Strategy Behind A Marine Unit's Dangerous Mission

The Marines of Darkhorse Battalion suffered a high rate of casualties during their seven-month deployment to southern Afghanistan. Their mission was to go after the Taliban in a place called Sangin — a crossroads of insurgency and drug trafficking. At the time, officials in the military and all the way up to the secretary of defense asked why the Darkhorse Battalion was taking so many casualties. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is reporting all week on the battalion. On Wednesday, he speaks with Guy Raz about the strategy in Sangin: whether the Marines made mistakes and what they did to reduce causalities and complete the mission.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz. But

Now, the latest in our series on a Marine unit known as the Darkhorse Battalion. Let's go back about a year ago. It's October 2010, Afghanistan, and the battalion had only been deployed a few days. They had seven months to ago. Then in just two days, seven Marines were killed, more than the unit deployed before them had lost in six months.

Here's Darkhorse Battalion's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JASON MORRIS: At the time, I was wondering, what are we doing wrong?

RAZ: That's the question we want to address today. NPR's Tom Bowman joins me now. All week, he's been telling the story of the Darkhorse Marines on the home front. And today, the fight in Afghanistan. Tom, good to have you here.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here, Guy.

RAZ: Why did this battalion take more casualties than the units that had been there before them?

BOWMAN: Well, you have to go back. The British had been there four years before Darkhorse came in. And they were in roughly the same area as the Marine battalion, but they had a different strategy. They didn't move out into this area of orchards and fields and heavy brush that they call the Green Zone. And the Marines would frankly say, they didn't take the fight to the enemy.

So, that meant that the Taliban had a relatively safe haven here. They stockpiled the area with arms and they were able to sort of lace this area with roadside bombs since the British didn't push into this area.

Now, the United States had been dealing with roadside bombs now for a decade. The key here was the volume of roadside bombs. The Marines had never seen anything like this before. They were everywhere, almost every other step.

RAZ: This all happened in a place called Sangin, this is in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Why Sangin? Why there? And why was this place important at all?

BOWMAN: Well, the Marines in particular saw it as important. They said, listen, this is at a key intersection of important roads in the area. And, again, they were talking about the Taliban having a safe haven there. They said it's psychologically important to the Taliban. Not only did they stockpile arms and lace this whole area with roadside bombs, they also had drug labs there too, which was used to finance the insurgency.

Now, the British had a different view. Other parts of the province, the more populated areas, they saw as more important. They wanted to focus on that part of the province, a little south of Sangin. Now, listen to Lieutenant General Richard Mills. He commanded all coalition troops in Helmand province.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL RICHARD MILLS: Well, it was the area which the British command felt was not as important as, say, the center of the province.

BOWMAN: And you considered it more important than the British did then?

MILLS: I considered it absolutely key.

BOWMAN: Now, it wasn't just the British who were skeptical about this, but the American command in Kabul, as well. They also agreed that the more populated areas in Helmand had to be secured. And there was some questions about whether the Marines can secure the more populated areas, and then take on this added role of going into Sangin and taking the fight to the Taliban.

RAZ: Tom, earlier we heard the battalion commander, Colonel Morris, he was wondering what they were doing wrong. As the casualties mounted in this battalion, did anyone else wonder, you know, the same thing?

BOWMAN: Everybody was asking the same question, including back at the Pentagon. Top Pentagon leaders actually wanted to pull Darkhorse Battalion out for a rest...

RAZ: Wow.

BOWMAN: ...to try to find out what's going on. The Marines, both at the Pentagon and in Helmand province, said absolutely not. Now, here's General Rich Mills again. I asked him that question.

MILLS: There was never a question of taking 3/5 out of the fight, nor was there ever any question that they would be anything but successful. What's often lost in the story of 3/5 is the number of casualties they inflicted, a tremendous number. We were pounding the enemy. And I would say that we were taking down 10 of them to every one of us that we lost.

BOWMAN: So there's General Rich Mills who says they're being pretty successful. And also, that he refers to 3/5, that's the official name of Darkhorse Battalion - 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment.

Now, but at the same time, despite him saying that that this is very successful, General Mills formed what's known as a Red Team. It's basically a bunch of contrarians going in and saying: Are you sure you're doing everything right? They looked at everything from the tactics to whether or not they need more troops and mine clearing equipment.

Now, but I also asked General Mills, if you knew this was a dangerous area, if you say it was key, why didn't you send more Marines in earlier? And he said, well, listen, I had fights elsewhere in Helmand province. They needed troops there. We gave Darkhorse Battalion all we could to help them. But a few months later, they sent in hundreds more Marines. And everyone I talked with said that made a huge difference.

RAZ: So, that's at the general's level, Tom. The strategic view, if you will. What about inside the battalion? Did they change how they operated?

BOWMAN: I talked to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris. And he said they did make some changes. He told his company commanders to take a lot more care when they're on patrol. Make sure they stand behind the guy is using the sweeper to detect mines. And he also took it a step further. Back at his base, he actually set up a dummy IED so his Marines could practice digging them up.

And what Colonel Morris told me was, he said, listen, our Marines always prepared for a gunfight or for Marines calling in artillery, calling in airstrikes. But this volume of IEDs, we really hadn't trained enough for that. And listen to what Colonel Morris had to say.

MORRIS: I actually enjoyed the fact that guys were in firefights, because they were fighting this enemy face-to-face and had an opportunity to kill them. The problem with the IED fight is they're ghosts. The only thing that really was different from what we had trained all our lives for as Marines was the IED threat.

RAZ: So why was that, Tom? I mean why hadn't they trained for the IED threat?

BOWMAN: Well, they had trained for the IED threat back at their bases in California. They always trained for it. But again, it gets into the volume. It seemed like there was a roadside bomb in every other step. They just weren't prepared for the number of them.

RAZ: So, what did the Marines there achieve overall? I mean did they beat back the Taliban?

BOWMAN: There's absolutely no question they beat back the Taliban. And also, markets started to reopen. The kids were returning to school. The provincial governor could actually get out and see his constituents throughout this area. He hadn't been able to do that before.

And another key point is, one of the local tribe, which had been cooperating with the Taliban, eventually struck a peace deal with the Afghan government after the Marines pushed back the Taliban forces and after they realized the Marines were going to stay and take the fight to the Taliban.

And even some in the Kabul command who were skeptical of the Marines going up into Sangin, they said in the end it seems like they did achieve quite a bit. But it came, of course, at a brutal cost. And I asked one Marine officer was it all worth it? And he said to me, it depends how Afghanistan turns out.

RAZ: And, Tom, we should remind our listeners who've been following this series that 25 Marines were killed in the Darkhorse Battalion, 184 badly wounded.

That's it NPR's Tom Bowman on the strategy for the Marines Darkhorse Battalion when it was deployed in southern Afghanistan. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Guy.

RAZ: And Tom's series continues tomorrow with a profile of a young Marine widow.

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