A. Military successes stimulated reconciliation and population mobilization. The population-centric COIN that preceded the Marines had relied on political outreach and economic development to convince Sangin’s residents to abandon the insurgency and join the government side. Military force was minimized based on the theory that violence would create “accidental guerrillas,” kill off potential negotiating partners and alienate the insurgents so much that they would never consider reconciling with the government. This approach accomplished little. In fact, the counterinsurgents’ aversion to the use of force and their eagerness to negotiate most likely discouraged a political compromise because they suggested that the insurgents could win a complete victory by waiting the foreigners out. As it turned out, the Marines made much greater progress in reconciliation and population mobilization because their military successes raised the costs in lives and property that communities and families paid for supporting the insurgency and convinced the opportunists that the coalition would prevail.
B. The Marines put stabilization ahead of transition. Preceding military commanders and civilian officials had sought to facilitate transition by assigning greater responsibility to Afghans. The Marines concluded that the enemy was too strong and the Afghan government too weak to permit a successful transition under these conditions. Instead, they decided to take the lead in security operations in order to set the conditions for ultimate success. By reducing violence and permitting government officials freedom of movement, they put the government on a viable path to sustainable transition. This shift in approach mirrored the shift in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, when initial efforts to transition responsibility to Iraqis failed so spectacularly that the Americans chose to retake the lead in security until the situation stabilized. In both instances, a de-emphasis on transition actually improved the prospects for transition and shortened the amount of time required for a successful handover.
C. Development aid was provided only when coalition personnel could visit the projects. The Marines stopped the funding of development projects in areas that could not be visited. This shift ensured that coalition personnel could verify firsthand whether projects were proceeding as intended, and disabused Afghans of the notion that the coalition was a collection of suckers. The Marine willingness to operate throughout the district greatly facilitated on-site inspections.
D. Counternarcotics took a back seat to stabilization. The Marines decided that they had too many enemies already to engage in large-scale counternarcotics activities. Much of the population depended on the opium industry for its livelihood, and could be expected to cling to insurgency more strongly if that livelihood were at stake. Counternarcotics could wait until the government had enough personnel and adequate security to undertake robust counternarcotics measures. Marine COIN operations did, however, have a large impact on the narcotics trade because many of the insurgents they captured or killed had been involved in it. Nevertheless, the narcotics industry continues to thrive in Sangin, and it now poses a vexing problem across Helmand, for the power brokers required for reconciliation, and at some level the officials of the Afghan government, are deeply invested in it will strongly resist actions that would harm the narcotics business.