The Marine Corps made national headlines in fall 2010 when it sent tanks to northern Helmand province to bolster firepower there. It was a first for the U.S. in the war, which was nine years old at the time.
Nearly three years later, the tanks are coming home. Delta Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., will redeploy to the U.S. soon, and will not be replaced by a similar unit, said 1st Lt. Philip Kulczewski, a Marine spokesman in Afghanistan.
It’s one of the most tangible indications recently that that the U.S. drawdown in forces in Afghanistan continues. There are currently more than 60,000 U.S. troops deployed across the country, including about 7,000 Marines in Helmand province. That’s down from a peak of about 108,000 troops and 20,000 Marines in 2011.
The tanks offered not only heavy 120mm cannon fire, but also advanced optics that were used to observe Taliban fighters from more than a mile away. Shortly after deploying, they were teamed early in 2011 with elements of Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, which was flown in from Navy ships while underway with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Lejeune. Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, then the two-star commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan, used them to improve security in northern Helmand province at a time when the Corps was taking heavy losses in and around famously violent Sangin district.
Later that year, the tanks were paired with scout snipers with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Lejeune. In a novel concept, the Marines used the optics from the tanks to establish positive identification on who was an insurgent in Musa Qala district, and then targeted them with sniper fire.
“They’ve been highly effective,” said Lt. Gen. John Toolan, then the two-star commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan, in a Sept 2011 interview. “Just in the past 10 days, the tank and snipers teams have contributed to about 50 enemy insurgents killed, using the snipers as sharpshooters and the tanks for the surveillance capability. It’s really a great combo, and 3/2 is spearheading that.”
Some of those same scout snipers eventually found themselves in hot water for urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters, but the tank operations continued. In one spring 2012 example, tanks combined with Marine infantrymen in Operation Jaws to raid Taliban outposts in Zamindawar, an insurgent-controlled area in between the population centers in Kajaki and Musa Qala districts.
The operation highlighted a common Marine Corps strategy at the time. Grunts spent months using reconnaissance and surveillance to gather intelligence about insurgents in areas like Zamindawar, leading to bold raids aimed at disrupting the Taliban and targeting their headquarters.
“I guess I can say that now I know what a cop feels like on a stakeout,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Hutchenson, a platoon sergeant for Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, during a 2012 observation mission observed by Marine Corps Times. “You wait, and wait, and wait — and then you get what you need and move on them.”