DARVESHAN, Afghanistan — The threat of buried homemade bombs, coupled with an often unforgiving terrain and a counterinsurgency agenda that requires regular presence among Afghans, is forcing U.S. Marines to take on Taliban fighters by foot.
And these footprints in the sand and dust of Helmand Province are, according to some defense analysts, leading down a path of higher American casualties that could potentially affect the American public's support for the war here.
Almost 90 percent of the Marine operations underway in Southern Afghanistan’s Helmand are on foot, according to Col. Christian Cabaniss, commander of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.
“We walk. This is not Iraq. We don’t drive around,” Cabaniss said.
Often, there’s no other option, Marines here say. Mine resistant ambush protected (MRAPs) vehicles, for example, are too big and heavy to allow nimble navigation of the labyrinth of irrigation canals and ditches in southern Helmand Province. Add to that the fact that the bulk of the population in southern Afghanistan is located in rural areas.
“To be amongst the people, you’ve got to walk out there,” Cabaniss said.
The strategy of keeping up a security force presence is a main theme of the current International Security Assistance Forces’ counterinsurgency campaign underway in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces, is currently drafting an assessment of what is needed here but has indicated in the past that more troops in addition to the currently deployed 68,000 would be needed to quell the Taliban insurgency.
Fertilizer-based homemade explosives are increasingly being used against Marine and Afghan troops in the Garmsir region of Helmand. Of the 13 Marines killed in the region since June, most all have been from IED attacks, said one military intelligence officer.
IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, act as a force multiplier for the Taliban in that they conserve both fighters and resources, said Capt. Trevor Hunt, intelligence officer for 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.
“They have all the time in the world. We’re here for short stints and then who knows how long the U.S. will end up staying here,” he said.
Strategically, IEDs give the Taliban an opportunity to restrict how freely security forces are able to move about the region.
“Instead of just trying to kill us, they also want to make us spend forever to go 100 meters,” Hunt said. “If you go on the roads, you know you’re going to hit IEDs. Then you’re just stuck in vehicle recovery all day, every day.”
Troop reaction to the foot patrol strategy on a battlefield that requires them to carry up to 100-pounds of gear where temperatures regularly soar over 110-degrees is mixed.
“I’m biased,” said Sgt. Matthew Roell. “I was a pall-bearer for a while and I saw a lot of people in pieces. Whenever we go foot mobile, I’m thinking about that,” he said. “Either you’re in a truck and get hit or you’re out in the open and get hit. Either way, if it’s your time, it’s your time, you know.”
While the stakes may seem higher by being outside of protected vehicles, many infantry Marines support the combat patrol strategy.
“I prefer to be foot mobile if we get attacked because that’s where I make my bread. That’s what we’re trained to do in the Marine Corps,” said Cpl. Joshua Johnston.
Walking can minimize the IED threat, but could increase the chances of getting shot, especially if patrols are conducted with any kind of pattern, said Cpl. Ryan Rogers.
“These guys never shoot at us very close anyways,” Ryan said. “They usually just take pop-shots at us.” Patrolling in vehicles, such as MRAPs, can give troops a false sense of security, according to one Marine sergeant. “When you’re out there on the ground, you’re much more exposed,” said Sgt. Nathan Brannan. “There’s a feeling that anything could happen at any time,” that creates a state of readiness, he said.
“Here in this area, we have to interact with the locals. We have to be on the ground, be able to interact with the [Afghan National Security Forces], and have them start to do their job better. It’s hard to do that when you’re inside a vehicle,” Brannan said. “So even though the risk is greater when you’re on foot, whether it be from small arms fire or even through IEDs that are targeted for dismounts, you have to remember that our job is to accomplish the mission.”
Marines taking on combat patrols by foot, and the subsequent increased exposure to IEDs and small arms fire, is responsible in part for the dramatic increase in casualties this summer. So the stategy could potentially shape public support against the war in the U.S., according to one defense analyst.
“Greater vulnerability leads to increases in casualties, which must be dealt with on the U.S. home front,” said Dakota Woods, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The clear conundrum facing U.S. military commanders and political leaders in Afghanistan is how to accomplish military (and political) objectives in Afghanistan when local conditions preclude extensive use of the tools (MRAPs) that were necessary to sustain U.S. involvement in Iraq in the face of similar threats.”