Video: The Battle for Marjah + Comment

Yesterday, I posted the video below on the forum. I did so because it is a useful video to illustrate military operations in Helmand Province,  Afghanistan, and the conditions.

I am putting it up here on the blog and adding comments. It would be easy to watch the video uncritically and have the simple ‘Facebook-style’ reaction of “USA! USA! Ooraah Marines!” which isn’t really useful to anyone. I have three main areas of comment.

1)  The Company Commander. I liked this guy, he seemed to be doing a good job. The comment is this: At the beginning, when he gave the pre-operation speech to his men, he made what I consider to be an institutionalized mistake by US military commanders: he told his Marines, after all the planning and rehearsal, to simply forget the plan. So why have a plan? Why not just get off the helicopter and play it on the fly? The importance of the plan is that it provides a framework of understanding. Along with a mission and unifying purpose, which gives intent, then if the situation changes, troops will know how to react. No plan will work perfectly, and we expect flexibility and ‘adapt and overcome’ but the existence of a plan gives a set of conditions that we can work towards, despite any changes.

Let me put that in other terms, considering that I am currently engaged in building a barn. The intent and end state is a barn, looking like a certain design. We have plan, with a timeline, orders of materials, sequence of build etc. That gives us our initial plan, in line with our intent. Will that plan change? Yes, when for example we can’t get exactly the right material at the right time, or we decide on a variation of the originally envisaged design, perhaps as a result of difficulties encountered during the build, weather etc. That is called being flexible and developing the situation, in line with our intent.

So yes, a plan is not rigid, and the situation and the plan must be developed where the rubber hits the road of implementation. But we still need a plan starting out. I think it is a mistake to denigrate the plan like that just prior to stepping off. Anticipate flexibility, and reaction in line with overall commander’s intent, yes. Say the plan is worthless, no, and why bother then?

2)  Patrolling. If you occupy a static defensive position, you must patrol the surrounding area. Is that patrol action now a risk in itself? Of course it is, so it comes down to your training and skill at patrolling. Patrols will keep the enemy off the base, preventing a lot of what we saw in the video, such as the sniper hitting the 4 marines at the compound. I realize I couldn’t see everything that went on, because it was an edited video, but it was my impression that until they went out the the roof of the remote building to conduct the fighting patrol, they were not doing much, or any, patrolling.

The Brits have perfected this patrolling technique since Northern Ireland. You must send out ground domination activity (GDA) patrols. The basis of this is the satellite patrol, conducted by a ‘multiple’ which is a half platoon in 3 x 4 man teams. Given the situation on the ground in Marjah, if I was the XO/CO planning patrols, I would have considered 3 x 4 man team patrols inadequate due to the numbers of enemy in the town. Minimum would be 3 x 6 man team patrols, moving as a satellite patrol. I cover the technique of satellite patrolling in many posts, one here: ‘CUTT Maneuver: Patrol Formations & Actions on Contact.

Given that the Marine squad is 13 men, already designed like a ‘multiple’ in 3 teams, you could combine 2 squads to provide a patrol of 4 x 6 man teams. Alternatively, if the threat is assessed as higher, with large numbers of enemy in the town, then the patrol can consist of a whole platoon, with 3 x squads making the satellite formation. Given that there are, in basic terms, 3 x infantry platoons in a company, you can send out 2 x platoons to conduct independent but mutually supporting satellite patrols, while the third platoon remains at the defended location as a ground holding element. These are just examples that can be task organized to match the threat/situation.

The satellite patrols will now be subject to ambush, IED and snipe. This is where patrolling techniques and training comes in. Where a satellite patrol is moving with 3 x mutually supporting elements, these elements will overwatch each other and respond to contact against any one of the other elements. Constant 5 and 20 meter checks have to be conducted while patrolling, and for example, if a team is doing a  route check for IEDs, other team(s) can be in overwatch positions  on buildings (sniper elements can also be employed, dropped off covertly from the patrol as it moves). It is a game of cat and mouse where patterns must not be set, and the enemy must be kept guessing. This will put the enemy on the back foot, and make it harder for him to conduct snipe and mortar operations against your defended location.

In the video, rules of engagement and micro-management prevent the customary use of air support ‘call for fire.’ This is despite technology (drones) allowing detection of enemy at range. This is all the more reason to go back to low technology skilled patrolling. In fact, it is the refusal of the air strike that eventually moves the company commander to send out the fighting patrol to the remote rooftop to engage the enemy with small arms fire, which proves to be eminently successful.

At some point in the operation, vehicles arrive obviously after having cleared the route in. With vehicles you have the ability to conduct foot / mobile combined patrols, which increases flexibility.

3) Treatment of indigenous troops. This is appalling. It is not even really an question of ‘cultural sensitivity’ but is in fact a question of poor team / human relations. We get it, the Marines do not respect the ANA. We can all laugh at the ANA, from ‘afghan jumping jacks’ all the way to tactical incompetence. I have been involved in training and operating with both Iraqis and Afghans and believe me I know the problems. Given that, the constant yelling and pushing through the doors just isn’t going to work. The “sit down” command to the ANA soldier. Did you see his ‘smile?’ The Marines may not have realized it, but this is ONE of the causes of green on blue incidents. We are not talking about deliberate infiltration here, but just Afghans who have their honor personally offended and lose it.

I don’t care what you think of Muslims, Afghans, terrorist incidents in the United States, whatever. This is not the same thing. If you are working closely with these people in their country, you have to do it differently. Yeah, so they are often incompetent, but that is not the rule, and there are ways and means. Just don’t get in front of them in a firefight!

I wasn’t able to embed it, but here is a link to a video with a different approach to working with the ANA, which comes from the same time that I was working in Helmand: ‘On Patrol With The ANA.