MARJAH DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan – When Marines moved on the former insurgent stronghold of Marjah last year, they took the first step toward laying the foundation for the counterinsurgency strategy that turned the tide in Iraq but had yet to be proven in Afghanistan.
A year and a half later, the strategy has taken hold, but few battalions who fought in the initial offensive have had the satisfaction of seeing their efforts come into fruition.
Fortune, however, is bringing that satisfaction to the Marines and sailors of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
Today, Marines and sailors with 1/6 walk through streets and down alleyways once littered with spent shell casings. They greet local citizens, whose faces they have come to recognize from frequent meetings nearly a year ago. Children are now more likely to give thumbs up or wave to passing patrols than throw rocks, and the local residents no longer retreats indoors when Marine patrols pass them.
“I think the biggest change is the children,” said Cpl. Brandon Bright, a corporal of the guard with Headquarters and Service Company, 1/6.
During their first patrol outside of the camp, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Dixon, a corpsman with camp Guard Force, 1/6, was asked to help a young boy whose feet had been torn up while walking down the road.
“It was a little better than what I expected,” said Dixon, who is on first deployment with Marines. “I thought [the local citizens] would be a bit more stand-offish than friendly. I hope to keep helping them out so that we can build a better relationship with them.”
Although there are still areas where relationships between the local residents and coalition can be tenuous, there seems to be a marked improvement, explained Bright, who was with 1/6 during its last deployment.
The development of local Afghan National Security Forces stands out as one of the most encouraging trends to coalition forces.
Among ANSF, the Afghan National Army, which partnered with ISAF forces during the initial assault on Marjah, have taken steps toward becoming an autonomous organization, no longer needing continuous support and supervision from Marine forces operating in the area, explained Gunnery Sgt. Timothy Greene, senior enlisted adviser, Embedded Training Team, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.
“When we first got on deck they did some things well,” said Greene, who along with ETT is tasked with supervising the training and development of the ANA in the area. “The biggest task we have accomplished is that they are now able to resupply their positions without Marine support.”
The ANA’s ability to provide logistical support for their troops establishes a foundation for even more critical development, explained Greene.
“Overall, they understand the concepts and taking more of a primary role,” Greene said. “They’re running independent patrols, and in doing so learning their strengths and weaknesses. In order to execute [the mission], you need to understand, and they’re getting there. They are understanding.”
The relationships with local residents have shown a marked improvement, and the Afghan National Security Forces in the area have been able to increase recruitment for law enforcement groups, such as the Afghan local Police.
Meanwhile, the Afghan military continues to gain local support.
“The local [residents] feels safe with the ANA,” said Greene. “If the ANA are making the first contact it’s always beneficial. If the [citizens of Marjah] are constantly seeing the [Afghan National Army] work independently – they’ll begin to feel more confident in their government.”
Although there is still work to be done, the residents of Marjah are gaining confidence in their local and national government, the path is becoming a little clearer, and the road less rocky.
The Marines of 1/6 are hopeful; after all, Marjah was the scene of some of Helmand provinces most severe fighting a year ago -- a claim it has since given up.
Editor’s Note: First Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.