Guest Column by Ryan Smith
Two weeks ago, we all remembered the events of Sept. 11th, 2001 and how that day changed our lives, our nation and the world. The attacks that day sent thousands of young men and women to war in the nation of Afghanistan, where we still are 10 years later.
Last year, we “surged” an additional 30,000 American troops, spearheaded by 9,000 U.S. Marines, in time for the traditional spring “fighting season” in Afghanistan. Among those were 40 Marine reservists from Green Bay, and among them were three NMU students. I was one of them.
In the next few months, the U.S. will begin the planned draw down of nearly 10,000 surge troops, and many are asking if it worked and was it worth the price paid.
Some the bloodiest battles of the war were fought during the summer of 2010, as the Marines in the southern most province of Helmand began to sweep south along the Helmand River, so the question has merit. Sadly, when this issue is brought up in many of my classes, the debate is riddled with ignorance, rhetoric and tendency to ignore facts. One political science professor declared that it was a “known fact that U.S. troops don’t like to fight; they stay on their bases and call in artillery and airstrikes.”
I told him that my platoon had run over 150 mounted missions outside our base for days or weeks at a time, and that the rules of engagement meant calling in artillery or airstrikes was extremely limited. He responded, “That’s not what I’ve heard.” My friends, this is unacceptable.
After 10 years, our nation knows so little about what our forces have done and endured or what this surge accomplished. While I can only speak from what some would call a limited “boot on the ground” view, what I saw and experienced was more than enough to know that we had turned the tide against the Taliban and had brought Helmand province back under the control of the Afghan Government and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
We arrived in Helmand province and our home base, Camp Dwyer, in April 2010; right as the fighting season began and the Operation Moshtarak offensive to clear the town of Marjah had just begun. It was the biggest offensive since the war began, and a direct result of President Obama’s new policy to “Clear, Hold, Build” and then transfer authority to the Afghan government. Marjah was a town that provided shelter, poppy to make the heroin that funds the Taliban and a hub for weapons smuggled to the Taliban from outside nations.
In April 2010, Marjah was the most dangerous place in Afghanistan and that fact hung over us everywhere we went. Even when we rested back at base, we watched the medical evacuation helicopters take off at full speed to bring back the wounded. This was the critical point in the war, what happened in Marjah would decide if we would win or lose.
My platoon was assigned wrecker recovery missions in addition to any other mission the battalion wanted to give us. We became the jack-of-all-trades, running more missions than anyone else in the battalion.
Our gun trucks provided security, while our engineers recovered “downed” vehicles, more often than not, IED blast victims. So Marjah was a regular destination, and yet we still held our breath for a fraction of a second when we were told our mission was into Marjah. Despite all this, we stayed in the fight and by late August, Marjah became a place of ease. We even saw some the grunts (infantry) walk out without body armor.
The surge had provided the men to not only sweep Marjah, but to hold and consolidate the gains made. Before the surge, the whole town of 125,000 people was held by one battalion of 900 Marines, but by late March, it was held by more than twice that, under the control of two reinforced infantry battalions and supporting attachments.
Thanks to the additional troops, Marjah was firmly in ISAF hands and the men there began to build upon a hard-won victory.
It was still a dangerous place in some areas, but the majority of the city was secure and it was no longer a safe place for the Taliban to move freely, stockpile arms, or gain profits from the poppy harvest. They had lost Marjah to the Marines.