HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
Soon after changing deployment plans in mid-January and arriving in Afghanistan mid-March, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit began planning for counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan, specifically focusing on the Garmsir District of Helmand Province.
“The geography of Afghanistan is the geography of water. People live, crops grow and trade routes are all located within 10 kilometers either side of the river. Beyond that – it is barren desert,” said Col Peter Petronzio, commanding officer, 24th MEU, ISAF.
The water in Helmand Province is the Helmand River – the longest river in Afghanistan. It runs north to south through the center of the province and through the center of Garmsir. In the northern part of Garmsir there is an intricate canal and irrigation system, built by USAID in the 1950’s. Looking at a map and seeing how the Helmand River bulges at the northern edge of the district, it looks like the head of a snake. Which is why the Marines dubbed the area the “snake’s head”.
With their eyes turned to Garmsir, the Marines’ first task was to secure key routes though the district center – just south of the southernmost British forward operating base, and a region in which NATO-ISAF forces had not had a presence in years. This operation was only going to take a few days, seven to 10 or so.
Although the southern border of Afghanistan is porous and offers many routes through – all traffic converges on the river. Garmsir was a stronghold that allowed a throughput for insurgent’s logistics.
“Fighters and weapons funneled through there, it was a stop along the way to other locations in and out of Afghanistan,” said Maj. Carl McCleod, intelligence officer, 24th MEU, ISAF.
Knowing this, the true value of that land to the insurgents did not become clear until after the insurgents engaged Marines and refused to quickly concede.
“We were told that the insurgents would fight for a few days and then they would scatter,” McCleod said, “but that’s not what happened.”
Launching Operation Azada Wosa
It’s April 28th and more than 1,000 Marines sit and wait, some near helicopters that will deliver them to battle, others in vehicles parked in a vast, vacant desert, all covered by a moonless sky and unaware of a hitch that would delay their assault.
At 9:39 pm AV-8 Harriers are set to launch from Kandahar Airfield but there’s a problem: the refueling tanker support is temporarily lost. Without refuel capabilities the planes are grounded. This delay has a ripple effect on the entire operation - setting everything back about 40 minutes and requiring some on-the-spot creative problem solving.
“We couldn’t punch into the predetermined landing zones because we didn’t have the objective secure or at least have eyes-on it (from the Harriers),” said that night’s air mission commander Capt. Brandon L. Whitfield, officer in charge, Tactics and Planning, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-365, 24th MEU, ISAF. “I had to push the skids (the AH-1Ws and UH-1Ns – the fire support from above) in first, which was completely not planned - but it worked out, to get eyes-on, to make sure the landing zone was secure and then I had to bring the assault (the troops in the CH-46E and CH-53E helicopters) in.”
At 11:20 pm the first wave of Marines, in transport helicopters, depart for the landing area, followed two hours later by wave two, and so on under KC-130 provided battlefield illumination until dawn.
In the first hours of the insert some Marines jokingly call the operation: Operation Rolled Ankle. Marines charging off aircraft in the dark, along with the unfamiliar and difficult terrain and the weight of full combat load and sustainment gear combine to form a perfect storm of ankle and leg injuries. At one point during the insert the battalion commander, Lieutenant Col. Anthony Henderson, comes over the radio and says, “When you come off the helo, it’s quiet here, so WALK off the aircraft.”
By 3:00 am motorized Charlie Company arrives at a pre-staged launching point near the southernmost friendly outpost, south of them three Alpha Company Marines, two sprained ankles and one broken leg, are evacuated from the landing zone.
As the first beams of light break over the eastern horizon the Marines are in place, Charlie Company is set to create a diversion in the north and Alpha and Bravo Companies are inserted into their objectives to the south. The plan being that insurgents could not react to a three pronged attack and they would certainly not be ready for the Marines when they woke up in the morning, explained Maj. Mark D. McCarroll, battery commander, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th MEU, ISAF.
“They had no idea we were going to land that far south. They weren’t prepared for us. We literally dropped in behind them,” said McLeod. “It took them a few days to realize we were there in that size of force behind them.”
With adrenaline pumping through their veins, Marines perform the last few function checks on gear and weapons. Birds chirp in the trees, and it’s quiet enough to hear the babbling water in the canals. This is as tranquil Garmsir will be for the next month.
35 days and 170 enemy engagements
Just after 8:00 am on the 29th the sound of automatic weapons firing crackled through the air, Charlie Company, motorized but clearing the north on foot, was in contact with enemy forces.
For the next 48 hours Charlie Company wielded the power of combined arms with the precision of a sculptor, wreaking havoc on insurgent positions, before the fighting began to ebb and flow with intense firefights followed by hours of nothing. To the south, Alpha and Bravo companies began getting regular contact, catching some insurgents by surprise as they tried to escape to the south.
This was the start of Marine combat operations in Garmsir. In less than 12 hours the Marines penetrated into the enemy held territory of the Snake’s Head and seized key crossing points and terrain. For the next 35 days, the Marines and insurgents engaged in approximately 170 engagements.
Operations in May were maneuver warfare in its truest form. It was a constant struggle to gain the position of advantage over the enemy while fighting to keep the battalion supply lines open.
“The enemy consistently fought from fortified positions to include the hardened structures they evicted the civilians from,” said Maj. Todd Mahar, operations officer, BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF. “They dug textbook trench lines and bunker systems and at times had mutually supporting positions.”
On a daily basis, Marines fought the “Three Block War”, ever mindful of precautions to protect innocent civilians. They were decisively engaged with the enemy in one area while they provided security and aid to the local populous a few kilometers away in another area, all while seizing ground and exploiting the area for weapons caches and intelligence, said Mahar.
“In some areas, within days of the initial assault, we began to see civilians repopulating areas that we had just cleared. They wanted to work their fields and live under the security of the Marines,” said Mahar.
One Last Push
On May 28, two Marine companies pushed from their eastern positions to the Helmand River, disrupting insurgent strongholds in between the two and essentially ending the combat phase of operations.
One of the objectives incorporated in this push included the insurgent base known as Jugroom Fort – the British objective in an attack Jan 15 last year.
“Much like we did on the initial assault, the insurgents were oriented to one direction, we went up around them and dropped in behind them … again,” said McLeod.
“Within 48 hours of us pushing down on them there was a mass exodus of insurgents,” said McLeod.
The last sustained engagement with enemy forces was May 30, but the hard work was just beginning.
Stable, but not secure
In June soon after ISAF’s command changed hands, the MEU’s mission was re-evaluated. Now, instead of securing routes through the district center and moving on to other missions, the MEU would remain in Garmsir to capitalize on successes achieved.
Although still clearing the area of insurgents albeit less dramatically than the past weeks, the Marines found themselves doing more of the hold and build tenets of counterinsurgency.
“I don’t see them as phases (the classic counterinsurgency doctrine of clear-hold-build),” said Petronzio. “I think of them as a circle and they run continuously, we’re constantly clearing, we’re constantly holding and constantly building.”
Marines established new strong point positions and began conducting security and census patrols through the villages in order to determine the make-up of the civilian population living in and moving back to the district - the leaders, the workers, the ones who don’t belong, etc.
However, no one is waving the victory flag just yet and the Marines now fight complacency with the same vigor once reserved for enemy forces.
As insurgencies go, they realize that they can’t stand toe-to-toe against a conventional fighting force and win, so they adapt. That adaptation manifests in asymmetric attacks such as Improvised Explosive Devices and suicide bombs, attacks which are indiscriminate in what they kill.
“Insurgents are highly adaptive organisms that must not be underestimated. They constantly change their tactics based on what they observe us doing” said Mahar.
Being able to identify the insurgents who hide amongst the local populace is the challenging part of the asymmetric fight. In this type of warfare the population is the ‘key terrain’ and actions must focus on gaining the trust and confidence of the people so that they help identify the enemy – this takes away the enemy’s safe haven.
“The key to holding any area is the elimination of safe havens. Eliminating their ability to have a place where everybody can work, meet, plan and prepare unopposed is very important to their defeat. The insurgents must be denied the ability to establish these new locations but not at the expense of leaving what has already been cleared,” said Petronzio.
Eating the elephant one bite at a time
Stability in the area leads not only to the return of people who had previously been exiled to the outskirts of the desert by insurgents, but also to a series of events marking the beginning of Garmsir’s reconstruction.
“You can be very lethal, and non-kinetic,” Petronzio said. “An insurgency’s strength is drawn from the populace it can either coerce or convince to go with them. If I can separate that populace for all the right reasons from that insurgency, non-kinetically, that’s still very lethal to that insurgency.”
On June 5th, Garmsir held its first shura in nearly three years – with not only village elders, but the district governor and chief of police in attendance.
“The shura is an integral part of Afghan governance. This was a major milestone for them to have this meeting since the insurgents infiltrated the area more than two years ago,” said CWO2 Rene Cote, civil affairs officer, 24th MEU, ISAF.
Two weeks later, Marines, in conjunction with British forces of Task Force Helmand, opened a Joint Civil Military Operations Center in the region. Here, the citizens of Garmsir meet to discuss future plans while also collecting compensation for losses of personal property they sustained during the fighting. The CMOC will soon have its 1000th visitor and to date has paid approximately 20.8 million Afghani to help citizens to reconstruct their compounds and replace property damaged in battle.
With insurgents no longer lurking in the shadows and controlling all transactions, business has returned to the area in the district center bazaar. In less than a month more than 70 shops opened, peddling everything from produce and livestock to prepackaged items found on the shelves of most convenience stores. On the heels of the bazaar the community members of Garmsir organized their own flea market with approximately 350 people attending to buy, sell and trade various items.
“It shows that people feel safe enough in their own community to come back out,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. John Garth, civil affairs chief, 24th MEU, ISAF. “A feeling that is shared by more than Sunday shoppers, you see a lot more of them on the side of the road, more people out playing in the canal,” said.
One merchant, speaking to Garth, gave one reason for the bolstered confidence of the locals.
“Before, everything was bad,” an interpreter relayed. “Since you guys got here the Taliban are not here.”
Also returning to an operational status is the Garmsir District hospital, treating almost 100 patients a day.
British forces, who will eventually resume full responsibility for the regions’ security with Afghan National forces, are planning to refurbish the hospital with work due to start in August, said Louise Perrotta, Garmsir Stabilization Advisor. “This should enable the hospital to attract more staff and to provide a more comprehensive service. The people are delighted to have any healthcare in the district.”
“It’s great how quickly the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has responded along with various aid organizations. But we have to maintain a measured approach. This place needs to be better for us having been there, but we can’t define what better is. The citizens of Garmsir will do that and we need to listen,” said Petronzio.