Monday, June 22 at 12 Noon ET

Battling Insurgents in Afghanistan

Kristin Henderson
Monday, June 22, 2009; 12:00 PM

When a Marine battalion is sent to Afghanistan to train a town's police force, it meets a very different challenge -- deadly insurgents.

Kristin Henderson, who was embedded with the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan, took questions and comments on her Washington Post Magazine cover story about the experience:

A Change in Mission (Post Magazine, June 21, 2009)

The transcript is below.


Kristin Henderson: Hello everyone. I'd like to start with an email I received from a reader who raised a couple interesting questions. First, is the war in Afghanistan a "real war"? Or is it more of a police action, like a SWAT team battling an inner city gang? The answer is, yes. In Helmand Province, at one end of the spectrum you have Now Zad, where it most definitely is a war. At the other end there are towns with much lower levels of insurgent activity and police who are in the process of being trained, and there the fighting is closer to that of a SWAT team. There's also everything in between.

I think part of the reason this question comes up is because of the death rate among American troops. Every death is an unimaginable personal loss for families and friends of those killed. But it's true that the number of American service members killed in Afghanistan is relatively low, compared to earlier wars. I think that contributes to a false impression that this is not a tough fight. It's important to keep in mind that modern medical advances have dramatically lowered the death rate. What's more telling is the overall casualty rate, the rate of killed AND wounded, which in Now Zad, among the Americans, was about one-third. that's a lot. The battalion had a higher casualty rate in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

Death rates among the enemy are impossible to know with any great accuracy and are not used as a measure of success. Instead, success is measured against the following question: are the locals able to go about their lives under the protection of their own government's forces? In Now Zad, and in much of Helmand, that goal is still a long way off.

This reader also noted that I "reported most of the Taliban killed in the engagement [described in the article] were young, ignorant, and probably drug 'hampered', as if to imply that what the Marines accomplished was not such a big

deal." That wasn't my intent. The Marines themselves called their enemy ingenious, quick to learn, knowledgeable about human behavior, and very tough to corner. But even in an article of this length, there just isn't enough space to include every nuance, including that one.

So let's get on with the discussion.


For the reporter: How did you come to be embedded with this unit?

Kristin Henderson: I had a contact within Fox Company, and when I heard about their experiences in Now Zad, I began working through Marine public affairs to arrange the embed, then traveled to Afghanistan.


Washington, D.C.: As an observer, do you think the troops are well provided for? I know I've read stories about people buying their own kevlar, or trucks without proper armor. Do you feel like the batallion you were with had the gear they needed?

Kristin Henderson: They seemed to have all the personal gear their needed. In fact, many would have preferred to be weighed down with less body armor. The "safest" amount of body armor depends on the situation. It's always a tradeoff between full coverage versus mobility. The more body armor you wear, the slower and more awkwardly you move, and the faster you wear out -- especially when it's 120 degrees.

Vehicles are an issue. Armored Humvees can't withstand the bigger IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The day I arrived in Now Zad, a Marine was killed when a Humvee hit an IED. The MRAPs, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, are bigger and provided great protection in Iraq, which has basic infrastructure. But they're not mobile enough in a land with no roads. They're in the process of being modified for Afghanistan (I believe this includes axles that move separately to accomodate rough terrain), but that's just getting underway.

They did not have enough helicopters, and still don't. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted this himself. My understanding is that the number of helicopters that the military has overall is inadequate for the kinds of wars it's fighting these days. But in Helmand, I saw a report recently that the Marines will soon have more than 50 helicopters, if they don't already. So there's a real ongoing effort to solve that problem. Helicopters provide a huge advantage over an enemy with no airpower, and because they generally operate closer to the fight than fixed wing aircraft, may be less likely to cause civilian casualties. Since the people are what they're fighting over, limiting civilian casualties is crucial.


Washington, DC: First, I commend you on the story. It should be on the Pulitzer short list. I believe you captured the essence of not only the difficult mission facing Marines on the ground, but the nature of the Marines themselves. My question relates to the clear and complete failure of the pre-insertion intel, for which I cannot imagine a legimate excuse. Do you feel that this is typical or systemic across the broader mission of the coalition forces or just a one-off "oops - sorry about that" occurence. I fear that the former is more likely

Kristin Henderson: My sense is that, until recently at least, that lack of knowledge about the ground truth was not unusual. There's just too much territory in southern and eastern Afghanistan that has become no-go territory. Gathering is in that situation is difficult, especially if you don't have enough people to do it.


SW Nebraska: Are our soldiers and marines close enough to the population that they can score opium? It's happened in past wars; why no discussion of a problem now? Is it that unlikely?

Kristin Henderson: I saw no signs of drug use on the FOBs I visited. They certainly do have access in some areas -- new recruits to the Afghan National Police often show up addicted and have to go through detox, then sometimes relapse, which means they have access... and their Marine and Army trainers work closely with them. But it's not tolerated among the Afghans and the same goes for the Americans. My sense is that, at least out in the forward bases where there is no privacy, it wouldn't be tolerated.


Washington, D.C.: I feel like the 120-degrees factor is more significant than many people will give it credit for. I gutted houses in New Orleans the summer after katrina, and it was brutally exhausting doing any physical labor in 90-100 degree heat. I can't imagine doing all the things these marines had to in even hotter weather while wearing more gear.

Kristin Henderson: Neither can I. I was there in Oct/Nov. Even then, they put away a lot of water during an operation.


Washington, D.C.: What was the most surprising thing you found while in afghanistan?

Kristin Henderson: The biggest surprise to me was how integral the civilian development effort is to the military effort.

The Obama Administration's new Afghanistan strategy calls for more coalition troops, more training for Afghan police and soldiers, and more civilian aid. You need all three to fight an insurgency, because as I mentioned, what you're fighting over is the people. Each side is trying to win them over, either by intimidating them or giving them what they want: security and tangible improvement in their lives.

To keep the people safe and secure, the first step is combat, the military's job. As the tide begins to turn, even though the fighting's still going on, USAID enters the picture, working with the military on small projects aimed at making an immediate difference -- repairing wells, fixing up schools. Once the situation's stable and safe enough, USAID takes over with major reconstruction. Or that's the way it's supposed to work.

During the Bush years, everybody now knows the military didn't have enough boots on the ground to keep anyone safe and secure. What's less well known is that the civilian side is even more short-staffed. Going forward, the Obama team may be able to throw more troops and civilian aid money at Afghanistan, but they'll be hard pressed to come up with more civilian aid workers. Unlike the military, USAID has no reservists it can call up, and right now it's maxed out in Helmand with exactly one field officer.


Richmond, VA: Great coverage!

Are the NATO forces in Afghanistan able to work well with the US forces there? Do the US forces have a little more respect for some other nations forces than others or is that something they aren't supposed to talk about?

Kristin Henderson: Your average Marine is pretty free with his/her opinion. In Now Zad, the Marines' tiny base was right next to an equally tiny base occupied by British and Estonian soldiers. They all seemed to have a lot of respect for each other. The Marines and Estonians in particular had a mutual admiration society. About the Estonians, Capt. Schellhaas said, "Estonians. LOVE the Estonians." About the Marines, the Estonian lieutenant said, "I love Marines. Aggressive. I love it!" The Estonians were known to charge their vehicles into a fight with their weapons on continuous fire. Lt. Karell liked to tell the story of how, before he went out with the Estonians the first time, the Estonian commander said in his thick Eastern European accent: "We will find their mortars and we will smash them."


Bethesda, MD.: This is a question I don't expect you to answer, but we spend billions of dollars to create the best military in the world. Why don't we spend the money for what will be useful for troops in harms way?

Kristin Henderson: That battle is currently underway in Congress. Secretary Gates' proposed DoD budget cuts back on big ticket weapons systems which are more useful in conventional warfare, in favor of what's needed for the current more unconventional wars. Some say that approach is short sighted, that we need to be preparing for the next war, not the current one. There's a lot of interesting debate about what that next war might look like.


Worcester, Mass.: You mention the plight of USAID andthe civilian effort over there. IS this more of a bodies issue (i.e., "we don't have enough people willing to go") or a money issue (i.e. "we have a lot of people interested, but no money to hire more people.")

Kristin Henderson: For several decades, it's been both. The State Dept, of which USAID is a part, has been neglected and underfunded for a long time. They're starting to pump money into it now, but it takes a special person with a versatile skill set to be an effective USAID field officer. They don't grow on trees, and it's going to take a while to build up that people resource. In the meantime, the military is being asked to call up Reserve civil affairs officers to fill the gap. It's an imperfect solution. Their training and focus is different from that of a civilian development expert.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I have a brother in the Marines who is disappointed that his unit was NOT among those shipped to Afghanistan. Did you get a sense from the group you were with that serving in a war zone is a matter of pride?

Kristin Henderson: Absolutely. It's a little more complicated than pride, though. Combat is what infantry Marines train to do. It's satisfying to be able to put your skills to work and feel like you're making a difference, and frustrating when you can't. When you're deployed, you can focus solely on your job without the ordinary distractions that you have to deal with back home. In addition, they form deeply felt bonds with each other when they're serving in harsh conditions under fire. It's a type of connection that has few if any matches in civilian life. One thing I wish I'd had space for in the article is Marine humor. Here's a typical exchange:

"What's that in your hand?"

"A book."

"You're actually going to read?"

Except for the part about people trying to kill them, the FOB often had the feel of a boys secret club house.


Anonymous: That's a great story - thank you for the insight to a soldiers' reality. Kristin, although I've never seen you, I think you're beautiful.

Kristin Henderson: This is my kind of reader.


Observer: So, what higher HQ lacked the knowlege that sent 2/7 in for a bogus mission? Not that I'd expect a Marine infantry battalion to be very good at training police procedures.

Kristin Henderson: Marines and police don't seem like an obvious fit, I know. But in Afghanistan, the police are really more like paramilitaries. The Marines teach them how to stop and search vehicles, room-clearing tactics, bounding, etc. The training in police procedures -- how to gather evidence, keep records, order supplies -- comes from private contractors who are usually former police officers or National Guardsmen who are police officers back home. The problem is, there isn't much opportunity for any of that. In a town I visited, there was no judge or prosecutor, so it fell to the police chief. They had no file cabinet, much less a fax machine to send in supply requests. And so on. The Marine training is actually more useful.


Princeton, NJ: Do you have suggestions for what we can send Marines in Afghanistan (care packages)? Thank you so much for your article.

Kristin Henderson: I don't believe the military accepts care packages addressed to "any Marine" or "any Soldier" anymore. So if you haven't already hooked up with a specific unit, that's the first step. There are also links to charities that do that sort of thing on the "Take Action" page of my website, But generally, they need things like baby wipes, hand cleanser, toiletries, and snacks that don't melt. There are no stores out on the FOBs.


Falls Church, VA: What did you have to do to prepare to be an imbedded journalist?

Kristin Henderson: Work through a lot of bureaucracy and have a good packing list. has a great list of what you need to take.


Arlington, Va.: Will Karell head back to Afghanistan, as the end of your story hinted? Not sure how much time has passed since you wrote it ...

Kristin Henderson: There are no definites about where they will deploy next. Just depends on the world situation. But it's looking like, instead of Afghanistan, they may be spending their next deployment on ships in the Western Pacific, training with foreign militaries and on standby in case of trouble in Asia.


Kristin Henderson: Looks like we're out of time. Thanks for the thoughtful questions!


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