Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?
November 7, 2011
The arrival of US Marines and the American surge: 2008
We’ll stay in 2008 for this section.
British forces maneuvering in Sangin, under fire, but on the attack. Photo credit: Jamie Wiseman. Presented by ToryAafrvarrk
As you have seen, the British forces in the Sangin valley region fought hard and with great valor, but their government had been faulted by a wide variety of expert sources for failing to provide the troops enough men and equipment. Furthermore, you have seen evidence of some dispute over British tactics. Whatever the case, the British clearly needed help, the Afghan War faced troubles in many other locations in the country, and the US decided to surge some 30,000 new troops into the battle. The first to go in were the US Marines.
Tracking Allied activity in Helmand now starts getting a bit more tricky. In this section, we will bring in the US Marines in 2008 and then go to the next section where British forces and the US Marines worked together in the Sangin area.
The Marines had led the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But they did not remain, with Iraq taking a greater priority. The 3-3 Marines deployed in 2004 to the Korangal valley in Pech Province, northeastern Afghanistan. They remained until 2005, and left.
Conway got his way.
The US 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) out of Camp Jejune, North Carolina began deploying to Kandahar province in February 2008, where it set up its headquarters. Its ground-base core was Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1-6 Marines, infantry. In this photo, you see the 1-6 Marines sort through their gear after arriving in Afghanistan in early March 2008. The 24th MEU deployed approximately 2,400 service members under NATO ISAF command to conduct full-spectrum operations in southern Afghanistan
The 24th MEU was the first MEU deployed to Afghanistan since 2004. Normally, an MEU is embarked on an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), but in his case it was sent to Afghanistan as a 2,200 strong Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF), meaning it had infantry and aircraft, operating in the main from land and not from the ARG’s ships.
The 24th MEU was under overall ISAF command, the latter led at the time by General David McKiernan, USA, though it also supported OEF, in what respect I do not know. The point to be made is that ISAF and OEF were still separate.
The 24th MEU’s mission was to conduct counterinsurgency operations (COIN). The 24th commenced combat operations in April 2008, moving en masse to Garmsir, Helmand Province on April 29, 2008. This was the first large-scale American military operation in Helmand in years.
The 1-6 Marines concentrated a good deal of time in south eastern Helmand, protecting and clearing the road from Garmsir south to the Pakistani border. Here you see men from B/1-6 Marines fighting in Garmsir.
Garmsir was located about 80 miles south of Sangin. The Marines worked closely with Task Force Helmand led by the British 16th Assault Brigade. They also operated in neighboring Kandahar Province. The road was important to the Taliban because it provided a means for transferring their forces from Baluchistan, Pakistan up to northern Helmand, and a means to move their opium out.
I want to highlight here that by December 2007 the British and Taliban had reached a stalemate and indeed had set up a de facto border on the banks of the Helmand River. The Taliban outnumbered the British and were receiving reinforcements from Pakistan. The Brits did have air and heavy artillery on their side, however.
When the 24th MEU arrived, the 1-6 Marines were sent to Garmsir to reinforce the British. They attacked the town on April 28, 2008 along with the British from the 16th Air Assault. Together they took the town and then pushed southward. The fight lasted more than a month. By September 8, 2008, the Marines returned control of Garmsir back to the 16th Assault.
In addition, the 2-7 Marines, also infantry, arrived in Afghanistan in about March 2008, from Twenty-Nine Palms, California. Interestingly, the 2-7 Marines were not part of the 24th MEU, but a separate entity. They deployed to Sangin, Gereshk, Musa Qaleh, Now Zad and into parts of Farah province.
At some point downstream in their deployments, the 2-7 Marines joined up with the 24th MEU.
The 2-7 Marines were to train Afghan National Police (ANP). They fell under Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), led by Major General Robert Cone, USA. The CSTC-A was a multi-national NATO military formation headquartered at Camp Eggers in Kabul. Its primary role was to train and develop Afghan security forces, both the Army and the Police. The 2-7 did their training, I believe, out of Lashkar Gah, located between Sangin and Garmsir. Here you see LCpl. Joshua S. Bunn, F/2-7 Marines demonstrating to ANP recruits firing positions with the AMD-65 in early June 2008.
Those 2-7 Marines not involved in training ANP concentrated on eight districts: Sangin, Musa Qala, Nahr-e-Saraj (Gereshk), Now Zad, and Washir districts in Helmand province as well as Deleram, Golestan, Bala Baluk, Bakwa and Farah districts in Farah Province. Here you see a group of them patrolling the streets of the Sangin bazaar. Photo presented by The Tension.
The E/2-7 deployed to Sangin to lend extra manpower to the Brits, long overdue. Fortunately for them, the Brits briefed them well on what to expect.
The 2-7 implemented what it called a Combined Action Program, CAP, using small units running their own offensive operations bringing along the police for training as a partner force. Quite often, theses small units operated far away from their home base at Camp Bastion. This program was begun during the Indochina War.
Since their arrival in April 2008 and through mid-June, the 2-7 lost 14 Marines, eight of whom were killed in action in one week. This photo shows LCpl. Joshua D. Mayor, a squad automatic weapon gunner assigned to Company E/2-7 posting rear security while his fire team was stopped during a patrol near the Sangin District Center. Photo presented by The Tension.
I mentioned earlier that the 2-7‘s small platoon size units and their ANA partners could be a long way from home base at Camp Bastion. Lt. Colonel Richard Hall, commander 2-7 Marines, tried to minimize the problems created here, but he did call it the “tyranny of distance.” His Marines were spread out to be sure. In one case, 65 Marines were attacked by 150 enemy. The only fire support available consisted of air power, much of which was supplied by an aviation unit attached to the regiment. Those 65 Marines fought off the enemy and luckily suffered only two wounded.
During their first contact, the enemy ambushed them in a cemetery behind the Bazaar with medium machine guns, automatic weapons, RPGs, and indirect fire. The Marines maneuvered as they are wont to do and blocked the enemy’s way out of the fight. The enemy then took up secondary firing positions, the Marines sent out a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and along with the ANA attacked the enemy’s flank, causing the battle to end.
But the enemy then implemented a “shoot and scoot” tactic. At the beginning, the fighting was largely gunfights, but then the IEDs became the biggest enemy. The Marines believed that the enemy switched to this approach as it realized how fast the Marines would maneuver, and rapid maneuver was vulnerable to IEDs. Their first four casualties were killed on June 14, 2008 when a military vehicle was hit by an IED.
The Marines and ANA were aggressive in patrolling the area, and joined with the British on several operations where together they could do a number on the enemy, mostly through rapid movement and maneuver to contact.
One other interesting observation while they were there. Some Marines commented that the enemy was commuting to work. They would be in a safe haven, then drive in and attack, set off some IEDs, and then go back to their safe haven.
The E/2-7 Marines remained until late November-December 2008. Overall, they had experienced about 3-4 “significant events” each day, with their worst fighting in August as had been expected.
The Marines responded to more than 100 IEDs during their six months in the Sangin area, and made considerable progress learning how to dismantle increasingly complex IEDs that were specifically designed to kill the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) Marines and soldiers. They left frustrated, turning back their area to the Brits, but with a sense they had made major contributions to the security of the area and in interacting with the citizens.
Dan Lamothe, a staff writer with the MarineTimes, wrote this on November 5, 2008 about the 2-7 Marines:
“Deployed to Afghanistan since March, the battalion has fought off ambushes in lawless areas of Afghan wilderness, traveled bomb-laden roads and experienced more casualties than any other unit in the Corps this year.”
Particularly telling in Lamothes’ report was a comment made by Lt. Colonel Richard Hall, commander 2-7 Marines:
“As the regions across which 2/7 operated differed vastly, there is no solution or project which will work across the board ... The most important thing we could do was listen to what the people needed and wanted.”
This comment provides great insight to the matter of Sangin: heavy fighting since 2006, it’s now late November 2008, and, the most important thing our Marines could do was listen to what the people needed and wanted.”
Perhaps this is what the doctor ordered. Only time will tell.
British Operation Herrick VIII and US Marines set up Camp Leatherneck