Small Wars Journal

Clear, Hold, and Hope

Progress in Afghanistan Gets Rockier - James Kitfield, National Journal

Lt. Col. Kent Hayes knows all about the blood, sweat, and excruciating effort needed to lay the initial security piece of the counterinsurgency puzzle. The rangy executive officer for the 24th MEU explains that the Marines' original plan to act as a roaming strike force in Helmand had to be torn up after the first battle with the Taliban. The enemy unexpectedly stayed and fought fiercely for more than a week rather than relinquish Garmsir. An estimated 400 insurgents died. Marine commanders immediately realized that the town was a critical resupply and logistics hub for insurgent operations throughout the province.

"Our original mission was to act as a quick-reaction force for the ISAF commander in Kabul so he could throw us at any escalating crisis in this area," Hayes says. But Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, understood the strategic importance of Garmsir and instead ordered the Marines to stay in the town and implement a classic counterinsurgency operation of "clear, hold, and build." Hayes says that his troops are "not normally in the business of owning ground, but I guess you could say we've rented Garmsir for a while."

After clearing the town of insurgents, the marines held it by establishing routine neighborhood patrols to keep the Taliban at bay. The MEU's civil-affairs unit reached out to the district governor, tribal sheiks, and local imams in Garmsir and the surrounding region, organizing the first shura -- or traditional governance council -- that the area had seen in three years. Local leaders were empowered to pick and prioritize development projects.

With improved security, the Red Crescent humanitarian organization moved in with aid for 1,400 displaced families. The marines, using their own money from the Commander's Emergency Response Program, launched small reconstruction projects: digging wells and repairing irrigation canals; delivering medical services; rebuilding damaged homes; even buying a new speaker system for the local mosque.

The Afghan Civilian Assistance Program, which the United Nations and the US Agency for International Development support, started longer-term projects.

Within weeks, an abandoned bazaar reopened and was swarmed with shoppers. By late summer, nearly eight weeks had passed without the 24th MEU having a single contact with Taliban insurgents, whom the locals were increasingly —to identify for the Marines.

Hayes is unequivocal in naming the key to the 24th MEU's success in Helmand province: "It's a real simple concept -- we learned during this mission that the best way to combat this type of enemy is to mass forces and stay. We actually replaced a small British force that was spread thin trying to cover too much ground with too few troops. Instead, we flooded a town that was strategically important to the enemy with overwhelming forces. That's the way you can win this kind of fight -- with boots on the ground."

Much more at The National Journal.