Marines helping Afghans do things the Afghan way

Marines helping Afghans do things the Afghan way

July 3rd, 2011 by By Marcus Sheffield/Special to the Times Free Press in News

Embedded with Marines

Marcus Sheffield, a professor of English at Southern Adventist University, arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 25 to embed with Marines stationed at Delaram 2, a forward-operating base several hundred miles to the southwest. He observed Regimental Combat Team 8 Marines while they worked with Afghan armed forces.

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Everyone is talking about the end of the war in Afghanistan, so I recently went in search of it.

Marine advisers attached to Regimental Combat Team 8 in Delaram 2, a U.S. base, are trying to turn an Afghan army brigade and an Afghan police department into an effective fighting force.

One small group of sixteen advisers, commanded by Capt. Sean Gobin, is assisting an Afghan brigade headquarters company. An army headquarters company has three main objectives. It plans missions, provides command and control, and supplies battalions (called kandaks) under its command.

However, differences in culture, work ethic, and language constantly hamper the Marines' ability to help the Afghans. The most sophisticated and well trained warriors in the history of the world are up against an almost insurmountable social barrier.

Nevertheless, the Marines showed a nearly preternatural patience and kindness. These tough Marines were actually quite gentle in their dealings with the Afghans.

Gobin's men advise the Afghans on many elements of military organization, from communications and operations to truck repair. They do this seven days a week (a half day on Fridays).

The United States has been helping the Afghans develop a national army for years, but this effort is stymied by centuries of Afghan allegiance to their towns or tribes.

They cannot imagine a unified force acting in the national interest, but unity is what must be created if the Afghans are to resist the constant pressure of the Taliban.

"Just leave us alone," is the Afghan mantra.


In late May, an important operation was about to take place in Delaram. The Afghan National Army, or ANA, and the Afghan National Police, or ANP, were about to attempt something rarely achieved in the Afghan war - they were going to take the lead in retaking a town from the Taliban.

Washir is a small oasis about 60 kilometers from the Marine base. The town is the administrative seat of the Washir district.

Five years ago the Taliban ran many of the residents out of the area and used intimidation and violence to control those who remained.

The plan of the ANA, supported by Marine advisers, was to use the retaking of Washir as a demonstration of what the Afghan people could do all over Afghanistan.

A Marine combat engineer briefed his Afghan counterpart on the upcoming assault. The Afghans were going to clear any improvised explosive devices from the last five kilometers into Washir.

Nothing a Marine adviser says is a command. It is merely a suggestion. The Afghans are free to do exactly as they like. The frustrating thing for the Marines is that they often do exactly as they like.

But in reality this is how the Afghan war will be won. Marines can advise Afghans on what works best, but the actions have to be carried out by Afghans to make the gains legitimate and significant for the Afghan people.

An exact military plan for retaking Washir was discussed and agreed upon among the Marine advisers, the Afghan army and police forces. A careful rehearsal was conducted by the commander of the small number of Marines who would accompany the Afghan army and police to Washir, Capt. Ryan Benson, 1st Kandak Adviser Team.

Here's what happened during the operation:

The agreed-upon time for departure, 5 a.m., came and went. At 7:30 a.m. the Afghans were ready. The Marines said nothing.

A large convoy of Afghan police and army vehicles plus a smaller number of Marine vehicles then headed directly across the trackless desert after leaving the main road. After eight hours of slogging its way through this moon-dust desert, the convoy "harbored up" for the night on a dry river bed, or wadi.

In the morning, start time was 5 again, but the Afghan soldiers and police forces weren't moving. The commander wanted to send for hot chow. He finally compromised with his American advisers, and the convoy proceeded at 7 a.m. The convoy reached the outskirts of Washir at 9 a.m.

Again, the Afghan forces hesitated. The American command urged the Afghans to move forward and take the city, but the Americans weren't in charge. In their view, though, the plan was beginning to come apart.

Finally, at 11 a.m., the Afghans began moving past the Marine vehicles toward Washir. By 12:30 p.m. the city was taken. Not a shot was fired.

At this point the Afghans moved into high gear. They quickly set up sentries and security, taking the high ground in nearly every direction. The Marines moved quietly to the side, parking their huge armored vehicles in a nearby open area that had been checked for IEDs.

Washir was now in the hands of the central government of Afghanistan.

Still, from the point of view of the Marines, not much was happening according to the original plan. For instance, the Afghans were not waiting for all buildings to be checked and cleared for explosives. But the truth was, the operation had been a success.


The Marines have accepted that the Afghans plan and then do what they want to. The Marines have settled for trying to help the Afghans do things their own way. The Marines are not trying to make Marines out of the Afghan Army.

No matter what the American people think or politicians want, this is the only way military success will be achieved in this war. The Marine advisers of Delaram know this.

After the Washir operation, the Taliban disputed the success of the mission on the Internet. That was to be expected. More disturbingly, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan gave a speech in which he lambasted the American-led coalition of forces assisting his government, calling them "occupiers."

This would be news to the Marines, but such statements are merely part of the larger picture the Marines have grown used to. They curse it, and then go on.

An Afghan-born American businesswoman I met in Kabul said that she often tells her people, "Americans have their own beautiful continent. They don't want Afghanistan."

What America does have is a set of circumstances that will not bend to a timetable. Expect American forces to be in Afghanistan for a long time. Patience and persistence are the only hope.