HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The most significant Marine Corps operation since the Battle of Fallujah in 2004 and the largest helicopter insertion since the Vietnam War took place July 2 as Marines spread out into the Helmand River valley to secure what was called one of the most violent provinces in all of Afghanistan at the time.
Regimental Combat Team 3 spearheaded Operation Khanjar — designed to deliver a swift and lethal blow to the insurgency as the name of the operation, Strike of the Sword, suggests — marking the highly anticipated unleashing of a strengthened Marine Corps force here.
3rd Marine Regiment deployed in November 2008 as the command element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Afghanistan, which encompassed just more than 2,000 Marines and sailors who served as a bridging force for the larger Marine Expeditionary Brigade that took control in May. After turning over authority to the MEB, 3rd Marines became the headquarters of RCT-3, the MEB's ground combat element.
Although Operation Khanjar was extremely successful, a great deal of work still needed to be accomplished. Several follow-on clearing operations ensued in some areas to weed out Taliban militants and give Afghan civilians the security and freedom of movement required to participate in the Aug. 20 national and provincial elections. In several areas, Marines were able to immediately transition from offensive operations to a more humanitarian mission by establishing positive relationships with local elders and setting conditions for development.
The Marines understood that progress in a counterinsurgency struggle takes place in three phases — clearing, holding and building. Some steps would occur more rapidly in certain regions, and each population center would provide unique challenges. The one thing that remained constant through all areas is the Marines' focus on protecting the civilian population. All RCT-3 subordinate commands experienced a unique environment but adapted to their specific situations and took the initiative from the insurgency.
1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment
What was once Taliban controlled real estate, Nawa district was wrested from insurgents by RCT-3's Marines in June and July.
1/5 arrived in country in June, established their headquarters at Forward Operating Base Geronimo and swiftly pushed their troops forward to Patrol Base Jaker, located adjacent to the Nawa district center, to begin work with the British soldiers who had been stationed there since March.
The day they got there, the Marines joined the fight to defend the patrol base. Daily firefights with insurgents were a part of the routine for the British soldiers and advanced party of Marines, until July 2, when the rest of the battalion, along with other elements of RCT-3, conducted a helicopter insertion behind Taliban lines.
On July 19, two weeks later, Marines and Afghan police and soldiers facilitated a large tribal shura at the governor's compound in Nawa distict. A shura is a meeting where locals voice their opinions and concerns to leaders who have the power to change things.
Lt. Col. William McCollough, commanding officer of 1/5, said, "This was the first time in over a year that this many elders felt safe enough to travel to the district center and make their concerns known."
McCollough informed the assembled elders that the Marines had been asked by the governor of Helmand province, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, to introduce themselves throughout the district, so they should expect the Marines to approach them in a friendly manner. And the Marines made good on their promise in spite of periodic insurgent attacks and random IED attacks, meeting residents in some of the district's most remote areas while providing security side by side with Afghan soldiers and police.
The challenge of earning the Afghan people's trust was successfully demonstrated as attainable a month later, on Aug. 23.
A joint morning patrol of Afghan soldiers and Marines was surprised by a premature IED blast less than a quarter mile down the road they were traveling on. The patrol's corpsman, Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos A. Tobar, and squad leader, Sgt. Sean M. Cain treated a little boy and an older man for injuries they had received in the blast. The next day, the Marines patrolling through fields near where the incident took place were told by a farmer that the older man had pulled the kite string detonator on the IED, killing one insurgent and seriously injuring a second as they were hastily laying the mine, rather than letting them attack the approaching Marines.
Smiles, friendly interaction and emergency assistance like this made the Marines welcome in Nawa, but their cooperative contributions with the Afghan government made them neighbors. In September, the Marines provided security as the District governor's office distributed 300 metric tons of wheat seed, an alternative to the poppy many Afghan farmers choose as their cash crop. The wheat seed, along with 1,050 metric tons of fertilizer, was distributed in the Nawa district center and expected to reach more than 3,700 farmers in the region.
3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment
The first ever Marine Corps artillery unit to deploy in battalion strength to Afghanistan, 3/11 left Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., in June to take over the indirect fire mission for the Marines in Helmand province, with one organic firing battery and one reserve cannon battery. They also assumed control of a rocket battery — Battery R, 5th Bn., 11th Marines, who fire High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems — and a target acquisition platoon to enhance their fire-support capabilities in theater.
"I simply cannot say enough about the performance of these Marines and sailors, said Lt. Col. James Lewis, 3/11's commanding officer. "Our focus has always been on good gunnery which is made up of two elements — one, accuracy; and two, timeliness. On both accounts, the Marines of 3/11 [reinforced] acquitted themselves well and ably supported maneuver forces in the accomplishment of their counterinsurgency mission."
3/11, designated "Task Force Thunder," charged into the battle space and established what would become Firebase Fiddler's Green — a wide open patch of desert at the time. Nowadays it is a secure forward operating area for the battalion's gunline, motor pool and headquarters.
While in Afghanistan, 3/11 accomplished many Marine Corps firsts. They were the first composite Marine artillery battalion to ever deploy with rockets, cannons and counterbattery radars; the first Marine Corps artillery battalion to participate in a helicopter lift of the M777A2 howitzer to support combat operations; and the first Marine Corps artillery unit to fire the "Excalibur" round in combat. The Excalibur is a GPS guided artillery round — one of the newest additions to artillery technology.
2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment
In 2008, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marines entered Garmsir as the first major ISAF presence in the district. The force cleared the insurgents from the most populated areas in the northern part of the district. British soldiers eventually replaced the Marines in late 2008 and held the positions previously cleared by 1/6.
2/8 kicked off operations in southern Helmand province under RCT-3 when they moved in to replace the British forces in Garmsir in late June, replacing the British Battle Group South soldiers at FOB Delhi near the district center and the forces occupying patrol bases to the south.
With the start of Operation Khanjar, 2/8 went on a grueling offensive. Two of the three line companies in 2/8, Golf and Echo, entered areas previously unoccupied by ISAF forces. Co. G moved 18 kilometers south on foot to an area called Koshtay, roughing the 120-degree heat and all too common IED and small-arms attacks along the way. Co. E conducted a helicopter insertion from Camp Dwyer into Mian Poshteh — becoming the most southern of any RCT-3 unit. "It's amazing what the Marines did," said 1st Sgt. Robert W. Pullen, Co. G first sergeant. "With a full combat load, they made it through this push with all of the firefights and IED's they encountered — as well as dealing with the heat — and did a phenomenal job."
Just 16 days after Khanjar commenced, Marines with Co. F, and Afghan National Army soldiers conducted an early-morning raid on a prominent Taliban-controlled bazaar near Mian Poshteh. "The purpose of the raid was to disrupt freedom of movement with the bazaar and to exploit the enemy force logistic base," said Capt. Junwei Sun, commander, Co. F. "This seizure means we invaded Taliban territory, discovered their caches, disrupted their log operations and squeezed them out of the area." Just over two months later, 2/8 established a patrol base within close proximity to this bazaar in order to deny the insurgents influence in the area for the long term.
These were not the only operations conducted by 2/8. Others by the battalion include Operation Kapcha Khufak I & II, during which the Marines successfully marginalized the insurgents' influence on the population in the area and set conditions for a secure environment where development and legitimate governance could take place.
"They have accomplished more than I could have imagined, and I am in constant awe of their accomplishments," said Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, 2/8's battalion commander. "The Marine Corps as a whole has every reason to be proud of them."
2/8 also effectively integrated an Estonian Expeditionary Task Force in September, which is currently operating as an organic infantry company for the battalion. The Estonian force enabled more effective operations in the central part of the district by having more forces concentrated in the area. This cooperation demonstrates that ISAF's mission is truly an international effort to help secure and rebuild Afghanistan. "They are good soldiers with good attitudes. I expect very good things from them," said Cabaniss, shortly after the Estonians arrived.
Cabaniss' unit experienced the most enemy contact of any battalion in RCT-3, but the commander remains optimistic about 2/8's progressive efforts.
"Although we are still engaged with the enemy almost every day, our area of operations is in fact very different from the place we arrived in months ago," said Cabaniss. "The Marines and sailors are changing the course of history here in Garmsir."
2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment
2/3 entered Afghanistan in May to relieve 3/8 prior to Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Afghanistan's transition to RCT-3 and the takeover by 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. The area of operations for 2/3 was unique in many aspects. The AO was the largest for any single battalion within RCT-3, covering an area roughly the size of Vermont, and the only one boasting any substantial mountains. The Marines were also the only unit that extended into multiple districts and provinces.
Once 2/3 set in, its Marines began shaping operations to build up for a definitive strike on insurgents. In some locations, such as Deleram, the Marines were able to immediately pick up where 3/8 left off — boosting positive relationships with the local populace and winning their trust. Other areas were more challenging, such as the abandoned city of Now Zad. The city itself is still completely abandoned by its former civilian populace, but there are a number of neighboring villages that possess a substantial neutral population. 2/3 was the first battalion in the area with enough standoff from the enemy to have the ability to interact with these villagers. After their arrival, the Marines of Co. G immediately started to develop relationships with the citizens of Kwaja Jamal and Dahanah.
"It puts a human face on who we are, and it may make them less likely to help the Taliban," said 1st Lt. Jared Sprunk, an infantry officer with Co. G. "We are doing everything here — the full spectrum of counterinsurgency operations."
After discerning a pattern of life for the insurgents in the Now Zad region, 2/3 launched a major offensive called Operation Eastern Resolve II in August. During the operation, which commenced just a few weeks before the national and provincial elections, the Marines established a position between the insurgents and the village of Dahanna. Another major achievement in the operation was establishing a presence in the Dahanna Pass, which served as a logistical re-supply route for the insurgency. The Marines' intense efforts provided the security required to allow people to vote in the Aug. 20 elections.
Other significant accomplishments for 2/3 include the compacting of Route 515, which was initially cleared by 3/8 to connect the districts of Deleram and Bakwa. After the route was cleared, it continued to be plagued with IEDs. Today, the road is still dangerous but much safer due to the project 2/3 facilitated.
The final major operation 2/3 conducted was the clearance of the Buji Bhast Pass during Operation Germinate. Company F traveled into the dangerous pass to clear the route connecting the population centers of Golestan and Delaram in order to create more freedom of movement for local Afghans in the area and deal a blow to the insurgent presence there. The Taliban have killed significantly more civilians than Marines with their IEDs, and the ultimate goal of this operation, like all others, was to make the environment safer for Afghan civilians.
RCT-3 to RCT-7
RCT-3 has seen significant progress in southern Afghanistan with the drastic increase of forces over the last several months. After gaining a foothold and laying the early foundations for future success in the region, Regimental Combat Team 7 from Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. has arrived to relieve RCT-3 as the MEB's ground combat element. RCT-7 will still have many challenges ahead.
"I am grateful for the opportunity of 3rd Marines to deploy as a headquarters for SPMAGTF-A and RCT-3, especially since the regimental headquarters hasn't deployed since the Gulf War," said Col. Duffy W. White, commanding officer of RCT-3. "The RCT-3 success is a good example of how well the Marine Corps has adapted to the counterinsurgency fight."
"I know RCT-7 is going to come in and exploit any successes we've had and continue to drive a wedge between the insurgency and the Afghan people," White said.
While 3rd Marine Regiment is based in Hawaii and many of its Marines will be redeploying to Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, roughly half of RCT-3 is composed of individual augments who will be returning to their parent commands in Okinawa, Japan. Some of these Marines have been serving in southern Afghanistan for an entire year, others for six months.
As these Marines reunite with their families and friends in the coming days, RCT-7 will carry on as the world continues to watch the history being made in Afghanistan.