June 28, 2009 / 2:25 PM / 9 years ago

Iraq lessons learned, US Marines turn to Afghanistan

* Marines’ goal: Talk a little more, shoot a little less

* Lessons of Iraq’s Anbar applied in Afghanistan’s Helmand

By Peter Graff

DESERT OF DEATH, Afghanistan, June 28 (Reuters) - After five years coping with the most dangerous province in Iraq, the U.S. Marines have been given their next assignment: the most dangerous province in Afghanistan.

But this time around, they say they will talk a little more and shoot a little less.

"We spent so much time in Iraq learning from our mistakes," said Corporal Mahmoud Awada, a 21-year-old Lebanese-American Marine from Utah, who spent the second half of 2007 and early 2008 in Anbar west of Baghdad.

"We learned that we can’t just go around kicking down doors because that won’t work. In Iraq, what really helped us win over there, make the situation better, was gaining the trust of the people, becoming friends with them."

The Marines that have arrived in recent weeks in Afghanistan’s wild southern Helmand province are a different force from the Marines who blasted their way into Anbar.

Back then, the Marines were still learning the art of counter-insurgency warfare.

An Arabic speaker, Awada worked closely with the Iraqi army. It was frustrating at times, but it opened his eyes.

"You have to sit down and talk with them, talk for a while, enjoy a nice cup of tea, get to know them a little better, ask them how their family is doing," Awada said.

The Marines fought two massive battles for the Anbar city of Fallujah in 2004, the biggest engagements of the Iraq war.

Anbar was almost completely in the hands of insurgents for the next 2 or 3 years and the Marines gained an early reputation for heavy-handed use of firepower.

They had turned it around by late 2007, forming an alliance with local tribal leaders against al Qaeda militants that helped transform Iraq’s most violent province into one of its safest.

Today, they are being asked to repeat the trick in Helmand, the heartland of Afghanistan’s Taliban. U.S. President Barack Obama, overseeing a troop drawdown in Iraq, has made Afghanistan the military’s top priority.


The 8,500 Marines sent to Helmand are the biggest wave of a reinforcement strategy that will see U.S. forces in Afghanistan rise from 32,000 at the end of 2008 to 68,000 by the end of 2009.

Southern Helmand, like Anbar, is virtually entirely made up of a vast, empty desert, cut through by a single river, surrounded by a band of densely populated agricultural land. Insurgents infiltrate across a long and poorly guarded border.

In both Anbar and Helmand, locals are wary of even their close neighbours, much less outsiders from the capital or abroad.

Winning their trust is tricky, but it pays off, said Corporal Vincent Schaffer, 21, who served in Iraq last year and signed back up to go to Afghanistan at the first opportunity.

"If you spend time with them, treat them with respect, kind of become friends with them, then they are more willing to help us, provide us with information, the things we need to conduct operations in their area," Schaffer said.

Lieutenant Kenneth Zavada led a platoon of the 10th Marines on a patrol on Sunday to isolated settlements in Helmand’s brutal Dasht-e-Margo, the Desert of Death.

None of the locals had ever seen a U.S. Marine. Most were friendly, if a bit stand-offish, working in fields that grow opium poppy, marijuana, wheat, alfalfa and some vegetables.

"My name’s Kenny," he said, reaching out to shake hands with a grey-bearded farmer. "Is it OK if I come back here again and talk to you about solar-powered pumps for your well?"

Helmand produces the bulk of Afghanistan’s opium poppy crop — something the Marines never encountered in Iraq. Walking from compound to compound, the Marines crushed the dried stalks of the harvested opium crop beneath their boots.

Opium funds the insurgency. It will have to be dealt with but is not something the Marines will start a fight over.

"We know it’s a huge problem, but right now we don’t consider it a priority. People have to feed their families. If you start mowing down their poppy fields, you just make them angrier," Zavada said. "History proves you are never going to shoot your way out of an insurgency." (Editing by Paul Tait and Charles Dick)

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