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    Recon COIN ops create change in Upper Sangin Valley

    Recon COIN ops create change in Upper Sangin Valley

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Ryan Smith | Cpl. Wiliam Port, a Marine with Company B, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, takes a rest...... read more read more



    Story by Staff Sgt. Ryan Smith 

    Regimental Combat Team 8

    SANGIN DISTRICT, Afghanistan - Since the early days of their deployment to the Upper Sangin Valley of Afghanistan, the Marines of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion have been relentless in their pursuit of insurgents, often fighting a battle not traditionally suited for their expertise.

    With the use of counter insurgency operations, or COIN, the Marines are finding new ways to remove the insurgent networks from areas and assisting local villages in creating the peace the people of this area desire.

    “We’re going to go out there and get with the people…the population is the objective,” said 3rd Recon Bn. Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Travis Homiak. “We looked at the level of fighting that happened prior to our arrival and it was a very kinetic area. We are trying to ratchet down the violence. Previous battalions in this area had a very tough fight to get to what we are capable of doing now.

    “By focusing on [the citizens] you directly challenge the enemy,” said Homiak. “The best way to disrupt the enemy was to gain and maintain contact with the population. The worse thing you can do to the enemy is to get with the population and show them that you are offering them a better way.”

    The Marines began this deployment with the traditional mindset of a recon mission consisting of intelligence gathering on the enemy and bringing the fight when called upon. The overall missions haven’t changed. How the Marines are accomplishing them has.

    “The Marines have done a really excellent job. They are doing things people don’t expect from a recon battalion,” said Homiak. “I think they get it. What has happened in previous deployments is the recon battalion has become a raid force…doing operations purely at night, performing actions on the objective, capturing someone and returning. The approach we have been executing here is fundamentally different.”

    The most difficult part of the transition from fire fights to COIN operations wasn’t necessarily the tactics used but a personal change in the Marines and how business was conducted.

    “I think recon Marines are better suited for the COIN mission just because we are natural intelligence gatherers,” said Sgt. Lynn Westover, a team leader with Company B, 3rd Recon Bn. “We just use our skills of intel gathering for a different purpose. It’s a shift from tactical information to more demographic information on the population and who are the leaders and respected elders of an area.”

    “Some of the Marines are used to the missions we used to have,” said Sgt. Ryan Bizahaloni, a team leader with Company B and Pinon, Ariz., native. “In the end, it’s still about getting a job done that matters. We see the change in the way we interact with the people. We attribute the change in how we interact with the people making sure we are listening to their problems and helping when we can.”

    In a counter insurgency war, the trust and confidence of the people will make or break the unit and their efforts put in to restore governance and peace. Marines of 3rd Recon have gone out of their way to set conditions for success and allow the people to reject insurgent intimidation.

    “The change wasn’t instantaneous,” said Homiak. “The first two months were hard and took a lot of patience on the part of the Marines. It was only until we gained the trust of the population that they started to see that we weren’t here to wreck their homes and slowly they began to give us tips.”

    The tips given to the Marines by the local citizens pointed the way to weapons caches, improvised explosive devices and insurgents in the area. These tips helped Marines, like Westover, build a strong rapport with the villagers during his patrols through the area.

    “We are not fighting a uniformed enemy; we haven’t been fighting one for the last 10 years,” said Westover, a Pinehurst, N.C., native. “The insurgents are blending in with the populace. If we have good relationships with the citizens, they will point out who doesn’t belong.”

    The case was similar for the Marines in other villages as well.

    “When we surged into the southern part of Upper Sangin Valley, we started engaging the people to find out what their problems were,” said Cpl. Matthew Chen of Company C, 3rd Recon Bn. “After that initial interaction, the people knew we were there to help. They began to come forward with locations for IEDs. They even led us straight to them.”

    “I remember one man in particular who took me and my team to three separate IED sites,” recalled Lance Cpl. Joshua Smejkal, also with Company C. “These things were so well hidden…I don’t think we would have ever found them. One of them was a personnel mine packed with military grade explosives. That would have turned into a bad day for our Marines or any of the local citizens who may have stepped on it.”

    The relationships fostered between the Marines and the citizens have enabled more progress for the area and have allowed representatives from the Afghan government to begin making similar strides with their people.

    With previous 3rd Recon activities during Operations Folsom State and Sing Sing, the Afghan National Army was put on display and has been essential to the bonds formed in the area. The Marines conduct every operation partnered with their ANA counterparts and allow them to take the lead when dealing with the people and supporting the peace process. The ANA bring with them the cultural awareness needed to successfully interact with citizens without upsetting them.

    “The ANA face during operations allows the people to see their government in action,” said Westover. “They reach out to the people and gain more information than we ever could because of the language barrier. They understand the culture and are really focused on making life better in the area.”

    The Upper Sangin Valley has so many dynamics to consider when dealing with the citizens of the area; from the dispersed tribes in the northern part of the valley, to a more interspersed collection of people as you get closer to the district center, according to Homiak.

    “There is no standard operating procedure for COIN,” said Westover. “You have to be flexible to the people of the area and you see the differences of how they live and interact throughout the battle space.”

    The Marines and ANA have conducted almost daily patrols to the small villages of the valley, and because of the security improvements, many shuras have been held in the area between local elders, ANA, Marines and representatives from the Sangin District Center in efforts to bring governance and stability to the region. The Marines have been committed to bringing the local citizens together with their leadership from Sangin. The road from the district center was often regarded as dangerous and district leadership would refrain from traveling north to see their people. The Marines decided it was time to break them from their shell. Using helicopter transportation, the Marines brought the district governor and provincial representatives to the base. More than 100 local elders, young men and children have attended these shuras, or meetings, to listen to their representatives speak and to air their grievances to the officials.

    The ANA commander for Heavy Weapons Tolay, 2nd Kandak, reflected on the effectiveness of the meetings. “There is only so much we can do for the people. Sometimes it’s good to hear what the people want and how the government is going to support them,” he said through an interpreter.

    “This is a very human to human connection,” said Homiak. “These [citizens] just want the same things that everyone else wants. They want to raise their kids in peace. They would like their kids to have better prospects than they have at this time.”

    The counter insurgency battle has been a tough fight for the Marines of 3rd Recon, but through personal and tactical changes, the Marines have found the right formula for ousting an insurgency, and simultaneously bringing peace, governance and stability to the people of this once insurgent hot bed.

    “The Marines have embraced the concept of restraint and the minimum amount of violence that needs to be applied,” said Homiak. “These guys just want somebody to talk to. Once you get them to open up and they get to tell you the straits that they’re in or how bad their lives are, the Marines lend them an empathetic ear. So, we’ve gotten a lot out of being nice to people.”



    Date Taken: 11.19.2011
    Date Posted: 11.20.2011 13:27
    Story ID: 80299
    Location: SANGIN DISTRICT, AF 

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