Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Marjah in the long view

Now that things have settled down a bit, I thought it was time to visit the operation in Marjah. I am going to stay away from the Tactical side and try to work the Operational side. First, a quick

First thing is to understand the context of the operation in light of how we got here, why now, and its place in the larger Operational Design.

Geographically, the reason to move into this part of Afghanistan and Helmand is obvious from orbit. See that rare swath of green in the satellite photo on the upper right? That is the area around Marjah. Where you find green, you find people. Where you find people, you find your Center of Gravity.

Now look at the close-up picture on the left. For those who have followed the AFG campaign for the last couple of years, I have put a couple of names up there to jog your memory and put Marjan in context of the campaign for the Helmand River Valley from the "Fishhook" in the south moving up to Marjan, Lashkar Gah, Sangin, on to the Kajaki Dam to the NE, and then the heart of Uruzgan Province where the Dutch and Aussie play.

If you remember back in '08 with the 24th MEU first stuck its toe in the waters in Helmand, this is a logical progression in Helmand. The British and other allies in "Helmandshire," the Danes and Estonians mostly, never had the forces they needed to properly secure the population in Helmand. As the USMC arrived in late '08 and through '09 as part of the US forces uplift, there were finally the right density of forces to do what was long been understood needed to be done.

This area is "Indian Country," a large internal safe-haven for the Taliban. Though everyone knew that COIN 101 did not allow large internal safe-havens, without the forces needed to clear them out - you just had to deal with it. There are other safe-havens in AFG - but you can't get them all --- all in due time.

You also need to keep in mind that this goes well back into '07 and was refined and established in '08 by Gen. McKiernan in the framework of "Shape, Clear, Hold, Build" (SCHB).

When it became clear that NATO had culminiated in late '06 through '07 and the US needed to move in as soon as forces became available, the critical failure to address the internal safe-havens became too obvious to ignore. The lack of Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, in number and quality, was also seen as a critical failure. Just to get NATO to admit that fact was a challenge - and in the end the USA just did what needed to be done and NATO played catch-up as we changed the facts on the ground and took back the keys from an Operational Planning POV in late '08 early '09.

Let's go back to SCHB (you can also see it defined as Shape, Clear, Hold, Build, and Transfer). What you are seeing in Marjan is the end of Shaping and the main body of Clearing. Those are the easy parts. What comes next is the Holding and Building.

Holding will require ANA and ANP at the front - but with a lot of NATO backup to start. If that is done right, then the Hold process can begin ..... and Hold can go on for years and years - as will the Build. Build will begin when you have a safe and secure environment that will allow International Organizations, Governmental Organizations, and Non-Governmental Organizations to do what they do best. Sure, military Civil Affairs are great - but it is the IOs, GOs, and NGOs that will make it happen in the long run. IO, GO, and NGO cannot lead - the military has to create the conditions for them to operate, hence Marjan.

That is where number of forces come into play. This is where we as military professionals tried & failed. At the in-theater Operational side of the house; McChrystal's predecessor McKiernan, and McKiernan's predecessor McNeill - and on the Strategic side of the house Stavridis' predecessor Craddock; all failed to push the political side of the NATO house to admit that there was not enough and produce. They all tried - and in a fashion McKiernan succeeded in getting additional forces. But it took too long as IRQ needed to be fixed first and we put too much faith in NATO keeping its word.

As a result, years were lost. They all knew that more was needed - but we failed in that we let hope - hope that NATO could do what it promised - blind us to what good military practice told us what was proper.

As a result, things got away from us a bit. When we realized that it was time to take back the keys - something covered here through '08 and '09 - we knew that it would take 18 months to get enough additional forces to start to repair the damage. The Taliban grew - their safe-havens got stronger. The job got harder.

Did we pivot in time? I think so, if, and I repeat, if we have the strategic patience to do what needs to be done. This is at least a decade long process. We cannot go home starting in JUL 11 at the same rate we started going home from Iraq in late '08. AFG is not IRQ. No more than Long Island is Mississippi. Actually, Long Island and Mississippi are twin brothers compared to AFG and IRQ.

Watch Marjan and then watch the next move from there. Don't get caught up in the tactical part of the story too much - that leads to short-term thinking. The Marjan operation will take years to go through the SCHB process. There will be more Marjans.

Our Marines in the South, Army in the East, and the scattering of allies about the country can and will do their job if our Center of Gravity will hold. Where the Operational Center of Gravity for the Taliban and NATO is the people of Afghanistan - remember where our Strategic Center of Gravity is - Washington DC for the USA and Brussels for NATO (throw in Islamabad for AfPak if you must).

That is where you need to keep your eyes focused. The political JUL 11 is a significant weakening of the foundation for victory - yes I used the "V" word - watch how that developes. As some are retreating from the JUL 11 date - others are doubling down.

We will win Marjan at the Tactical and Operational - but it will be for nothing if the Political-Strategic collapses.


Sim said...


CDR, we're Aussies, plural.

cdrsalamander said...

"Where the deer and the antelope play .... "

Not antelopes.  

It's an American song reference/play on words.  Google it, mate!

X BradTC said...

Excellent post, 'phib. I'll be stealing from this later.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Sal, fine post.  You have asked the overarching question.  Do current policy makers and elected officials have the patience, forbearance, and clarity of vision to see through to success (victory!) the efforts required in the "fishook" (Marjah and Laskar Gah) and similar places?

Not now, but past June 11th, and past 2010, our Military, our Allies, the Afghan people, the Taliban, AQ, our potential enemies, potential allies, and the entire rest of the world will be watching.  Their reactions to America will depend very much on what they see.

AW1 Tim said...

Excellnt post, CDR. You did, as URR points out, hit square in the black as to the strategic view of things.  That, of course, is the big weakness in our system, as our political leaders often are strategically-blind. Many couldn't care less about what happens in Afghanistan, or anywhere for that matter, unless it impacts their election chances.

Sim said...

The instant you guys (or rather your CinC and CoC) seem to lose the stomach for this I support the withdrawal of every Digger on the ground.

We went to war at your side, then PM John Howard was in DC at the time and pledged what could be given would be, we have had caskets come home. I'm sorry but a half arsed effort will not cut it with me.

Between giving our Queen an iPod with his own speeches, giving Gordon Brown (who is going blind) a collection of DVDs and then dithering over whether 30,000, 34,000 or 40,000 was the correct number of troops while Poles, Canadians, Germans and my countrymen were fighting and dying.

At the miliary level it will be made to work, and we will always take our place on the flank (preferably with the USMC).

Your leadership, no. And I would not give a single Digger for that.

ewok40k said...

For the first time since many months I actually see a winning strategy - destroy the safe havens, one at a time... while buffing up the ANA and police until it can hold its own. Those who suggest the Vietnam outcome, forget there is no regular NVA here to make offensive after US and allies  leave. Ofcourse the big IF is IF the political leadership in DC will hold.  Here in Poland despite unpopularity of the war everyone save few excommunists is supporting the effort. Ghazni where our task force is stationed is not Helmand, but not the quiet north either, so I think we do our share.

YNSN said...

I think we do have the stomach for seeing this through.  I know everyone I am with does.  Obama plays the fence all to much and it's costing him friends from the left.  But, I think he knows what is at stake here in AFG.  We got a pretty good solution to Iraq, and now we need a better one here in AFG. 

What might be able to save him, politically, is that AFG is no where near as sexy as Iraq was.  The far left doesn't know how to bitch about AFG like they did Iraq.  So, I don't seem them harrassing him on the issue far to much.  Further more, he was given the freakin' Nobel Peace prize... So, they will buy him some points in many peoples eyes. 

As a man I think he can stomach it, and I think he listens to his military.  At least he seems to be better at it than the last Democratic president. 

The biggest thing I wonder about though, is how this damn time line he put out is going to play through.  I doubt many of the extra bodies we got are going anywhere anytime soon.

Old NFO said...

Good point, considering our record over the last 35 years trusting the US to do the right thing is a lot to ask.  

After winning the Viet Nam war, and getting everything we fought for at the Paris peace talks in 1973, Democrats in congress reneged on our promises to the Republic of Viet Nam in 1975.  Millions died in SE Asia as a result and many more millions were "re-educated."  

After beating Saddam's army in 1991 we encouraged the Kurds in Northern Iraq and the delta dwellers in the South to resist Saddam.  G H W Bush left them with no support and huge numbers died.  

If our current president and VP had been in charge in 2006 we would have abandoned Iraq to the insurgents and anyone who sided with us would be dead or a refugee by now.  

If I were an "ally" of the US that record would weigh heavily on me too.

OnceAMarine said...

YNSN, I will preface my remarks by reiterating the respect I have for your service.  With that being said, I must differ with you when you state "..As a man I think he can stomach it, and I think he listens to his military....".  Please, this is the guy who refers to a doc as a "Corpse -man".  He hasn't got a clue which end of the tube the round comes out of, and he views our fallen brothers as no more than a photo op.  NCA is an empty suit - a narcissist who doesn't know what he doesn't know - and he's surrounded by sycophants of the same genre.

YNSN said...

<span>I'm sorry.  But, thinking like that sounds defeatest to me.  I can not fault a man for choosing to devote his life to things outside of the military.  His staff should have saved him from that.  He might not have an extensive military understanding.  But, the way he handled events of off Somalia, and the way he handled getting extra troops into AFG demonstrates to me that he listens.  I doubt he is the most liberal member of his own administration.  I am sure he had members of his team vehimently demanding that no additional troops be sent in; that just the opposite, a pull out was necessary.  However, he decided to send me and my friends out here the help USFOR-A said we needed.  He also kept our SECDEF in place.  He has made good decisions.  Furthore more, we are now looking into putting our ABM radars back into Europe, a reversal from his first year in office.    
Just because someone was not cut of the same military jib I am, or we are, does not mean that they can not make sound decisions when it comes to the Military.  To dismiss him because of anything else but this short track record is not right.  Even in something less than best case, AFG may well be close to over before Obama leaves office... Well AFG as it is now any way.  
Everyone talks about him, but no one mentions all the things his wife is doing for the Military.  Every commercial break is her talking of what the administation wants to do for vets, and this and that.  It seems like she took point on these matters for the Adminisrtation.  
You're allowed to differ with me dispite my service.  My words here are aisde of my service.  It would be wrong to use that as a hedge in a debate.  I do not mean to sound harsh in calling thinking 'defeatest'.  But, in looking at our NCA as an empty suit.  How else could we do anything but loose?</span>

UltiimaRatioRegis said...


I also respect your service, but there are considerable numbers of smart people who would tell you that the surge in AFG sould have come many months earlier, except for the dithering of the CINC.  And that the situation off Somalia with Maersk Alabama unfolded contrary to CINC's wishes. 

While he may do what is politically prudent, such as keeping Gates and Mullen, he is no friend of the Military or its mission. 

For more than a year, people inside and outside his administration told him that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon.  He ignored them, and extended an olive branch to Ahmedinejad that was viewed as a sign of naive weakness.  Today, his own SecState has finally come to the conclusion, like Chamberlain in the last century, that we have been most dreadfully deceived. As if A-jad's shrieks of hatred toward America and vow of destruction of Israel wasn't enough.  Nor his securing of Russian IADS and S-300 AAMs to protect his enrichment and weapons production. 

My hope is that he will not be knocked unconscious by his coming head-on collision with reality, and does what needs to be done in defense of this nation.  But my confidence in that is far lower than it has ever been, even under Carter, whose weakness and impotence vis a vis America's enemies (including Iran) and eroding of our defenses have to this point been the bottom marker of the scale.

MR T's Haircut said...

I believe this administration has weakend us even further by giving up the missile defense radars in Poland and Czech republic.  He condemns Isreal while doing nothing to Iran.  He has unilaterally and without preconditions gave in to russian demands. 

He cut the military budget including the F-22 and has nothing to invest in strategic defense. 

He has placated Veneuzuela, and Cuba. he has weakened our core committments and has demonstrated his lack of understanding of our threats, by attempting to criminalize the terrorists and try them in civilian courts.  He has weakend our ability to gather actionable intel against unsuccessful terror attacks.

In short, he can't lead his way out of a burning Wal-mart....

MR T's Haircut said...


you show perfectly the results... I didnt vote for him if that matters....

UltiimaRatioRegis said...


I'd be more than happy to have you fellas on my flank.  Especially if you could score me one of those fantastic slouch hats. 

My Dad served with Australian 9th Div in New Guinea.  Thought a lot of you folks.

X BradTC said...

I think Obama isn't particularly hostile to the armed services. But I think he finds all this foreign policy stuff and war stuff a great distraction and quite annoying.

As for Michelle making PSAs, that's about par for the course with them, lots of talk... not so much on the action.

UltiimaRatioRegis said...


The people CINC surrounds himself with, including SecState, are hostile to the military.  Many others eyeball the defense budget as a reposite for funding of yet more social programs.  So, as Ahab said, "Be he agent or be he principle..."

YNSN said...


You needn't EVER feel the need to reassure me that you don't belittle my service by debating my point.  This is the Sir's front porch.  Anyone who speaks here does so in good company.  I would never take what you have to say, or any of the regulars, as coming at me against my service.  Furthermore, I never will use my active service as a hedge in any debate.  I might say that I had first hand experience with something, but that does not elevate me in any sense beyond the first hand experience.  No worries, I will never feel my service has been denigrated short of someone coming right out and saying "You're a jack*** for serving!". Which frankly, I know would never happen on the Sir's front porch.

Sim said...

The only one I have at the moment belonged to my grandfather who fought in New Guinea.

Sorry, but you can't have it.

LT B said...

To say we were deceived is hilarious.  Anything that comes from the Muslim world has been pretty much out there.  They tell us what they are doing and we ignore it.  It is like we are playing against Lombardi's Packers and have decided that they are deceiving us every time they run the power sweep. 

The current administration came into the job w/ a disdain for the military a lack of understanding of the military and strategery coupled w/ a naivete born from the liberal teachings on American imperialism and silly Marxist approach to enslavement through welfare. 

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Yeah, but LT B, we WERE deceived!  We didn't think he MEANT IT!  :(

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Sounds like your Grand-Dad and my Dad slogged some of the same jungle trails.  Here's to 'em!

SCOTTtheBADGER said...

When the Iranian mushroom cloud climbs into the sky above Isreal, the Progressives actually will be shocked, as they truly belive that everyone thinks as they do.  I just am dumbfounded that such a large number of people can be so willingly self decieved, in the face of such overwhelming proclomations of intent by our enemies.

SCOTTtheBADGER said...

I doubt that they do, they are far too wrapped up in themselves, and getting thier own way, to ever consider the long tange consequenses of thier actions.  The '60's generation is now at the age where they are the ones in charge, and they are convinced that nothing of any import happened before they came on the scene.  They were told as students, that the world had never seen a better educated generation then them, but they heard it as the world having never seen a more intelligent generation.  As Puck says in A Midsummer Night's Dream, " Ah, what fools these Progerssives be"! 

UltimaRatioRegis said...

<span>"dumbfounded that such a large number of people can be so willingly self decieved, in the face of such overwhelming proclomations of intent by our enemies."</span>

The progressives make a habit of it.

OnceAMarine said...


Defeatist?  Never.  I am secure in the knowledge that ultimately we will be victorious.  How do I know?  Because of who we are.  Success in battle has nothing to do with how many show up, but rather who they are - and regardless of what the MSM and the current administration's spin docs say to the contrary, we are still the last and best hope for mankind.  We produce men like yourself, my sons, my brothers, my father, cousins, uncles, my grandfathers, the men on this forum and all the men we've ever served with - in short, good men who know what is right and are willing to fight and die to see it done.  My concern with the present Administration is that their collective lack of experience and their disregard for the lessons of history can only lead to a higher cost to achieve victory - and we here know the cost is enumerated in the lives of our brothers in arms.  Turn the glass and strike the bell...

YNSN said...

I concur Sir, completely.  Well said.  It is only semantics that we disagree on.

I read a Zen proverb the other day:  Once rabbit is snared, the snare doesn't matter.   Once the Fish is caught, the hook doesn't matter.   Once the idea is understood the words do not matter.

ewok40k said...

In the end, what matters is if the cat is catching the mice, regardless of cat's color. And I see mice being caught in this operation.