Small Wars Journal

Insurgency Disruption for the Warfighter

Fri, 08/03/2012 - 5:22am

 Marine returning from OPERATION TECUMSEH, where Lima Company lured a Taliban squad into an ambush and destroyed them. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Lima Company, 3d Battalion 1st Marine Regiment operated in Safar, Garmsir District, Helmand province Afghanistan from August to November 2010.  Safar was previously a Taliban held stronghold until Operation ROADHOUSE II began on July 31st of that same year.  In the three months that Lima Company operated in Safar we came to refine our understanding of counter-insurgency.  Eventually we molded a traditional clear, hold, build strategy into what can be described as "local" disruption.  This article will attempt to explain what disruption in an insurgency and Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (IED) warfare is.  Titled "Insurgency Disruption for the Warfighter", this is intended to complement another article titled "Insurgency Disruption for the Planner." This document will focus on disruption operations for junior leader level tactics and planning.  Disruption for the Planner focused on theoretical broader based aspects of disruption in counterinsurgency and counter Improvised Explosive Device (IED) warfare. 

SAFAR and disruption development

Operations in Safar revolved around the deliberate clearing of key terrain (a bazaar) and then the gradual expansion outward.  Following the deliberate clearing operation which took several weeks, we adopted a company campaign plan meant to counter the Taliban's “Strategic disruption” by merely doing it in reverse at the lowest level possible.  Enemy strategic disruption can be understood as the enemy seeking no real tactical victory against the Marines, but rather a long term degradation of national will and resources to fight by inflicting routine losses to men and material.  Instead of following the basic counter-insurgency tactic of Clear, Hold, Build we created a separate phase prior to clear and referred to it as "Disrupt." Staff Sergeant Matthew Jackson, Explosive Ordnance Detachment team leader, Lima Company reported, "The enemy was counting on us (Lima 3/1) using the standard reactionary tactics that they had grown so accustom to exploiting. Operations in Safar focused on ridding the area of enemy fighters, owning the territory and not mimicking the standard gain a foot hold and chasing ghosts through a minefield tactics."[1]  Adopting disruption had as much to do with Lima company's location on the battlefield as it did our assessment on enemy strategy.  That location would prove to be physically suited to disruption operations.



Figure 1.

Lima Company's AO was located at the Southern edge of the Battalion AO as depicted in Figure 1, with it and the area beyond controlled by Taliban.  Each of the four maneuver companies from 3d Battalion 1st Marines were aligned in AO's from North to South with the south extent of the AO yielded to the Taliban.  The Battalion incrementally pushed further and further South, taking away previous safe-havens from the Taliban.  The battalion continued to stretch its presence further South gaining ground, but not gaining additional manpower.  By Lima Company seizing the furthest AO, which included a large expanse of uncontested Taliban territory, a "disruption" company campaign plan was almost a necessity.  Progressing further into the Battalion AO, companies could weight more heavily on Hold and Build whereas closer South they would need to Clear and Hold more.    Opting for "disruption" as a company campaign plan differed from the norm but was still within the "spirit" of COIN doctrine.  Some could say it strayed from conventional wisdom, however conventional wisdom is not always the best way to fight an unconventional war. 

Lima Company cleared only a few hundred meters of ground in the Safar AO.  The key terrain was the Bazaar, which was approx 500m by 600m including a residential district.  This clearing took weeks to complete and came at the cost of one Marine killed and two wounded.  The clearance of the bazaar is of itself an entirely separate battle study.  The execution of that clearing entailed everything from fire hoses to Mine Clearing Line Charges (MCLC's), to stray animals slapped on the back running down alleyways.  The adoption of disruption as our company campaign strategy occurred once the bazaar was cleared and we needed to push further into the AO.  Several outposts were built on cleared small objectives East to West cutting across the AO as the company intended to sever the green zone (rural farmland in the Helmand River valley).  Prominent high ground was seized, cleared and overloaded with snipers, heavy machine guns and 60mm mortars.  Our disruption strategy centered around ambushes.  The Taliban moved in the mornings and never at night, therefore we set up ambushes at night and waited for their movement in the mornings.  Captain Marcos Ruvalcaba, First Platoon Commander for Lima Company noted that, "The tactic was simple; get behind enemy lines, bait the enemy out of their compounds, we ambush them from the flanks where we were least expected."[2]   Every patrol would be within range of multiple crew served weapons systems and snipers placed on  high ground. When a patrol got contact and needed extra firepower, the patrol leader would mark the enemy with smoke and talk-on fires, which could achieve full effect usually in about 30 seconds.  This mini campaign plan of "disruption" was more accurately described as "deer hunting" tactics.  First: don't get caught. Second: if you can kill an enemy, do so.  Third: if the enemy gets the drop on you,  get fires from the company down on them fast!  Patrols would not be in the villages nearly as much as patrols further North in the Battalion AO because Lima Company was a disruption force. 

Fighting an insurgent with insurgent tactics means occasionally putting aside traditional Marine Corps tactics.  You would be hard pressed to find a leader of Marines who believes you respond to enemy contact by anything other than fire and maneuver against the enemy. To use insurgent tactics against the insurgent, you must often disregard conventional wisdom and become devious and underhanded.  A good disruptor in an insurgency is not the man ready to fight the tough guy at the bar.  He is the guy who apologizes to the tough guy, goes outside and slashes his tires.  As stated earlier, we believed the enemy's objective in Afghanistan was to inflict casualties, therefore, to counter that, the main effort should be avoidance of those casualties and let time and numbers do the work to defeat the insurgency.  In Safar, Lima Company learned to refuse the enemy bait.  When the Taliban fired on Marines first, it was because THEY had the advantage.  The enemy either had a terrain feature between them and their targets, or had IEDs set precisely where we would counter-attack.  They most assuredly had a motorcycle nearby to aid in their withdrawal from the heavily armored and nearly heat exhausted Marines in the attack.  So why attack?  It defies logic to suggest a person in the kill zone of an ambush should remain in place and take advantage of better marksmanship skills and possibly heavier firepower.  Of course, if that unit repeatedly conducted monotonous and predictable daylight patrols over and over affording the enemy hours of scouting and preparation, then the chances are the Taliban would outgun them anyway.  However, there are always exceptions.  Firstly, any Marine element taking contact should have heavy machine gun or mortars in support within a minute.  This fire support alone can end the firefight.  The unit in contact should remain in position and engage them while taking advantage of the superior range and optics of our weapons over theirs.  While this is occurring, other units from other locations should slowly and methodically snake their way into a position to engage the enemy or set up an ambush on a point where the enemy will likely move through upon disengagement.  A Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to the engaged unit should only be used for critical situations such as, casualties or the chance of being overwhelmed.  The best thing a higher commander can do for a unit which is pinned down is overwhelm the enemy, not send him more targets.  Getting this mentality into the Marine psyche will probably be a point of contention for some as it is not in our traditional culture.  As a Corps of warriors, we pin medals on leaders’ chests who fight battles, not ones who prevent them from ever happening.  Which kind of leader is truly best suited for a counterinsurgency? I am not advocating a "search and avoid" mentality which one could easily read into this.  I am advocating that disruption in an insurgency achieves results with brains more so than testicular fortitude.  One can only achieve overall victory in any war with boldness and courage however achieving victory is NOT in the definition of disruption.  Insurgency disruption is a phase on the road to victory.

Safar was at the far edge of the battalion’s battle space, therefore Lima Company relied on disruption to allow the main efforts to clear up North.  In doing this we were able to employ our company 60mm mortars cleared at the company level.  These mortars combined with heavy machine guns always within range of a patrol, enabled fire superiority and gave the advantage to us.  Gunnery Sergeant Patrick Fay, Company Gunnery Sergeant for Lima Company noted that, "40mm HEDP and heavy machine guns quickly diminished the enemy’s will to attack and would often drive them off shortly after they initiated contact with dismounted troops."[3]  Fire control measures must be more precise than the standard requires.  A squad leader in contact does not have the advantage of being as precise as a low intensity conflict would allow, so use of precision targeting equipment back at the command post is essential.  Firing the first shot as an illumination round is the best safety net for poor math.  What if the patrol or operation goes outside of heavy machine gun or 60mm range?   If out of range, then do not go there!  That is the mentality of insurgency disruption.  You do not have to be everywhere.  You just need to inflict damage on them while incurring none on yourself.  Overwhelming responsive fires by company organic weapons made any engagement by the Taliban a no-win situation for them.  This limits their ability to inflict casualties to IED emplacement.  With a safety umbrella of fires over your forces and a mentality NOT to charge into the guns, Marines can operate in ways better suited to avoid IED’s. 

Avoid the IED

 "The volume of IED use increased significantly from FY 2009, alongside an increased CF operational tempo."  Just as in Figure 2, Draw a circle in the middle of a piece of paper.  Then from the outside of the paper draw lines toward the circle with the intent of never crossing a line.  Inevitably you will cross lines.  It would be impossible to think with the ever-decreasing space toward the circle that you could avoid crossing lines forever.  Substitute the circle for any village in Afghanistan and the lines for every patrol toward that village.  Just as in the paper exercise it would be naïve to believe that patrol routes to one single stationary piece of terrain do not cross in the course of any battalion’s seven-month deployment or every other battalion prior.  This logic may seem insultingly elementary to some, but it is the crux of IED fight:  Do not go where the IEDs are! 

Figure 2.

"Insurgents also continued elevated targeting rates of dismounted forces due to the increase of dismounted operations by CF forces in support of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations." Not going to where the IEDs are usually entails us going to the worst terrain possible simply because it is not worth planting an IED there.  Trudging through canals and flooded marshy areas is taxing physically, but effective tactically.  An IED emplacer will use the logic associated with the paper experiment to choose where to locate his IEDs.   The closer the lines get to the circle/village, the more likely the line/patrol will be on or near the same place more than once.  This is the best place an insurgent can invest his time and risk his life to emplace an IED.  The closer you get to the circle/village, the more likely you will find IEDs.  The farther away from the circle/village, the less likely a line/patrol would cross its own path, and would therefore be a poor investment for an insurgent to look to emplace IEDs. 

"Because we are taking the fight into former safe havens, the number of IED incidents against dismounted troops has increased by more than 50 percent since last year. And although the number of effective attacks has remained constant, the severity of injuries from these effective attacks has increased." The IED is a nearly perfect insurgent tool which guarantees its continued presence on the battlefield in the future.  The IED is smart, cheap, and limited only by the imagination of every individual IED maker.  Unlike a mine, it does not require an assembly line.  It is smart and can chose to discriminate or be indiscriminate.  It also learns and evolves in order to maintain its lethality.  Worst of all it is patient and will lie in wait for long periods of time.  The IED does have its share of vulnerabilities some of which are technical.  The American people are very technology driven and as such we have looked to science to solve the problem of the IED.  Science alone will not solve the IED problem.  IED’s are merely tools which support our adversaries’ tactics.  To neutralize the effectiveness of the IED we must counteract that tactic.  A disruption campaign is perfectly suited to reduce the effectiveness of IED's not only for the force conducting the disruption but also for adjacent forces clearing, holding and building.  Disruption tactics facilitate the elimination of IED emplacers, and by putting an emphasis on avoiding IEDs they become irrelevant.  By avoiding the IED you reduce the chance of taking casualties from them.  Moreover while conducting disruption operations against an insurgent force, you can expect to find or identify IED locations.  This information should be considered an opportunity for the disruption force.    

Every IED should be viewed as an opportunity, especially if the IED is located on a road or trail, because someone is probably activating and deactivating it daily.  Too many Marines, upon discovery of an IED, will immediately begin the process of destroying it for no other reason other than “That is what we do.”  This is a slavish adherence to traditional clearing tactics methodology.  Disruption tactics call for different actions.  There are a multitude of options available when "disrupting" in an IED laden environment.  Depending on the campaign plan, or tactical objectives, you could leave the IED in place and develop the situation to your advantage.  Ambushes can be set or snipers emplaced to observe and eliminate the IED emplacer when they check on it.  That single IED can become a long term endeavor all by itself.  One option is that you can have Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) render it safe and hope someone down the line can exploit it.  Possibly that IED emplacer will be caught someday and spend SOME time in prison.  With the disruption option, you can spend a few weeks focusing your operations around that IED enduring time consuming and exhausting ambushes and maybe kill the guy who put it there.  Even if you do not kill the guy who emplaced the IED, you can still end up starting the rest of the process of exploitation later. 

Killing IED emplacers puts a heavy psychological strain on Taliban forces.  As IED emplacers begin to vanish from the battlefield, they usually take with them the knowledge of multiple IED locations because they do not often tell others where they placed the IEDs.   Capturing the IED emplacer is still a good tactic within the spirit of insurgency disruption because it removes him from the battlefield.  If you kill the IED emplacer after he arms a number of his IEDs, then it is only a matter of time before civilians detonate them.  As unfortunate as this is, it is also a reality for which we must be prepared.  According to Captain Alan Franke, Third Platoon Commander for Lima Company, "The Taliban knew we set in ambushes at night time, so they started to leave the IEDs on all the time, which started to bring the local Afghans to our base to give us the tips.  The Taliban eventually were afraid to fight us in the Safar area."[4]  Have your Information Operations (IO) machine ready to blame the Taliban for putting the IED there in the first place and you can win a victory from it after a civilian casualty.  Removing the IED when you will not maintain a 24 hour presence on the area is futile.  You will only encourage the back-laying of additional IEDs.  Removing an IED to “lure” a back-lay while you have an ambush ready, is thinking with disruption tactics.  An IED should only be removed from the battlefield to support a campaign plan or scheme of maneuver, not for the sake of just removing it, or even the naïve belief that you’re making the area safer.  The area will only be safer when the Taliban are too afraid to walk in it.  The Taliban will only be afraid to walk in an area they repeatedly die in.  The long term effects of exploiting IED's are without question successful in the overall fight and should not be forgotten.  The question for the leaders running small campaigns in their AO's is at what times do they choose to exploit and what times do they choose to wait and develop their situation?  Differing leader personalities will dictate the answer.   

Additionally, do not forget that EOD Marines frequently die dealing with IEDs.  If you believe that an IED must be removed, then you acknowledge it is worth losing an EOD Marine over.  If you are inclined to believe that any particular IED is indeed worth losing an EOD Marine over, first rehearse saying that very line in the mirror looking at yourself the way a widow or child who lost their husband or dad might be looking at you.  If it does not sound right as you say it, then perhaps it is not worth doing.  A key to disruption tactics is confusing the enemy as to where you are.  By patrolling and removing IEDs in your area, you practically provide the enemy with checkpoints of your presence.  This does not mean avoid risk, but a leader should invest as much thought into a risk as others are investing their lives.  This rationale is applicable to all Marines in an IED heavy environment.  An EOD team should not be invested in removing any IED as part of a routine "battle drill" with no forethought to why it is needed or what can be achieved.  The same can be said to sending any Marine rifle squad out on patrol merely because a patrol has not gone to a certain village in a while.  With insurgency disruption, a battlespace owner may chose to "yield" ground if it supports an overall campaign plan.  More often than not when attempting to conduct disruption operations, yielding ground in order to frustrate the enemy is the preferred tactic.  A leader may also chose to "risk" in disruption at times, but only when it supports the overall campaign plan.    

Marine leaders cannot be blamed by an inability or unwillingness to buy into the above-mentioned ideas of disruption by “avoiding “ the  IED altogether.  Marines are always a product of pre-deployment training.  Lima Company’s pre-deployment training (in regards to IEDs) fell short of what was needed.  This shortcoming was not due to funds or time but of the mentality of the trainers.  Marines from Lima Company, like so many others from the First Marine Division, prepared for Afghanistan through the Engineer Center of Excellence on Camp Pendleton.  Among the many training events the center put our company through, I recall the IED lanes best.  The Marines walked down a trail trying to spot (futilely) the IED simulators and then react to them after they were "blown up" in a spot that no IED emplacer would waste a device on.    The entire training instilled the wrong lessons in the Marines by walking down a trail looking for the IED.  They should have been learning to avoid the trails, roads, crossing points, and other likely IED areas thus diminishing the numbers of IEDs they would be seeing.  One cannot train a Marine in the function of defeating IEDs when it contradicts the higher concept of how to defeat IEDs in a counterinsurgency.  It is training them on Techniques and Procedures, but failing to educate them on Tactics.  Better lessons were learned in Afghanistan when EOD Marines would sit on a piece of ground and talk logically with Marines about that area in front of them.  EOD would show Marines where they would “want” to emplace IEDs and help them analyze the terrain.  Additionally, they would dig into the ground and make the Marines understand that not every spot is desirable or even practical for IEDs.  The Marines were taught to think like an insurgent, rather than learn to react like every other counterinsurgent. 

No piece of technology can replace good tactics and smart planning.  Nor can any piece of technology make up for poor tactics and bad planning.  No amount of good tactics can make up for poor planning and poor leadership.  Expensive tools provided to Marines run the risk of becoming a crutch to ingenuity and drive.  One example of these “double-edged sword” gadgets is the Compact Metal Detector.  In 2010 the CMD was falsely understood to be the magic bullet of counter-IED warfare and every patrol needed them.  Just as a seatbelt is no substitute for safe driving, a CMD was no substitute for good tactics.  Unfortunately as explained earlier, good tactics will not make up for poor planning or leadership.  The CMD became a psychological force field to point men who moved too fast, confident that the gadget would protect them.  When those patrols go out on repeated daylight patrols, giving the enemy the opportunity to observe and plan against them, that point man will encounter more and more IEDs in his path and increase the chance of missing one.  Even with a vigilant point man and an experienced squad leader, good tactics do not make up for poor planning.  If that squad is repeatedly sent to the same villages, doing the same key leader engagements over and over, their good tactics will be negated by thorough enemy planning and emplacement of IEDs.    

A true believer in disruption tactics that turns the insurgency against the insurgent will understand that the Marine on point will only be marginally effective if there is lackluster planning.  The Marine on point will only delay the inevitability of hitting an IED with his gadget if the plan he is operating under is marginal and poorly conceived.  A plan is obviously wrong if action outnumbers thought on the battlefield.  In the case of a counterinsurgency the action (numerous patrols) can outnumber thought (nested task and purpose to a long term higher endstate planned over hours or days). The technological battle between enemy and Marine will continue to go back and forth.  The side that shows the most ingenuity will eventually win the counter-IED fight.  Ingenuity is cheap, so much so that it is almost the enemy of technology.  You can spend millions on super gadgets in an attempt to help you defeat IEDs or, you can avoid the IEDs, sit in ambushes, and be in no rush to win the war.  Which do you think the enemy wants us to do?

A Marine with a Holley Stick (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Technology is not necessarily a curse.  More often than not it is the route which technology comes into the hands of Marines that is the problem.  When the Marines executing the operations are given an opportunity to help select that route, they usually experience great success.  One example is the “Holley stick.”  On 6 August 2010 during a deliberate clearing of Safar Bazaar, an Engineer was killed and two EOD Marines were wounded by a non-metallic IED that had gone completely undetected by several Marines.  In just one instance, our CMDs became obsolete and only 20% of the bazaar had been cleared.  Lima Company immediately halted clearing operations and held a meeting with all personnel who had a stake in clearing operations: platoon commanders, EOD, engineers, route clearance etc.  One EOD team leader named Gunnery Sergeant Floyd Holley passed on the knowledge of his personal tool that could offer a solution.  It was a stick and a hook that he had been using for quite a long time.  He merely dragged the hook along the ground and it caught the wires attached to the batteries leading to the IEDs or it would catch the pressure plate without pushing downward on it.  Overnight, Lima Company was armed with farmer’s scythes and bamboo poles.  By the end of deployment, well over 90% of IED finds were located by using this device.  The Scythe had limitations as do all tools in Counter IED since it does not counter command detonated devices and it will drastically slow down movement if used correctly.  When a unit practices good route selection and avoids areas prone to IED emplacement, the CMD is best up front where it could possibly detect a battery pack.  The scythe is impractical up front as the unit moves too slow.  Placing the Scythe in the point cover position supporting the point man allowed patrols to move relatively smoothly.  When a unit occupied a fixed position or deliberately cleared a point the sickle became the primary tool.  When Gunny Holley was killed a few weeks later it became known as a “Holley stick.”  Innovations that are generated from the Marine in the AO where he is fighting sometimes seem crazy, but they may be very effective.  For example, fire hoses were used to blast away sand and expose IED's without detonating them.  Grappling hooks were dragged along the ground from building tops to search for wires and pressure plates.  We also opened water gates and  flooded suspected IED areas to degrade Home-Made Explosive (HME).    

The psychological impact of our disruption operations was effective.  By fighting when we chose, more often than not we made the Taliban feel vulnerable. Gunnery Sergeant Andrew Jones, Third Platoon Sergeant noted, "We did not get attacked from the enemy until after two months from the first breach  into Safar.  The enemy had no clue on what or where we were in the AO due to the amount of Patrolling and all the night recon and movement we did.  Most units go in to an AO and do not patrol at night due to the IED’s in the AO but over time when you work and move and can control your AO you can make anything work."[5]  Soon enough the Taliban in villages we contested rarely showed up with weapons where they once carried them arrogantly.  Lone motorcycle mounted unarmed scouts would ride into a village and ask locals if the Marines were in the fields.  Whether or not anyone knew for sure they would always answer yes so the Taliban would go away and not come back that day.  Just by that act alone, we defeated the enemy.  The Taliban did not have the will to operate in our area that day and chose to go elsewhere.  Captain Michael Chand, Executive Officer for Lima Company stated, "The enemy was not prepared to have a company employ a multitude of methods in order to defeat the IED threat."[6]  One could argue that an area was quiet because the enemy just did not feel like fighting there.  However, what drives the enemy decision?  Is heavy fighting in a unit’s Area of Operation necessarily a compliment during an insurgency or guerilla campaign?  Do daily and weekly firefights against a unit occur because it just happens to be in a tough area?  Is any area so valuable to the enemy they cannot afford to lose it and move a mile or so down the road to equally rotten and virtually valueless land?  Or does heavy fighting and multiple contacts illustrate the enemy condemnation of that leader and his plan?  Although some areas may be "essential" in a clear, hold, build counter-insurgency, there are no such areas with a disruption campaign plan.  A disruptor merely attempts to chronically wear down and frustrate the enemy so that a follow on force or an adjacent unit can commence clearing.  This is not to be confused with attrition warfare.  Attrition seeks to win decisively, disruption does not.  Disruption is a supporting operation that seeks to enable victory for an adjacent unit or a follow on force. 

Throughout operations in Safar Bazaar from August through October 2010, Lima Company found and destroyed 129 IED's.  A total of 12 IEDs found Lima Company resulting in three killed and three wounded.  The vast majority of those IEDs were located within the 500m by 600m bazaar which was the main objective of the operation.  Hundreds more were still outside the bazaar area long after Lima Company turned over the battlespace.  The location of numerous IEDs were known or confidently suspected but we adhered to our policy of first eliminating the emplacers and then reducing IED's when we could ensure coverage of the area.  Of the 12 IEDs that found Lima Company, five of them were against vehicles conducting deliberate clearing operations that normally the mine roller struck with no casualties suffered.  Three IED attacks were against personnel conducting deliberate clearing operations and resulted in no casualties.  Two IEDs were against EOD teams attempting to neutralize and destroy, which each resulted in casualties.  Two IEDs were against personnel and vehicles moving on patrol which resulted in a casualty. 

Disruption in Counter-Insurgency is just one tactic and not the magic bullet to eliminating casualties or winning the war.  Lima Company was not the battalion main effort for success in Garmsir Afghanistan.  We were the company at the end of the AO that led into Taliban territory.  The main effort for success fell to the companies further to our North who were holding and building.  However, I contend that disruption is necessary to get to that point whether it be sequentially or geographically.  If one believes they are in the Clear/Hold phase and they are taking regular casualties then I believe a change to a disruption campaign would be beneficial.  The crisis for a leader will be the never ending fight between what is more important:  mission accomplishment or troop welfare?  This article hopefully highlighted the fact that both are the same in an insurgency.    

[1] Jackson, SSgt Matthew.  Electronic interview, April 2012.

[2] Ruvalcaba, Capt Marcos.  Electronic interview, April 2012

[3] Fay, Gysgt Patrick.  Electronic interview, April 2012.

[4] Franke, Capt Alan.  Electronic interview, April 2012. 

[5] Jones, Gysgt Andrew.  Electronic interview, April 2012. 

[6] Chand, Capt Michael.  Electronic interview April, 2012. 



About the Author(s)

Major John Kenneley is the former Company Commander of Lima Company 3d Bn 1st Marines and has previously deployed with 1st Bn 8th Marines, 2d Bn 6th Marines and 2d Bn 4th Marines.  He is currently serving as an Observer Trainer with the Joint Staff,  J-7, Joint Training Branch.