Small Wars Journal

From Tal Afar to Marja: Applying COIN to Local Conditions

Thu, 03/18/2010 - 1:25pm
From Tal Afar to Marja:

Applying Counterinsurgency to Local Conditions

by Bing West

Download the full article: Applying Counterinsurgency to Local Conditions

The seizure of Marja in Helmand Province was the largest operation in the Afghanistan war, conducted by approximately 2,500 American and 1,500 Afghan troops versus 400-800 insurgents. Chris Chivers of the New York Times moved with Battalion 3-6, Mike Phillips of the Wall Street Journal with 1-6, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post with 1-6 and with the brigade headquarters. I went up to Now Zad, began the operation with 1-6 and spent most of the month in southern Marja with Task Force Commando, comprised of 40 Marines and Special Forces and 400 askars and police. Marja marked my third embed with Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) units.

The basic question is whether the seizure of Marja was sui generis, with few techniques of general applicability, or was an example, like Tal Afar in the Iraq war, with wider implications.

Let's look at what happened, why, and what carries forward?

Download the full article: Applying Counterinsurgency to Local Conditions

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has made two dozen extended trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of The Village and The Strongest Tribe, he is currently writing a book about the war in Afghanistan.

About the Author(s)

Bing West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration. A graduate of Georgetown and Princeton Universities, he served in the Marine infantry. He was a member of the Force Recon team that initiated attacks behind North Vietnamese lines.

He wrote the counterinsurgency classic, The Village, that has been on the Commandant's Reading List for 40 years. His books have won the Marine Corps Heritage Prize, the Colby Award for Military History, the VFW Media Award and the General Goodpaster Soldier-scholar Award. He has been on hundreds of patrols and operations throughout Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Bing is a member of St. Crispin's Order of the Infantry and the Council on Foreign Relations.


Thanks, Bob. Appreciate the SITREP and insights as these are the kinds of reports we do not see in the mainstream press.

Bob's World

Sun, 03/21/2010 - 10:01am

Brig Gen Nicholson impresses me on a regular basis. I don't agree with everything the Marines do, but they couldn't have picked a better commander for this mission.

This story hints at an even greater story that is lost within all the flash and glory that accompanies most Marine operations. It is probably no accident that the very word begins with "M" ends with "E"; and has a big ol' "I" right in the middle.

But three hours before the Marines boarded their aircraft to head into Marjah, the ready companies of both the 3rd and 6th Afghan Commando Kandaks (Afghan for Battalion) were inserted, along with their formal partner Special Forces ODA, to clear two critical objectives identified by Brig Gen Nichols. Not only did they clear, but then held for 3-4 days, pushing out the perimeter into what was essentially a massive mine field of IEDs, under heavy fire; all the while engaging the local populace as only fellow countrymen can.

The story gets better for those who see the future of Afghanistan in the future of its security forces. Attacking north into Marjah to relieve the Commandos was not a Marine, or even a British Infantry Battalion. Attacking north into Marjah was the 3/4/205 Infantry Kandak of the ANA. Also formally partnered with a Special Forces ODA, these Afghan soldiers know that where ever they go, their ODA will be right there with them; a conduit to enablers such as ISR, MEDEVAC or fires, and source of advice. It is a fine line between getting so far out front that you disempower your partner's leadership, or so far behind that you are merely mentors. ODAs strive always to work in that sweet spot.

That was over 30 days ago. 3/4/205 is just now coming off of the line. A better unit than when they went in, and rightfully proud of their role in Marjah. A Kandak that from the Kandak staff down to Platoon plans and leads its own operations, and who stood shoulder to shoulder with their US Marine brothers and held up their end of the bargain.

I'll take nothing away from what the Marines accomplished in Marjah. In fact an MRAP company even was attached to and worked for the 3/4/205. But the real story for the future of Afghanistan is with these three Kandaks that opened the door to Marjah at H-3, and then held it open for the duration.


Fri, 03/19/2010 - 1:36pm

Excellent article.
Why not say afghan soldier, instead of askar?
The Marines may be providing basic training for personnel who will put on a police uniform, but they are not "training police", which implies at least some LE training, which they are not capable of doing.
I am surprised that the author claims the police are under the NDS. Elements--especially ANCOP--may be placed OPCON to NDS operatives for missions of greater or lesser duration, and prisoners are turned over to the NDS, but the police work for the MOI through the district/zone chain of command (no comment on the effectiveness of that chain of command). The coordination with NDS and ANA goes through (at least theoretically) the Regional/Provincial Coordination Centers.