I was away covering Bold Alligator this weekend, but it’s worth circling back to an impressive New York Times Magazine article published Sunday.
Pieced together after seven weeks of downrange reporting by Luke Mogelson, it examines in detail Marine operations in Kajaki, Sangin and Musa Qala districts. Those, of course, are the main battlegrounds at this point in the war in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where about 19,000 Marines are deployed.
Details worth highlighting:
The fight in Musa Qala
Second Battalion, 4th Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., has continued to press into new areas in and around volatile Musa Qala. Mogelson describes the push to clear the village Juz Ghoray, and the struggles to fight the Taliban there.
“The Marines are going out into the hinterlands,” Maj. Frank Diorio, the battalion’s executive officer, told the New York Times Magazine. “They’re not tied to any posts. It’ll be ongoing until we leave. It’s just going to be continuous operations.”
The struggle to improve Kajaki Dam
The story describes something we’ve touched on repeatedly on Battle Rattle in the last few months — the push to secure the Kajaki Dam in northern Helmand and expand its usage.
Marine officers deployed in the region described Operation Eastern Storm to Mogelson, although it isn’t mentioned by name in the story. They also mentioned where the insurgents who escaped the assault fled. From the story:
“We put a fence in the dirt, literally,” one platoon commander told me. “Put concertina wire down and said, ‘You’re not going to get north of this area.'” Between the two fronts of marines, the officer said, “during the three to four days that we were there, I think we killed about 30 of them. They quit picking up their casualties.”
The sole escape for the insurgents was to ford the Helmand River and disappear into Zamindawar, an ungoverned desert extending from the dam to the foothills of a towering mountain range several miles north. “And they did exactly that,” the platoon commander said. “That’s the Wild West up there. We won’t ever go up there.”
Finding and marking IEDs
The story describes a variety of tactics that Marines are using in the fight against improvised explosive devices. Some of them, like using shaving cream, we’ve written about before. Others are less commonly known. From the story:
In a combat zone, each of a variety of threats instills its own corresponding fear. Unique to the fear of I.E.D.’s is a sense of powerlessness. For marines, this fear, above every other, rates the most acute. Forgoing tactical formations, they often walk in single file behind engineers with metal-detectors. They overturn suspicious rocks with hooks affixed to bamboo stalks. They mark every turn with lines of shaving cream or baby powder in the dirt. They travel over rooftops, laying ladders across alleys to cross from house to house. After dark they leave a trail of chemically treated Q-tips that glow under night-vision goggles. And they study every step they take for signs of tampered ground. But despite these precautions, there remains a limit to the degree of safety that vigilance affords, and ultimately it is chance that kills or spares you. This fear — the fear of chance and your helplessness to affect it — is a constant companion to the grunts conducting daily foot patrols across the bomb-littered country of northern Helmand.
Moving toward Kandahar
Marine forces also have been able to push away from Sangin’s district center toward the Kandahar province border, where many weapons caches are reportedly based.
The story describes Marines with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, sweeping villages that hadn’t previously been touched. Among the findings: Marines are finding not only jugs of explosives and other supplies, but radio transmitters that can be used for remote detonation. That’s a threat that has reportedly emerged only this year in Helmand — and certainly cause for concern.