When Marines pushed into Afghanistan’s Sangin district this summer, it was widely predicted that things would be difficult.
The district, in northern Helmand province, had been a notoriously dangerous area for British troops. In four years patrolling Sangin, 106 British troops died, including 36 this year, according to this Daily Mail report. British forces ceded control of Sangin to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., last month, concentrating their forces instead in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital — and a place far more stable than Sangin.
That’s relevant background when considering the awful news out Sangin within the last week. Nine Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., were killed between Wednesday and Saturday, just weeks after deploying to replace 3/7 in Sangin and surrounding areas. Add in an earlier 3/5 casualty in Sangin on Oct. 8, and the battalion already has had 10 casualties in its first month in theater.
Four of those Marines were killed last Wednesday when an improvised explosive device rocked their Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected all-terrain vehicle, said Cpl. Zachary Nola, a Marine spokesman at Camp Pendleton. Three other Marines were killed by small-arms fire.
That leaves three additional deaths with the same generic cause in Marine casualty announcements: “killed by an IED blast while conducting dismounted combat operations against enemy forces.” In other words, they were hit while on foot, rather than while riding in a vehicle.
The Taliban’s practice of tailoring IEDs to target Marines on foot is probably more common than what is portrayed in the mainstream media, where the concept of an IED is almost exclusively focused on the targeting of vehicles.
In the spring, Marines told me in Helmand’s violent Marjah district that Taliban forces had started to plant directional fragmentation-charge IEDs, a kind of makeshift anti-personnel mine. Typically built in a coffee can or another small, metal device, they are packed with nuts, bolts or spark plugs and attached to 10 to 20 pounds of homemade explosives. They are called “DFCs” by Marines, and they can be detonated remotely or with tripwires.
Details out of Sangin have been scarce, but it seems likely they’re facing the same danger. An embedded report posted here notes that Marines are preparing to clear an “IED belt” near Sangin. The military also announced this week that coalition forces recently destroyed an IED “facilitation and storage compound” in Sangin.
Still, a Marine spokesman in Afghanistan told me by e-mail today that 3/5 isn’t involved in any major ongoing assault or operation. The battalion is “conducting normal counterinsurgency operations there,” said 1st Lt. Joshua Benson. “There is nothing out of the norm in terms of operations in Sangin.”
That means the effort to improve conditions in Sangin is ongoing, but it also suggests the threats there are still very real. You might want to keep 3/5 in your thoughts going forward.
*This post was corrected to note that Helmand province’s capital is Lashkar Gah.