The history and image of the U.S. Marine Corps is an elite, hard-hitting fighting force, usually the first into any combat zone accessible from the sea. When Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was formed six years ago as the final service component of SOCOM, it was seen as an even more elite and lethal addition to the Corps.
MARSOC units were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan even as the new command was being stood up, applying the knowledge and capabilities of Force Reconnaissance, the Foreign Military Training Unit (FMTU), the 4th Marine Expeditionary Battalion (MEB), and the command and control (C2), tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), and concept of operations (CONOPS) of the Marine Air/Ground Task Force (MAGTF), the heart of modern Marine Corps combat structure and operations.
In six years of combat in Southwest Asia, MARSOC quickly grew into the SOCOM command and operations structure while also deploying worldwide in support of SOCOM efforts in Africa, the Asia/Pacific, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. But it also has grown into a new kind of Marine Corps – and special ops – organization, seeking mediation among Afghan groups generally friendly to the United States and its coalition allies but historically hostile to each other, and conducting Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercises in nations with militaries as sophisticated as Brazil and as new and evolving as many are in Africa.
“In the last 18 months, we’ve had about two-thirds of the regiment dedicated to Afghanistan. We continue to do company- and battalion-sized persistent deployments there, through MSOCs [Marine Special Operations Companies] and SOTFs [special ops task forces] in support of SOCOM and the TSOCs [theater special operations commands],” noted Col. Steve Grass, commander of the Marine Special Operations Regiment (MSOR). “We continue to support other SOCOM requirements, JCET programs, foreign SOF in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Central Asia.
“Our bread and butter today is doing village-to-village operations in Afghanistan. We’ve made some great gains in our understanding of the environment there, starting with tactical actions and stretching through understanding the people to the point of acutely bolstering their defense forces and strengthening governance leading to transition.”
A key operation in Afghanistan in 2011-12 has been the creation and deployment of SOCOM advanced operating bases (AOBs), most under the command of a U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) Special Forces A-Team (Operational Detachment-Alpha, or ODA) or a MARSOC MSOC, with elements from other SOCOM service components attached to them.
“When we deploy an MSOC, we have about 105 personnel. But SOCOM realized the MSOC can be the HQ for a much larger SOF, so we have taken the MSOC’s headquarters and three teams and attached under that one Navy SEAL platoon and two to three ODAs. Additionally, we took a standard unit – 1st of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne. When you add all those attached forces, you have more than 500 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines operating under one MARSOC commander, which is a substantial capability,” Maj. Andy Christian, commander of MSOC Alpha, 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion (MSOB), explained.
“The MSOC, with those maneuver elements, has SOTF-West above us, a battalion-level unit responsible for the largest chunk of real estate in Afghanistan. SOTF-W also has a similar company operating further west, so it is a larger snapshot of what we were doing [as an AOB], with the mission to command and control all special [operations] forces in the western section of the country.”
Christian’s Alpha Company was the first MARSOC-led unit (AOB-811), comprising a small multi-service group deployed to individual villages – some still controlled by the Taliban. Their job was a 21st century expansion of the “winning hearts and minds” concept employed by the Green Berets in Vietnam. While noting some inherent similarities with Vietnam, he said the biggest difference is the desired “end-state.”
“We are trying to expand security, governance, and development, but the most important element is connecting the villages to a district level of governance so there is a future for Afghanistan, with no more villages isolated from the rest of the nation. Once you accomplish that – and the challenge is to make sure that connection remains in place once you remove SOF from the equation – the Afghans themselves must stand up to continue the three operations critical to the long-term success of the model in Afghanistan,” he said.
“I think security will always be challenging, but building security forces in Afghanistan to a significant number that they will be credible and capable will have a major impact. Ultimately, of course, the citizens of Afghanistan will determine the future of Afghanistan. But with this model in place, the government in Kabul should have a better relationship with and reach into these formerly isolated villages.”