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    Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Afghanistan: bridge to Marine Corps' future in Afghanistan

    Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Afghanistan: Bridge to Marine Corps' Future in Afghanistan

    Photo By Lance Cpl. Brian Jones | Qasim Khan, left, and Amir Mohammed, right, the district sub-governor and district...... read more read more



    Story by Sgt. Scott Whittington 

    Marine Forces Central Command

    KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Called to action with only a couple months of notice, a unit was needed to fill an important and time-critical role.

    A task force of about 2,200 Marines and Sailors was summoned by the Pentagon and pieced together from various units around the globe — from North Carolina to Okinawa, Japan — to create a bridge for a future, larger Marine Corps presence in Afghanistan. This group of warriors composed Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Afghanistan.

    For the past seven months, SPMAGTF-A has been conducting counter-insurgency operations with a focus on training and mentoring the Afghan national police. The purpose: to provide security for the Afghan people, set the conditions required for successful future assumptions of authority by the ANP, and extend the authority of government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan by increasing its influence over security, stability and regional development.

    Col. Duffy W. White, commanding officer of SPMAGTF-A, made his intent clear before his force arrived in their area of operations. The commander's desired end state was to increase security in assigned district centers, contribute to the legitimacy of the GIRoA, and be prepared for follow-on missions when directed. His command experienced progress in each one of these areas, but it took every part of the MAGTF to meet the mission.

    In the Beginning

    In August 2008, a notification of a potential mission came to the headquarters of 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division — to lead and form the command element of a special-purpose MAGTF that would head into southern Afghanistan to relieve the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Task Force 2/7 (a task force built around 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment).

    SPMAGTF-A deployed in early November 2008 and assumed control of the area of operations previously held by Task Force 2/7. TF 2/7 was heavily engaged in intense fighting with insurgents since they deployed in April 2008, and their Marines successfully established a strong foothold. It would be the job of SPMAGTF-A to hold the ground gained by TF 2/7, sustain the momentum they established, and prepare the way for a larger force — a Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

    In addition to the importance of the SPMAGTF-A mission, this deployment had a special significance for 3rd Marines, according to Lt. Col. Jeffrey C. Holt, SPMAGTF-A operations officer.

    "It marked the first time we entered a combat zone as a regiment since the Gulf War," Holt said. "It was our time."

    Forming the task force in theater, 3rd Marines expediently gathered the units that would serve under the command element. Without having time for pre-deployment training, the Marines and Sailors of the task force came together and adapted to the situation. The ground combat element of SPMAGTF-A was identified as 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, N.C., commanded by Lt. Col. David L. Odom.

    Combat Logistics Battalion 3 was tapped to serve as the logistic combat element of SPMAGTF-A. The unit from Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, commanded by Lt. Col. Michael Jernigan, is the newest battalion in the entire Marine Corps, and this deployment was the unit's first. The battalion was also augmented by its Okinawa-based parent command, Combat Logistics Regiment 3.

    The aviation combat element encompassed several different units from various locations across the Marine Corps and represented all three Marine Expeditionary Forces. The ACE was initially commanded by Lt. Col. Richard T. Ostermeyer from Marine Wing Headquarters, Squadron 3 and command was transferred, Feb. 1, to Lt. Col. Michael E. Watkins of Marine Wing Headquarters, Squadron 2.

    Doing More with Less

    Some of the significant challenges facing the task force stemmed from its small size relative to its landlocked area of operations roughly the size of Vermont, which spreads across two provinces and encompasses extremely rough terrain. The AO includes very mountainous regions, a desert plagued by regular sandstorms and high winds, cold temperatures in the winter and extreme heat in the summer, and a near nonexistent infrastructure with only two paved roads.

    These unique conditions may have posed the most considerable obstacles for the logistical efforts. The single biggest factor in logistics operations was the ACE, according to Maj. George W. Markert, SPMAGTF-A logistics officer.

    "Many of the ground convoys were contested by the enemy ... they took time," Markert said. The use of aerial delivery into the forward operating bases was critical in enabling battle-space distribution."

    Another logistical challenge facing SPMAGTF-A was its initial table of equipment, which was not up to the level required. The task force's supply, fiscal and contracting Marines aggressively pursued the equipment and administrative supplies needed.

    "The biggest accomplishment logistically was the rapid build-up of the SPMAGTF-A table of equipment, and thus the combat capability," Markert said.

    The task force's communications Marines also experienced some unique challenges.

    "We had to learn quickly," said Cpl. Kristoffer R. Lang, SPMAGTF-A network administrator, who went from on-the-job training during the beginning of the deployment to becoming a duty expert in less than seven months.

    The communications Marines started with a small number of personnel and then spread them out across numerous forward operating bases, according to Cpl. Crag T. Tauyan, SPMAGTF-A network administrator. "We were stretched pretty thin, but we worked double to meet the mission," he said.

    Significant Operations and Achievements

    Prior to the arrival of Task Force 2/7 and SPMAGTF-A, the insurgent presence was more active in assigned district centers. The Marines helped to improve the conditions in the towns by conducting frequent dismounted patrols, training and mentoring the ANP, and developing positive relationships with the local elders and government leaders.

    SPMAGTF-A has seen progress in the Districts of Bakwa, Golestan and Delaram. In the District of Now Zad, which has been abandoned by its former civilian populace, Marines have fought the enemy using more conventional tactics.

    SPMAGTF-A conducted a major combat operation in the insurgent-infested District of Now Zad, April 3. Marines struck well-known enemy locations identified within and near the insurgent-infested Now Zad District center without harming any civilians during the operation.

    "The Marines in Now Zad conducted deliberate targeting of enemy positions ... to prevent the enemy's ability to maneuver on our forces," Holt said. "We still look to the future when the enemy is completely [defeated in] Now Zad, and the displaced civilians feel safe to return home."

    As the SPMAGTF-A LCE, CLB-3 supplied essential gear, provisions and rations, as well as mechanics, maintenance and engineering capabilities across a vast area of operations through rough and unforgiving terrain.

    Venturing throughout southern Afghanistan, they conducted 51 combat logistic patrols, covered more than 7,300 miles and delivered more than 11 million pounds of cargo to SPMAGTF-A forces.

    Another significant success of SPMAGTF-A was the LCE's aid station, which provided medical care to U.S. service members and the local Afghan populace. Nearly 700 surgeries and other lifesaving procedures were conducted for patients with bullets wounds, head injuries and numerous other serious conditions.

    One of SPMAGTF-A's more significant operations was Operation Gateway, where Marines cleared 43 kilometers of the improvised explosive device-ridden Route 515 connecting the two vital district centers of Delaram and Bakwa. Before the Marines cleared it, the route was so dangerous that the local Afghans would not even use it.

    Also under the watch of SPMAGTF-A, Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 constructed the world's largest aircraft parking expansion adjacent to the airfield aboard Camp Bastion in Helmend province. The expansion totals 1.9 million square feet and is 4,846 feet in length.

    SPMAGTF-A was also the first U.S. Marine Corps unit to integrate a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System into operations in Afghanistan. Compared to traditional artillery, HIMARS has greater accuracy and mobility, according to Maj. Frankie P. Delgado, 2nd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, Battery D commander.

    Due to the landlocked nature of the AO, the Marines of the SPMAGTF-A ACE has additional pressure to conduct logistics, refueling, troop movement, close air and assault support missions.

    The ACE provided airlift for millions of pounds of cargo and more than 5,000 passengers, and provided battlefield illumination to Marines and NATO's International Security Assistance Forces on the ground.

    "Our Marines have done very well despite the environmental challenges," said Capt. Jason E. Mitchell, a CH-53E pilot with 361. "We have done everything the MAGTF and the ACE have asked of us, and our Marines are some of the most professional and technically proficient Marines I have ever encountered."

    During the past seven months, SPMAGTF-A had the honor of hosting more than 40 distinguished visitors that came to speak to its Marines and Sailors in Afghanistan. Some of the which included Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. John McCain, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. David McKiernan, Gen. James Conway, Gen. James Amos, Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, Lt. Gen. Heijlik, Lt. Gen. Helland and Lt. Gen. North.

    Developing Relationships with the Afghan people

    A major part of a successful counter insurgency operation is winning the "the hearts and minds" of the population. SPMAGTF-A, with the help of 3rd Civil Affairs Group, remained focused on this goal throughout their deployment. One of the primary focuses was conducting key leader and general population engagements.

    "Mitigation of friction between the military and the civilian populace in a combat environment is the really purpose of civil affairs," said Lt. Col. Andrew T. Roberto, 3rd CAG, Detachment G commanding officer.

    SPMAGTF-A completed six civil affairs projects, which included such improvements as the construction of new wells and public restrooms. Although these projects were simple in nature, they had an immediate impact on the economic and social development of these communities.

    "The important thing to remember is that there is progress in Afghanistan," Roberto said. One Afghan leader in Golestan shared his feelings about the Marines operating in his district. "Without you I cannot live and work in this area I am in," said Qasim Khan, the district sub-governor, as translated by an interpreter. "One of the first things you created here was safety, and that is the biggest thing."

    Khan meets with the Marines often to discuss local issues, and his sentiments are echoed by other community leaders who have worked with SPMAGTF-A.

    "We all understand you left your children, you left your wives and have left them to come to a faraway land for me, for our country," Khan said. "We pray everyday that you all make it home safely."

    Civilians in some areas were initially reluctant to interact with the Marines, but the people now trust them and will even shake their hands in public, according to Cpl. Chris L. Parra, a civil affairs Marine who was attached to 3/8. "It is completely different now," he said.

    Training and Mentoring Afghan national police

    Marines from the SPMAGTF-A GCE worked closely with the ANP and its recruits, assisting in mentoring and instructing. Their goal was to help the Afghan government develop a sustainable police force.

    "I actually feel like we are making a difference out here," said Sgt. Nicholas Fagerquist, one of the U.S. Marine instructors assisting the ANP. "[The policemen] have great military discipline, they're eager to learn, they're motivated and they're being proactive."

    American civilian law enforcement instructors with SPMAGTF-A directed some of the ANP training programs, while empowering Afghan police instructors to train the ANP recruits. At the same time, Marines invoke leadership qualities among the students by doing what Marines do best: teaching the ANP recruits how to step up and take a leadership role among their peers.

    "We make them realize that [being a policeman] is more than a [paycheck]; it's a big responsibility," said Cpl. Thomas A. Moss, a U.S. Marine instructor assisting the ANP.

    The training for the new policemen includes instruction in areas such as weapons handling with AK-47 assault rifles, marksmanship, advanced first aid and nonlethal weapons techniques with an emphasis on human rights.

    "I am very happy to have learned from [the] Marines," said policeman Abdulgaber Farhay, a course graduate. "I will [go] back to my home and use what I learned to help my country."

    Team Players

    The SPMAGTF-A command element also conducted coordination for operations through four major commands: Regional Command — South, Regional Command — West, U.S. Forces Afghanistan and Marine Corps Central Command. SPMAGTF-A was one of the smaller units in Afghanistan conducting direct coordinating with such senior commands.

    SPMAGTF-A not only served under a NATO command, RC-South, it provided direct support to allied forces on numerous occasions. The task force supplied aviation, explosive ordnance disposal and signals intelligence capabilities to more 12 major commands under International Security Assistance Forces — Afghanistan.

    "We worked daily with the British, Dutch, Romanian, Canadian, Belgian and Australian forces," said Capt. Nathan O. Morales, SPMAGTF-A fires liaison officer to RC-South. "We all have the same goal but have different ways of doing things; learning from our differences has been beneficial to all us."

    There have been several occasions where SPMAGTF-A has been asked to support NATO missions, and the Marines have not had a problem meeting the task, according to Morales. "The ability of SPMAGTF-A to plan and employ assets rapidly has been of great benefit to our NATO partners," he said.

    "You set the example in Afghanistan with your close coordination with the joint, coalition, and Afghan forces which resulted in tactical and operational successes throughout your area of operations," said Lt. Gen. Samuel T. Helland, commander of MARCENT, in a message to SPMAGTF-A.

    MEB Enabling and the Transfer of Authority

    One of the SPMAGTF-A tasks was "MEB enabling," laying the groundwork for a larger force to enter the country and continue the fight on a greater scale. SPMAGTF-A did exactly that — improving security in the AO, securing lines of communication, overseeing the expansion of existing camps and establishing additional forward operating bases — essentially providing a bridge for a MEB to enter the country and begin operations as quickly as possible.

    Deployment of a MEB meant an increase of about 8,000 Marines in Afghanistan. When SPMAGTF-A first arrived, there were no bases that could hold this amount of personnel, according to Capt. Louis B. Lecher, SPMAGTF-A Headquarters Company commanding officer. "Therefore, we established a 'mayor cell' to coordinate the construction and buildup of a new base — Camp Leatherneck."

    "A crucial part of MEB enabling was identifying their initial requirements," Markert said. "We had to think about what equipment we could get for the MEB ahead of time — tents, refrigerators, air-conditioning units — anything we knew they would need." In order to lay accurate expectations for the MEB, SPMAGTF-A analyzed the challenges associated with the force and equipment flows and estimated the impact on a unit five times the size, according to Markert.

    The MEB has arrived in Afghanistan, and the transfer of authority took place May 29 as the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade assumed command and control of all U.S. Marine Corps forces previously under SPMAGTF-A.

    "As you continue the fight as [Regimental Combat Team 3], take pride in knowing that you have displayed all that is best in the Marine Corps and military services," said Helland. "The respect and admiration of a grateful nation is well-placed, hard-earned and well-deserved ... [you] have paved the way for the Afghan people to commence enjoying freedoms in their communities once again."

    The command element of the SPMAGTF-A will now transition into that of RCT-3 and serve as the MEB's ground combat element.



    Date Taken: 06.01.2009
    Date Posted: 06.01.2009 01:42
    Story ID: 34343
    Location: KANDAHAR, AF 

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