HELMAND PROVINCE, Forward Operating Base Sangin, Afghanistan --
A Marine squad on patrol through a local bazaar comes under fire from a small element of enemy fighters.
Before the Marines have a chance to effectively engage the enemy, the insurgents break contact and disappear into the warren of narrow alleyways on the far side of the bazaar.
When the Marines of Company E, Task Force 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Afghanistan, initially began operating here in June, contact with the enemy was very much “shoot and scoot,” said Capt. Matthew M. O’Donnell, Echo Company commander, and Glenelg, Md., native. Contact would normally be with a fire team-sized element and last only two-to-three minutes.
“They would engage our guys, try to inflict casualties and then break contact,” said O’Donnell who has prior experience serving in Afghanistan.
Headquartered in the Sangin District Center of Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley, Echo Marines operated in one of the busiest areas of operation within TF 2/7’s battle space. Prior to arriving in theater, the Marines had prepared for a conventional fight with the enemy. O’Donnell said he and his Marines were well prepared for the fight of their lives after having received several briefings from British forces also operating in the Sangin area.
Echo Company’s very first contact with the enemy was a slight aberration to the shoot and scoot tactics O’Donnell referenced. The enemy ambushed one of his squads in a cemetery behind the Sangin Bazaar with medium machine guns, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and indirect fire. During this engagement, however, the insurgents stayed in contact for awhile. It wasn’t until the Marines threatened the enemy’s egress route that the insurgents broke contact from the original firing positions and took up secondary firing positions and continued to fight. Echo Company sent out a quick reaction force and coordinated fires with the Afghan National Army (ANA), moving in on the insurgent’s flank before they attempted to break contact again.
“That was our first contact. From what we had seen and been briefed on Sangin and the Helmand River Valley, our mindset coming in was very much set on preparing for a stand-up kinetic fight,” O’Donnell said. “The British forces that came and briefed us in the States while we were at Mojave Viper said they had been involved in multiple hour engagements at distances ranging from 50 to 400 meters.”
“That’s what the Marines were prepared to deal with,” O’Donnell continued. “So, when the shoot and scoots started happening, it was really frustrating. We had been trained to establish fire superiority and then begin to maneuver.”
“We knew that there had been an increase in the use of IEDs in Regional Command South,” O’Donnell said. “We didn’t expect such a high volume. I spent an entire year here as an advisor, and in that year, the units I worked with dealt with 25 IEDs. Our Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) responded to numerous IEDs within the first 30-45 days of being here. Overall, they dealt with more than 100 responses. That’s just in our area.”
August brought the beginning of the peak fighting season. This follows the time period when the poppy harvest, which takes place in May and June, is sold and the money comes back to the insurgents to be used to purchase weapons and ammunition. The weapons, ammunition and fighters are generally in place about the same time each year, which happens right around August.
Echo Marines were used to three or four significant events a day, as Sangin was regarded as the busiest district across the task force’s area of operations. As expected, Echo Marines experienced their worst round of fighting during August.
“Initial contact was a lot of gunfights, but it flipped over to IEDs pretty quick,” said Cpl. Clarence B. Smith, a squad leader and Teague, Texas native. “Once they realized we were going to maneuver on them immediately and not going to tactically withdraw and drop mortars on them, they switched to hitting us with IEDs.”
Around the same time, Echo began to work with their coalition partners and begin to use each other’s strengths to take the fight to the enemy. North of Sangin D.C., there was an area controlled by the ANA. The ANA was aggressive in patrolling and attempting to establish a presence, but they lacked the firepower and ability to coordinate movement of fires in the attack. So, Echo Company coordinated with the British and ANA forces in two separate movements-to-contact operations. During the first operation, the company advanced through 8-to-10 foot high cornfields, and had three sustained engagements over a span of three hours.
About two weeks later, the Marines again teamed up with British and ANA forces for a movement-to-contact operation in the same area. As coalition forces were picking up momentum, the Marines had already maneuvered on the insurgents.
“The operations went a long way in picking the morale of the company back up,” O’Donnell said. “We were able to use the skills and the ethos that are unique to the Marine Corps, our aggressiveness, and our ability to coordinate supporting assets in support of maneuver under fire. For the young Marines to be able to lead fire teams and squads aggressively in combat, that’s what they had trained to do. So, it felt good for them.”
“We had been very aggressive in patrolling,” O’Donnell explained. “We had done cordon and search operations, and we knew we had pushed the enemy out of his operating area prior to this. But, we just hadn’t been able to bring them to bear in battle; we hadn’t been able to say we killed six guys today. That may sound trivial, but that means a lot to the infantrymen on the ground -- to know at the end of the day that there are a few of those guys who are never going to fight us again.”
Echo Company started finding that they were fighting a commuter insurgency. The enemy fighters were not remaining in the same place. They were keeping out of range of coalition forces. O’Donnell said the enemy was driving into “work,” shooting at coalition forces, blowing up IEDs, and then driving back out to their safe havens.
As Ramadan came into play, enemy kinetic activity started to die-off a little bit. Even after Ramadan, there was very sporadic activity, even to the point where EOD didn’t respond to an IED for nearly a week.
O’Donnell said Sangin is a difficult place to measure whether success has been made or not. The typical success Marines look for in a fight are the number of insurgents killed, weapons caches found and the number of detainees taken. But, if the patterns of enemy activity are taken into account, the enemy’s ability to attack the Marines consistently with effect has been greatly diminished.
However, the enduring metrics of success in a counterinsurgency fight and measured in more intangible ways, like the willingness of a population to accept rule of law and governance, and begin to take charge of their own future.
“Sangin is probably the most frustrating district as far as progress, yet the Marines have found ways to make invaluable contributions to the overall security situation,” O’Donnell said. “Even though the overall picture may not look as good as we want or those who are responsible for security here want it to look, it would look far worse if the Marines hadn’t done what they’ve done.”
Echo Company is not unique among the Marines who came to Afghanistan, as all Marine forces serving here are looking for contact with the enemy.
“When in contact, it’s very much a case of having to hold the dogs back. They want to go! These guys are aggressive; they’re controlled, but it’s what they train for and it’s what they want to do,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve been pretty impressed with them. This is far more challenging terrain to fire and maneuver in and to keep up deliberate attacks in than anything at Twentynine Palms (Calif.) Because of vegetation, your ability to command and control, see adjacent units and positively identify enemy positions is extremely difficult. So, the work that these squads and fire team leaders are doing is absolutely amazing.”
Staff Sgt. Kyle W. Lockhart, platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon and Tabernacle, N.J., native said all of the Marines were performing flawlessly.
“The Marines’ reaction when IEDs were struck or found was flawless,” Lockhart said. “The experienced squad leaders and fire team leaders who really knew what they were getting into took care of the Marines the right way. There is a lot of natural leadership and ability in the platoon that we didn’t see before coming over here that we definitely see going home.”
“I can’t speak highly enough of everybody in the platoon,” Lockhart added. “I’ve never had a sense of pride like I do with this group of Marines. Having deployed before with other units, this is by far the most professional and toughest group of guys I’ve ever worked with.”