HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
As one of the countless patrols passes through the Garmsir city district, three children stare. They have spotted something unfamiliar in the passersby. Among the Marines are men in different uniforms, different and yet not foreign.
One of the darker skinned, bearded men wearing a different uniform has caught their eye. They stand before him looking confused, intrigued, excited and finally settle on a blank stare.
This is the next step of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s mission in southern Helmand Province: introducing Afghan forces to the region, the same forces that will be responsible for its protection when the Marines leave.
Shortly after the fighting ended, Marines invited Afghanistan National Border Police and other Afghan security forces to train and patrol with them.
“We link up with them and do joint patrols and give them some instruction, get them used to working with locals and get people used to seeing them down here,” said 1st Lt. Micah Steinpfad, executive officer, Alpha Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, ISAF.
The importance of having the ANBP seen providing security by locals is a point Steinpfad emphatically makes.
“The biggest thing here is getting out with the ANBP, letting the people see them, get them trusting and working with the ANBP. If we are guests in the area and they only see us, it doesn’t quite seem like we are guests. If we are accompanied by (ANBP) we are perceived more as guests, and partnering with them helps establish the government out here.”
So Steinpfad’s Marines, who have gone from rushing off helicopters, to fighting the insurgents, to holding the first meeting of elders in the area in three years, to welcoming locals back and assessing damage claims for civil military operations, now shift focus to the ANBP.
In addition to patrolling villages together, Marines spend copious amounts of time training the ANBP forces, ensuring they’ll be a capable replacement when the time comes.
“I’m tasked with supervising the training of the ANBP, and what I’ve done is come up with a campaign plan on what I want them to learn and on what I want the Marines to focus on until we are out of here,” said Steinpfad.
That plan is carried out by Staff Sgt. Stephen Vallejo Jr., platoon sergeant, Fires Platoon, Alpha Co., BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF.
“They are all willing to work. I’ve built a special relationship with the platoon sergeant for this group of guys, his name is Nassar Ahmad, and his guys want to work. They are real proud of what they do,” he said.
Ahmad, a 24 year old police officer, and his men have been coming to the Alpha Company outpost during their off-hours to maximize training opportunities.
“I hope to learn everything from the Marines,” he said. “Especially, patrols while driving and while hiking. We learned we need to train more because the Marines have techniques for patrols we hope to learn. We like it.”
“I enjoy being able to work with the Marines, it’s a good chance to work together and bring peace and security to Afghanistan and its people. They (the insurgents) are a big problem for us, the border patrol and Marines,” he explained.
In working with the ANBP two complications become clear. First and foremost are logistical issues.
“The first day we started the job we had problems, like we needed weapons, supplies, clothes, boots and these things. The Marines and coalition forces help us, they give us what they can,” said Ahmad.
The second challenge for the Marines working with the ANBP is the language barrier. In talking to Ahmad, a linguist attempts to translate between English and Pashtu. At some points the linguist and Ahmad talk for up to 20 seconds between responses as they try to clarify words, phrases and concepts that don’t have direct translation to their native language.
“Every time they come out they improve, so the only challenge I have is me not being able to tell that platoon sergeant of that police officer what I want done. I have to do it through a linguist,” Vallejo said.
To avoid confusion during patrols, he makes a point to be meticulous in training the ANBP; not letting even the smallest mistake slide, so as to have a clear understanding of what needs to be done while on patrol before they get into a situation where there isn’t time for translation, just action.
Vallejo’s efforts seem to be paying off.
“On yesterday’s patrol I was watching some of the police officers take their own initiative to stop vehicles and turn them around like we briefed before we stepped off. The things we are briefing are sticking, and they are learning. That is one of my goals that I wanted to hit,” he said, noticeably proud of the progress.
Vallejo’s teaching goes beyond simple patrolling techniques, his training is intended to make them just as diverse in skill sets as their Marine counterparts.
“We are trying to get them into intelligence gathering from the local people and information operations, sending messages out because they don’t get a lot of news from the rest of the country. So, we are trying to get them to pass out news. We also want them more involved with civil military operations like handing out chow, clothing for children and school supplies,” said Vallejo, an eight-year veteran.
The ability of how Ahmad’s ANBP platoon now operates seems almost unthinkable when compared to the first impression the Marines had of the ANBP that came to their outpost almost a month ago.
“Who are these people,” were the first words to come to Vallejo’s mind at the time. “We were kind of overwhelmed by how much they didn’t know, then we got another group and these guys have been nothing but good things for us.”
Both Vallejo and Ahmad see signs the joint patrols are working.
“From what I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard the locals are happy. The trust hasn’t always been there with the ANBP, and we are building it slowly. The locals are happy to see these guys; it puts an Afghanistan face to what is being accomplished down here,” said Vallejo.
As the locals begin trusting both in their own security forces and the security they are provided, they relinquish more information.
“People are coming up to talk to us, telling us there is enemy activity in the area. Before, they were afraid to tell us for fear of the insurgents coming in at night, the night letters. They are telling us these things because they know we’re out there and that the Marines and ANBP care enough to provide security for them,” he said.
The night letters Vallejo speaks of are a hold-over from the area’s ancient past. In insurgent controlled areas, if people are suspected of helping coalition forces the insurgents will come into the town at night and post a letter stamped with the insurgent’s mark on the mosque promising cruel and violent acts against the residents. Most of the Marines here can recount second hand accounts of insurgent reprisals on the villagers in the early weeks of the fighting, such as killing a man and leaving his remains in the town market as a warning to others brave enough to help the Americans.
As for Ahmad, who joined the police six years ago, “to serve my people and to protect my land and my people,” he hears firsthand how much the people appreciate seeing Afghans and Marines working side by side.
“People are happy when they see us together and they know that it’s a sign of Afghanistan, that we have the coalition forces like the Marines to keep the area safe. They like the idea of us working together,” said Ahmad.
The Marines have experience in working with local government forces. In Ramadi, Iraq during their previous deployment the battalion spent time working with the Iraqi Police. It’s this experience that Steinpfad draws from when working with the ANBP.
“They are very similar in that they want their country to be safe. They want to control the area, they want to work down here and they are very excited to be able to come down and patrol with us. I think having those guys, just like in Iraq, was essential to controlling the area. As long as we get those guys working with us and the more of them we get, the quicker we can work ourselves out of a job,” he said.
“They speak the same language, and once we leave the area they will be the ones controlling it. So the more we can get those guys out with us, the more influence they will have, the more trust is built, and the more the government is established down here,” he added.
Vallejo said the best thing they can provide is a solid foundation of tactics and a good example.
“We won’t always be in this country, eventually we will be leaving. The Afghanistan National Police and ANBP will be here. All we want to do is leave that lasting impression. They can refer back to it and say this is how the Marines did it and it worked, maybe we can do the same thing. They have a lot of pride; let’s see what they do from here.”