A year ago, Marines in Marjah were struggling mightily with the Taliban.
Even after driving hundreds insurgents out of the insurgent stronghold in central Helmand province in February, they faced regular attacks by gunmen, many of whom used motorcycles to move in and out of villages at night to terrorize civilians. They faced a network of improvised explosive devices and a public relations problem with villagers, many of whom complained that Marine operations were making life worse, not better.
I can say this with some authority. I was there with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, at the time, and faced many of those problems myself. The unit stayed there through August, when it was replaced by 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines.
The statistics do a fine job of explaining how violent Marjah was last summer. More than 70 Marines were killed in Afghanistan last summer, and Marjah’s security was among the biggest reasons. Second Battalion, 6th Marines, alone lost at least 11 Marines in Marjah from the beginning of its deployment in June through the end of the tradition fighting season in October.
“Marjah’s in a phase where you’re not going to wake up tomorrow and say, ‘Wow.’ It’s going to be so incremental that it’s like watching grass grow,” said Brig. Gen. David Berger, director of operations at Marine Corps headquarters, during a meeting with reporters last August. “I mean, not literally, but this is a slow progression right now.”
In the next few months, the Corps had a breakthrough. By December, Maj. Gen. Mills, then the top Marine commander in Afghanistan, said combat operations in Marjah were “essentially over.” The battalions deployed there pushed forces farther from Marjah’s district center, and eventually gave up a company of Marines in December to bolster the fight in volatile Sangin, to the north.
Marines with 3/6 began leaving Camp Lejeune en masse this week for another deployment. Once again, they’ll begin in Marjah.
There’s no doubt that Marjah has improved vastly in the last year. Thousands of students now attend school there, and a number of construction projects have been launched, including this new effort to build an agricultural packing facility.
Still, this recent report from Marjah about 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, makes it clear that there’s plenty of fight left in the district:
In less than 160 days, the Marines have been in 250 small arms fire fights, found more than 350 weapons caches, detained 118 insurgents, built or moved 15 patrol bases in Marjah to provide better security to the area, and also discovered more than 200 improvised explosive devices. Eighty percent of the IEDs were found before detonation.
It’s showtime, 3/6. Go get ’em.