Musa Qala, Helmand Province
“The British were chickens, but these men… the American Marines…They fight like animals, like they’re not even human.” -Intercepted radio transmission from a Taliban commander after losing Karamanda to 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment. May 2010.
Afghanistan is notoriously nicknamed “the graveyard of empires“. Empire after empire has tried and failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan. Me personally, I would call it more “the battleground of empires”. In 330 BC Alexander the Great and his army suffered staggering casualties in fierce battles against Afghan tribes. At one point he was struck by an arrow and barely made it out with his life. Genghis Khan’s Mongol army swept through the country in 1220. The British campaigns of the 1800’s and the Soviet War during the 1970’s both ended in failure. They failed because they were unable to subdue the population.
Leading up to 2010, President Obama had authorized the deployment of 33,000 US troops to surge into Afghanistan. The plan was to try and replicate the success of the “protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy” that worked so effectively in Iraq.
Our job was to clear the Taliban out of key parts in the south and hold off any of their retaliatory advances. Once that was accomplished, we would push east to pacify Kabul and surrounding areas. In theory, the surge would also give the Afghan Government the time it needed to build up and train their police and army ranks…basically they needed to pull their shit together, and quick. There was a time-line announced by President Obama. The hope was that seeing an Afghan led security force and a functioning indigenous civil administration would convince the people to stop supporting the insurgency. That was the idea at least. You got to remember that this place is complex in ways you couldn’t imagine. It may not be the end of the world, but you can see the end of the world from there.
2009 was a year dominated by presidential and provincial council elections intertwined with lots of violence. The elections were plagued with widespread fraud and a low voter turnout in areas that were “hot”, which was everywhere. The War in Afghanistan claimed the lives of 303 US servicemen in 2009. The situation was rapidly deteriorating at an alarming rate.
This was evident by the increase in road-side bombs or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device), the Grunt’s worst nightmare. During this time insurgent attacks also increased, killing scores of civilians. Suicide bomb attacks doubled and the Taliban was on a vicious assassination campaign. The target? Anyone and anything not Taliban. At that point in time, 2009 established itself as the deadliest year of the decade long Afghanistan War.
Then 2010 came around.
I deployed to the city of Musa Qala in the spring, summer and part of the fall (the fighting season) of 2010. I was the team leader of SET (Sensor Employment Team) Delta, 1st Intelligence Battalion. Shortly after arriving at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, our team was sent over to 1/2, 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment. Our AO (Area of Operations) was big and intimidating to put it mildly. On our chopper ride to Musa Qala I was taken aback by the terrain we were flying over. It looked like God himself had ran his fingers through the desert to create the apocalyptic landscape that passed under me. It centered on the city of Musa Qala, primarily the District Center or Government Center.
We operated as far north as Karamanda, scaled Panda Ridge, west to volcanic Now Zad, killed some time in Shir Gazay, barreled into Salaam Bazaar and eventually, literally tip-toed down towards Sangin. We had a unique job that allowed us to operate on our own, without close supervision. It was definitely outside of the norm for a Corporal to be running around an area of operations, working his OFP (Own Fucking Program) This is an acronym I have tattooed on my left ankle just in case I forget who I was. Being OFP was both a blessing and a curse. There were times when we had to split our team in half in order for us to cover missions across the AO. By the end of 2010, 529 US troops has been Killed in Action. It was, and still stands today as the deadliest year of the War in Afghanistan.