteful, and never return from their first vacation.
“[They would retain more people] if they just had the basic necessities that any army would want,” explains Major Marius Harrison, who leads an embedded Partnering Team (PT) that works with the Afghan Army to improve their capabilities. “That’s soldiers being allowed to go on leave more than once a year, soldiers being allowed to send money home to their families when their families need it, soldiers being allowed to advance and improve over time.”
The result: though ANA force levels are considered full in Musa Qala, they are actually stagnated at about 80-85% due to the fact that replacement soldiers cannot be requested until AWOL personnel have been gone a full 60 days. On the positive side, the Afghan soldiers are considered tactically proficient overall and are well-led in both the district and at the regimental level.
But in Musa Qala, it is the Afghan National Police who receive a larger share of credit from Americans for the recent, relative stabilization of the local area. This assessment is based on several factors: many of the cops are relatively experienced, according to US officials; they command more respect than the ANA by virtue of being local citizens; and they are well led by District Police Chief Abdul Wali, commonly known as “Koka.”
A former mujahid who fought against the Soviets and the Taliban, Koka is an imposing man with a stern countenance covered in an impossibly thick black beard. He holds a reputation among the populace and the American advisors as an effective police commander, and is considered perhaps the most widely respected authority figure in the district.
“Koka is a local guy, he knows everyone,” asserts Manning. “All the police are local, and very professional, more professional than the Army. People like them because they are local boys and treat the people well.”
American advisors suspect that the Koka and the police he commands do have inevitable personal angles – possibly expressed in the locally common form of taxing businesses – but the advisors have been thus far unable to discern much corruption, believing any incidence is not of a magnitude that compromises the police force’s reputation or effectiveness.
“I haven’t seen any large scale corruption here at all,” asserts Gunnery Sergeant Norman Wesolowski, an advisor with the Marine Police Mentoring Team (PMT). “Officers here get paid on time, and we supervise the payout in cash. Each officer comes in here individually to get it, and they get their thumb print to verify that it is them who is receiving pay. It is counted two times by one officer, another time by another officer, and into the hands of the officer who is getting paid. And as far as shaking people down, we haven’t seen anything like that.”
In addition, police officers claim that Koka beats and imprisons them if he finds that they have mistreated the population, while making sure they are paid on time and treated with appropriate medical care when injured. This has created a relatively well-behaved, extremely loyal police force.
The police in Musa Qala regularly conduct both joint-US and independent operations, including security patrols, searches, and raids.
“When it comes to something that needs to be completed in a day or two, they’re not so good, it’s Insh’allah,” explains Wesolowski, referencing the regional term that can signify procrastination, and literally translates to “It is as Allah wills.”
“But when an IED or [emergency situation] comes up, they have their own procedures, and they are out the door quickly,” he adds.
The ANP in the area have also started a brand-new operation dubbed “Project Mujahedeen” to counter local Taliban influence. A consistent drag on counterinsurgency progress in Helmand has been the Taliban’s effective intimidation of the citizenry after ISAF and Afghan security patrols are out of sight. In a recent example, a local contractor who ran a shop on an American base was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the Taliban two weeks ago.
To combat the inevitable threats, Koka and the Marines have launched the covert project: police officers don plain clothes and insert into the population centers to look out for lurking Taliban. When the Taliban enforcers inevitably show themselves and begin threatening civilians, the undercover cops intercede. Though only two weeks old, the program has gained quick popularity with local citizens, and ANP officers have already killed two Taliban and arrested several more. Project Mujahadeen may prove one of the most effective tactics in the ISAF arsenal, as Taliban infiltrators now fear exposing themselves in the overt intimidation campaigns that have been a historical source of their power.
Next: Part 3, Prospects for stability in Musa Qala: challenges and possible solutions.