Small Wars Journal

Marines Gone Rogue or Leading the Fight?

At Afghan Outpost, Marines Gone Rogue or Leading the Fight against Counterinsurgency? - Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post.

... The Marines are pushing into previously ignored Taliban enclaves. They have set up a first-of-its-kind school to train police officers. They have brought in a Muslim chaplain to pray with local mullahs and deployed teams of female Marines to reach out to Afghan women.

The Marine approach - creative, aggressive and, at times, unorthodox - has won many admirers within the military. The Marine emphasis on patrolling by foot and interacting with the population, which has helped to turn former insurgent strongholds along the Helmand River valley into reasonably stable communities with thriving bazaars and functioning schools, is hailed as a model of how U.S. forces should implement counterinsurgency strategy.

But the Marines' methods, and their insistence that they be given a degree of autonomy not afforded to U.S. Army units, also have riled many up the chain of command in Kabul and Washington, prompting some to refer to their area of operations in the south as "Marineistan." They regard the expansion in Delaram and beyond as contrary to the population-centric approach embraced by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and they are seeking to impose more control over the Marines...

More at The Washington Post.


Umar Al-Mokhtār

Wed, 03/31/2010 - 8:59pm

Another issue noted was that the Marines should be concentrating on Kandahar, where there is greater Taliban threat. That pundit seemingly ignores the fact that Helmand is contiguous to Kandahar and has proved the softer target. The Marines now have proof of concept in various operational techniques that they can then apply in Kandahar from secure bases in Helmand. If we are going to focus on pop-centric COIN than this is the very essence de la stratégie de tache d'huile.

S-2 (not verified)

Fri, 03/19/2010 - 9:34am

Smoke and mirrors gentlemen. Nobody wants a parochial fight but that's exactly what's going on at this board. Meanwhile the Marines are leaning west into Nimroz while a pop-centric strategy says the people and insurgent center of gravity lies to the east.

Finally, we're sending 3,000 north to Kunduz to pick up the German's slack along a key MSR while the clock goes tick, tick, ticking and our valued resources are dissipated willy-nilly for endeavors unanticipated as part of the grand plan.

It really doesn't matter what we do or who is doing it. It won't amount to a hill of beans when SECDEF is already dropping hints of accelerating our departure from a job mis-identified, poorly started, mal-resourced, and badly finished when we go.

The real party kicks off when we depart.

Maybe our return will be highlighted by mission-focused raid that whacks the bad guys and anybody else whom blinks wrong. Sure will be cheaper than this fiasco.

Ken White (not verified)

Fri, 03/19/2010 - 12:48am

Benefit of several Congressionally and committee designed OPM processes in a Personnel system designed for easy operation as opposed to providing best performers tailored for jobs.

It was designed in WW I, modified slightly for WW II and since has been further modified to be 'objectively' fair to individuals. It generally sort of achieves that goal -- at the terrible cost of being grossly unfair to the Army and the Nation it supports (and a few individuals...).

Risk aversion today is not only an Army problem, it is a societal problem and the Army just reflects and amplifies that. It will require great effort to undo and Congress has to be a player -- or they'll muck things up even more. Yet, the Army has to try to undo the damage or the next big war will not go well...

Hmm. The current war isn't going all that well. Platoon and /or Squad or even smaller sized patrols in combat are dangerous. Those of us who've made a few of those when told that's why they're not generally used sort of scratch our heads. Not necessarily in awe...

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Fri, 03/19/2010 - 12:22am

Risk aversion is the single most nagging problem for BCT Cmdrs--has been since 2003 and will continue to be the single most problem as all BCT Cmdr OERs determine the next promotion.

Part of the problem also lies in the constant rotation of BCT Cmdrs---pre rotation take over, overseas deployment, post rotation handoff---there is never a long period of command where the institutional knowledge can gain traction.

One sees it all the time--a BCT Staff gets finally good at it and then after the rotation is over the BCT literally is gutted and the officers move on to other BCTs or other duties to start all over again.

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 03/18/2010 - 5:57pm

<b>Redleg:</b><blockquote>...Marine and SF counter-parts' ability to conduct the kind of no-notice, small unit missions (whether kinetic or not) that the Big Army just wouldn't authorize.</blockquote>I have heard that same complaint from a number of people who served in both Theaters.

I believe that to be literally a damning indictment of terribly excessive emphasis on protecting the institution as opposed to getting the job done. That syndrome has always existed but in Korea and Viet Nam it did not rise to the levels of counterproductive risk aversion exhibited by too many today.

Risk aversion and parochialism today do more damage to the US Armed Forces than any enemy.

As a Battery Commander (in an Infatry role) who worked on the ground with both Marines and SF, we never had an issue at the Company/ODA level working together, sharing intel, and coordinating efforts. When I moved up to BN S3, the issues came from above, and seemed to be motivated by inter-service/branch rivalries and parochialisms. I was always jealous of my Marine and SF counter-parts' ability to conduct the kind of no-notice, small unit missions (whether kinetic or not) that the Big Army just wouldn't authorize.

Col Maxwell - I was referring to the JFQ 1st Quarter, 2010 issue pages 40-53. Title of the article is Unified Effort: Key to Special Operations and Irregular Warfare in Afghanistan. Please let me know if I'm off base. I think anyone who's been on the ground in OIF/OEF can understand at just a tactical level the difficulty in achieving coordination and cooperations between general purpose forces and special forces. I think it gets even more complicated as you move up the food chain. Appreciate your thoughts. s/f.

pcm030371: Roger, I am not real worried about what the Marines are doing as they are doing good things! I missed the recent JFQ article that cites those figures I went throught the April and January edtions and must have missed it. Can you provide a citation please? Thanks

Dave - Solid point and I mostly agree. I wasn't refrencing the media but a recent article in the Joint Force Quarterly that attributes 80% of all civ casualties in the last year or something to Spec Force operations. Take that into account w/ the command relationships between Spec Forces and the rest of the forces in Afghanistan (although this may have recently been fixed?) and I think you've got some issues that are worthing tackling instead of worrying about what the MC is doing. I would think that if McCrystal wanted the MEB somewhere else they'd be somewhere else.

pcm030371: re your quote:

"We can't stop Spec Op guys from blowing up civilians but we're going to worry about the Marines fighting according to their doctrine (i.e. the MAGTF)."

I think we should be taking all the press reporting on Special Operations being responsible for all or even the majority of civilian casaulties with a grain of salt. Yes there are some sensationally tragic events but I do not think the facts warrant placing all the blame on Special Operations Forces.

I would submit that a signifcant amount of civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban using the poulation as cover and deliberately placing civilians in harms way. But of course this is difficult to explain and prove.

But we will not really know until the entire history is written. Until then we will only see anecdotes and personal perspectives. But before we are quick to blame Special Operations or any of our military forces and those of our Afghsan and NATO allies I think we should examine what is really going on with the enemy and understand their straetgy and how they are manipulating, causing, and exploiting civilian casualties.

Patrick - Based on your comments it sounds like the army doesn't want the Marine Corps to get too much credit. Fold the Marines into army organizations and its an army show and the army gets the good PR. I think the army is upset the Marine Corps got so much positive PR over Al Anbar. I hope your comments are false because you'd like to think we've come farther than that since 1986. We can't stop Spec Op guys from blowing up civilians but we're going to worry about the Marines fighting according to their doctrine (i.e. the MAGTF).

The rumor is that the Commandant, Gen Conway, spoke to Gen Petraeus and McChrystal and asked them, "What are you not getting that you want?"
In other words, if you want some other result, tell the Marines what you want and they will change course. But let us handle it our way. The problem is that McChrystal does not respect, appreciate, or want the MAGTF. He wants to use the Marines in piecemeal fashion in suppport of Army forces.

I heard it second hand. Someone should ask this question of the Commandant.

Brian (not verified)

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 10:36pm

To return to the original posting - this is about the MAGTF. It will continue until other services understand how the Marine Corps is designed, and appreciate the value of it.

Joe (not verified)

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 7:45pm

Three cheers for the rouge Marines, they are at least trying to implement a populace centric approach, while others continue to pay lib servive to the concept.

On the other hand there can be only one operational CDR if we believe in unity of command, so the allegations of rouge seem to have basis in fact.

Not convinced that the area that the Marines choose to focus on is the right area, which seems to be at the heart of the debate, but in theory those arguments should have been worked through before they deployed there. If they shift effort now the people they are protecting will feel betrayed and less likely to support us in the future.

James Harris (not verified)

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 6:27pm


So what does all that mean? That we should deliberately fail? That we should walk away? That perhaps Pat Buchanan, et al, are correct in their proposed aproaches to the world?

The U.S Military, and maybe especially the UMC is too effective for it's own good -- so what to do?

Sdney (not verified)

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 5:13pm

Robert Kaplan describes how in the process of muddling along through intractable situations, the US military has become the master of the possible, simply because they have had to be. Kaplan predicts they may succeed in Afghanistan yet again and that very success will become a poisoned pawn.

The secret to their success, Kaplan says in his article "Man Versus Afghanistan", is that the men in the field have discovered what their political masters have long forgotten: legal concepts are not enough. Governance doesnt just mean installing someone -- anyone -- let alone someone as corrupt as Karzai and recognizing them as sovereign. Governance means the ability to harness a populations aspirations to make things work. To paraphrase Lenins famous observation on Communism, counterinsurgency is the freedom agenda plus competence. And the worst thing about the US military, Kaplan says, is that theyve learned to do it. Kaplan describes how McChrystal has approached the problem and is at some level alarmed at how good at it theyve become.

I learned at JSOC," McChrystal explained, "that any complex task is best approached by flattening hierarchies. It gets everybody feeling like theyre in the inner circle, so that they develop a sense of ownership. The more people who believe that they are part of the team and are in the know, the more you dont have to do it yourself." As Brigadier General Scott Miller, who runs the Afghanistan-Pakistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon, told me about McChrystal and Rodriguezs philosophy: "Decentralize until youre uncomfortable, then scrutinize, fix, and push down and out even further, to the level of the sergeants." Precisely because of the commanders ability to reach down to the junior noncommissioned officers, a flat military organization puts--in the words of one admiral I interviewed--"performance pressure on everybody."

This show of organizational dynamism points to a ground truth: despite the awful toll of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the near-breaking of the Army through the strain on soldiers and their families because of long and dangerous deployments, American ground troops are emerging nearly a decade after 9/11 as a force that is even more organizationally and intellectually formidable than it was after the Berlin Wall collapsed, when the United States was the lone superpower. Army and Marine Corps company commanders, for example, can lead in a conventional fight and, as Kolendas experience showed, also bring order to chaotic tribal and ethnic messes, all while they communicate effectively up the bureaucratic chain (a skill they began to hone before 9/11, in the Balkans). And these officers have mastered what is, in fact, the colonial technique of partnering with indigenous forces molded in their own image. Rodriguezs command is a culmination of this whole experience.

The inability of the West to come up with an comprehensive military, political and economic solution to the challenge of failed states has been partly masked by the acquisition of those skills within the military through experience. Rather than consciously building a combined capabilities team from different parts of society, the nation instead acquired a military staffed with soldier-diplomats and amateur nation builders while they werent looking. The problem is that like all volunteers who have proven good at their jobs, they have trapped themselves in their own success.

But the very dominance of the U.S. military can lead to a dangerous delusion. For the time being, the American media and policy elite are focused on whether U.S. forces can achieve substantial results in 15 months, even though it is a truism of counterinsurgency that there are few shortcuts to victory and you shouldnt rush to failure. Nevertheless, U.S. forces quite possibly will have quelled some significant part of the anarchy in southern Afghanistan by then: this is the sort of challenge our troops have become expert in. Yet that might only lead to mistaking artificial progress for lasting governance. The very prospect of some success by July 2011 increases the likelihood that U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan in substantial numbers for years. In effect, the proficiency of the American military causes it to be overextended. British Major General Richard Barrons, a veteran of the Balkans and Iraq now serving in Afghanistan, told me he learned during the most depressing days in Baghdad that "the long view is the primary weapon against fate." If you are willing to stay, you can turn any situation around for the good. But that is an imperial mind-set, with its assumption of a near-permanent presence, which todays Washington cannot abide, even as its own strategy drives toward that outcome.

What America has gotten, Kaplan says, is a quasi-imperial corps. Ironically, what brought about the revival of the imperial capability was the disinterest of the intellectual elite, who were too good to devote much time to the problems of failed beyond uttering banal generalities. So they left it to the men on the spot and forgot about them. That cut-off may have been just as well because George Orwell claimed that the British Empire had been 'killed by the telegraph.

By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening.

In contrast, Barack Obama couldnt be bothered. It took months for him to talk to his commanders. He approached the problem of Afghanistan with the same enthusiasm as a boy approaching a bottle of castor oil. Content to manipulate political symbols at home he left the conduct of affairs to others as one might leave a load of garbage to the trashman. It was taken out and he attached no significance to that fact. In reality the most significant fact would be if the trash got taken out. But that passed without comment because Orwell also argued that the Left dont do problems. They only do indignation. So when the Best and the Brightest are actually forced to find a solution to a crisis the result is inevitably the Last Helicopter out of Saigon.

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. ... It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a by-product of ruling-class stupidity. ... Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence.

Kaplan is almost afraid America might win. In the contest between Man and Afghanistan, the US military and fate, the former may beat the latter. But that will only make things worse. "Once again, we might be poised to overcome the vast, impersonal forces of fate, even as we contribute to our own troubled destiny as a great power."


Sun, 03/14/2010 - 5:02pm

""We have better operational coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we have with the U.S. Marine Corps," said a senior Obama administration official involved in Afghanistan policy."

Given all the complaining that goes on about NATO nations' caveats, etc, this comment should really embarrass the Army, I would think. This is not to take away from the valor or contributions of many NATO and U.S. Army soldiers, but is rather a jab at the institutional level.

Ken White (not verified)

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 4:17pm

What all the above said. At least someone has conquered the risk aversion that seems to paralyze many. No good deed does seem to go unpunished...

Those carping senior people would be better off fixing their own houses in lieu of dropping IMO cowardly 'leaks.'


Sun, 03/14/2010 - 3:54pm

"We have two companies of Marines running rampant all over the northern half of this island, and three Army regiments pinned down in the southwestern corner, doing nothing. What the hell is going on?"
Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., USA, Chairman of the the Joint Chiefs of Staff
during the assault on Grenada, 1983

Same as it ever was.

The MEB has the initiative that GEN McChrystal has been saying for months that he needed to establish. Now he wants to micromanage them? No good deed goes unpunished.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 3:33pm

For the sake of Afghanistan, I hope these ISAF types are not able to gain more control over the Marines.

Pol-Mil FSO

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 1:16pm

This article demonstrates yet another example of an appalling lack of professionalism by officials who use leaks to fight policy battles. Going outside of the chain of command to air these disputes in public is a self-inflicted wound that only adds friction to our efforts in Afghanistan.

I suspect that some of the comments are motivated by pure jealousy of the Marines as well as a lack of understanding of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) construct. Breaking up the Marine Expeditionary Brigage (MEB) would violate doctrine and degrade operational effectiveness. Instead of anonymous sniping by staff types and armchair observers, the Marine and Navy personnel in the MEB, and their attached civilian colleagues, deserve praise for their accomplishments and encouragement for further efforts to develop creative solutions for the problems they face in Helmand, Farah, and Nimroz Provinces.