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    Marines ready Garmsir for transition of authority

    Marines ready Garmsir for transition of authority

    Photo By Cpl. Colby Brown | The Afghan, American and British flags fly over a recently refurbished memorial at...... read more read more



    Story by Cpl. Colby Brown 

    Regimental Combat Team-5

    GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan — When 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, nick-named the Lava Dogs, arrived here mid-April, expectations were of a deployment filled with improvised explosive devices and sporadic firefights.

    The Lava Dogs transferred authority from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, who found more than 400 IEDs and engaged insurgent forces numerous times during their deployment. Seven months later, the Lava Dogs’ deployment experience has been vastly different than that of their predecessors.

    “Instead of focusing on 400 IEDs, we focused on the Afghan people,” said Lt. Col. Sean Riordan, 1/3 battalion commander and a native of Montclair, Va. “It was a great surprise to not have to find two or three IEDs everyday because all that does is slow you down and prevent you from being close to the people you are trying to protect.”

    Insurgent IED activity has decreased by more than 80 percent, since 2/1’s rotation out of Garmsir. Small arms fire has decreased by more than 90 percent. These statistics are especially remarkable considering 1/3 operated in Garmsir through the summer months, typically known as fighting season for insurgents.

    Security in Garmsir has been pushed 20 kilometers farther south to cover the entirety of the district’s political boundaries. Marine forces consolidated from more than 60 positions to approximately 30. Infrastructure improvements paralleled security improvements with more than 10 permanent school buildings under construction. The District Community Council has all representative seats filled and major bazaars have new shops opening weekly.

    Each statistic from 1/3’s deployment shows change in Garmsir, but many in the battalion say those accomplishments take a back seat to the improvements of Afghan National Security Forces here.

    “The numbers of IED or cache finds aren’t the important things here,” said Maj. Thomas Grace, 1/3 operations officer and a native of Cherry Hill, N.J. “It’s the manner in which they were found — with the local people’s assistance to the ANA (Afghan National Army) and ANP (Afghan National Police). That’s how we are going to win this war, local people working with their own nation’s security forces … not foreign forces.”

    When the Lava Dogs arrived, the ANA was spread out over more than 40 positions in groups of four or five soldiers. Now, the ANA operates in squad-sized elements, independently controlling more than 10 posts and partnering at every Marine fighting position.

    In April, the ANA relied heavily on Marine forces to provide for the logistical needs of its soldiers. Today, they have an operational tactical re-supply logistics convoy. They have taken the leading role in planning patrols and operations while Marine forces have shifted to a supporting role, observing and mentoring Afghan forces.

    “The ANA are never going to be able to do anything in small four to five man teams,” Grace said. “They need to be in cohesive squads of 12 plus people and eventually in a platoon-sized unit. They have been fighting in these positions in small groups for two to three years. So we focused on getting them to recognize that they are a more capable force operating in bigger units, and they realized it and have become more successful because of that.”

    Another main focus of 1/3’s deployment was the district’s Afghan Uniformed Police. Since 1/3 arrived, the number of policemen has nearly doubled to 800. The Afghan Local Police program, which employs local Afghans instead of Afghans from other provinces like the ANP, was introduced and is nearing its full task force number of 300.

    More than eight new police precinct buildings have been approved for construction. In April, the police had a reputation for corruption and amateur operations. Now, they receive tips from local people about locations of IEDs and weapons caches. Every major arrest during the past seven months has been led by the AUP. Leadership classes are held regularly to improve proficiency and professionalism.

    “We got here and the police’s reputation wasn’t the best; their numbers were low and their morale and appearance was lacking,” Grace said. “We tried to help them realize they work for the people, they are here for the people and I think we have made progress in that. They are more professional; they show up to work ready to represent the Afghan government. As a result, their confidence has increased as well.”

    Garmsir’s infrastructure, compared to a year ago, is ‘night and day,’ according to battalion leaders, and that thought is echoed by local government officials. More than 40 schools are functional within the district and more than 10 are ready to move into permanent buildings. Thousands of kilometers of canals have been cleared and cleaned, improving the efficiency of irrigation throughout the district.

    District Governor Mohammad Fahim visited Safar and Durzay for the first time, an area recently cleared during 2/1’s deployment. A government outreach center has been approved for construction in Safar, which will promote local resident’s involvement with their government and increase regular visits by government officials.

    All major bazaars have received electric street lamps and road improvements. Multiple mosques have received refurbishments and more than five shura halls have been approved for construction.

    More than five bridges have been constructed over major canals to connect rural communities to bazaars. Every week, thousands of local people flock to the bazaars from across Helmand province to participate in the growing commerce.

    Improvements in Garmsir don’t end with the tangibles. Afghan national flags adorn every major bazaar. More than 300 people voted during the District Community Council election in June, the most recorded in Garmsir history. Most farmers in the district have agreed to cooperate with Afghan law to stop growing poppy and switch to wheat or corn.

    While on patrol, Afghan and Marine forces are regularly invited into people’s homes for chai tea or dinner. The local mindset is of acceptance and a willingness to recognize the authority of the Afghan government over insurgent forces.

    “I think the acceptance from the local communities is the most important thing,” Riordan said. “It comes from all the hard work and sacrifice of the Marines… it’s the number one thing that has helped progress move forward.”

    Garmsir is progressing into a secure district, but it would not have been possible without a lineage of successful British and Marine forces. British forces were the first to operate in Garmsir, from 2006 to 2008, and cleared the northern section of the district. From 2008 to present Marine forces have expanded security south to encompass more than 80 kilometers of the district. Every battalion that has rotated into Garmsir has had a hand in the progress seen today.

    “A year ago, I don’t think anyone expected the [ANA] to be holding down their own patrol bases and conducting unilateral operations that were planned by their company commanders and supported by their own battalion,” Riordan said. “Even seven months ago, I don’t think anybody would have told us that we would have more than 90 percent of the Afghan Uniformed Police allotted task force. That is a huge step forward.”

    For the Marines of 1/3, this deployment held a number of unexpected turns, including deploying early. But the unexpected decrease of insurgent activity has allowed them to vastly improve the quality of ANSF and quality of life for local people in Garmsir.

    “Continued mentorship is important because there has been a lot of blood and sweat poured into the district from British, Marine and Afghan forces,” Grace said. “There has been a lot of progress made and we can’t let the Afghans fail. We have to reinforce their success. Everything isn’t going to be squared away, right off the bat. But we will still be here to reinforce their successes, just like you would with anything when building from the bottom up.”

    The Lava Dogs began their deployment with more than 50 positions, requiring many junior Marines to step up and lead their squads at small positions. In relative independence, the Lava Dogs found success. Squad leaders, typically lance corporals and corporals, built relationships that have proven successful in partnering with the Garmsir community.

    Though the number of engagements with insurgent forces was low, complacency was never an issue. In Weapons Company’s area of operations alone, more than 115,000 vehicles were searched during the past seven months, requiring every squad from the company to search hundreds of cars daily.

    The constant mentorship of ANA soldiers and AUP members has proven successful, producing a more independent ANSF in a short, seven months. Throughout Garmsir, the Marines of 1/3 have successfully transitioned the district into an environment that will prove successful during 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment’s deployment. The Lava Dogs will transition authority of Garmsir to “America’s Battalion,” who recently arrived here in early November.

    “Eliminating the insurgent threat requires change in a deeply rooted mindset of people who are religiously motivated,” Riordan said. “I don’t know if that is a realistic goal for Afghanistan. Afghanistan has to find a way to reintegrate the people who used to be [insurgents], bring them back in to the fold and make them part of society again. The religious community is an important part of the community in Garmsir that is never going to change.”

    America’s Battalion looks to capitalize on the success of the Lava Dogs by continuing the mentorship of Afghan forces in Garmsir. Support will also continue for the district government, which has already taken responsibility for interdicting poppy growth and providing alternative crop programs for farmers.

    “We made a concerted effort to ensure government officials, local security force leaders and representatives of the people actually got out to the people,” Grace said. “We were able to get them out to places they haven’t been before and to people who haven’t seen a [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] representative before.”

    During the past five years, British and Marine forces have earned bragging rights in Garmsir and all of Helmand. What was once known as the most active insurgent haven in Afghanistan is now nearing transition with Afghan forces.

    The province still requires much effort to return to the relative peace known more than 30 years ago. Instead of coalition forces leading the way and paying this price in sweat and blood, Garmsir ANSF members, government officials and residents are nearing the level of readiness required to take the helm.

    “Afghanistan has a long road ahead of it,” Riordan said. “But I think right now, they are showing real signs of hope that they will be able to take care of their own security situation, reconcile those people within their society who were formally against change and live in a state of … not necessarily peace, but acceptable security.”

    Editor’s note: First Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 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 Afghanistan National Security Forces 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 the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.



    Date Taken: 11.18.2011
    Date Posted: 11.18.2011 13:04
    Story ID: 80225

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