Marines with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, patrol a village in Sangin district, Afghanistan. Insurgents there are now more of a ganglike group focused on criminal activities rather than attacking U.S. forces, a battalion commander said. (Lance Cpl. Jason Morrison / Marine Corps)
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The Taliban in Helmand province, Afghanistan, have morphed into a Mafia-like organization focused primarily on smuggling drugs and protecting its own existence, said a battalion commander deployed there since the fall.
Lt. Col. Donald Tomich, head of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., said the shift in the insurgency in northern Helmand occurred after it launched repeated small-arms attacks and planted more improvised explosive devices as Afghan National Security Forces took the lead in providing security in the region, a job previously handled by Marines. There were hiccups, but the Afghan forces maintained control of the area, he said.
"At the beginning, when they knew the coalition was coming off and ANSF was in the lead, they did make a hard push for it," Tomich said of the Taliban during a Jan. 9 phone interview. "What we started to see was … lots of leadership, lots of additional logistics — as they put more IEDs out there and were expending more rounds just shooting at [patrol bases] — and more [Taliban] fighters lost."
Thousands of U.S. troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2012 as Afghan forces trained by coalition troops were put in the lead, providing security in Helmand and other volatile areas of the country. Helmand was one of the most affected areas, with the Corps reducing its footprint there from about 17,000 Marines early in 2012 to fewer than 7,000 by year's end.
Tomich's viewpoint is strikingly different from observations made by the commander of the unit that preceded 2/7 in northern Helmand. Lt. Col. David Bradney, head of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, said Afghan forces vacated some of their posts in the region in August, eventually requiring coalition forces to re-clear Route 611, the main highway in the region, of IEDs.
The battalions rotated in October, with about 800 Marines from 2/7 replacing more than 1,000 Marines there with 1/7. Tomich's unit has forces spread across Sangin, Kajaki, Musa Qala and Now Zad districts. All have been the site of fierce fighting in the past few years.
Tomich said his unit, with headquarters in Sangin, has Echo Company in Kajaki, Headquarters and Service and Golf companies in Sangin, and Fox Company split between Now Zad and Musa Qala. Their primary missions include providing logistics and overwatch security for Marine adviser teams working with Afghan forces.
Tomich acknowledged the transition has been awkward at times while Afghan forces grow into the role of handling security on their own. He also said observers not on the ground recently may find it hard to believe it's relatively peaceful in northern Helmand, considering the violence that has occurred over the past few years.
After coalition forces stopped patrolling in the fall, insurgents initially "found themselves in a weird place," and began laying more IEDs, Tomich said. That move backfired when the number of civilians who stepped on them also increased, sapping support for the Taliban.
Statistics released by I Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd.) show the number of attacks dropped significantly in Sangin and Musa Qala in the nine-month period ending Sept. 30, compared with the same period the previous year. Sangin had 1,767 attacks in 2011 and 846 in 2012. Musa Qala had 1,086 attacks in 2011, and 843 during the same period in 2012.
On the other hand, the "kinetic comparison" showed a spike in attacks in Kajaki and Now Zad in that same time frame. Attacks increased in Kajaki from 223 to 928, and from 647 to 676 in Now Zad.