News: Afghan National Army connects, surveys, secures in Sangin
Story by Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes
PATROL BASE ALCATRAZ, Helmand province, Afghanistan – Three months ago the Upper Sangin Valley was an insurgent hot spot and coalition forces in the area were constantly battling perverse militants. The Afghan National Army Cashf Tolai, which translates to Intelligence Company, mentored by U.S. Marines with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, has seen great success by circumventing insurgents and implementing tactics rarely used by the U.S. Marine Corps since the Vietnam War.
The Cashf Tolai with 4th Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, and 3rd Recon have been the leading forces in the Upper Sangin Valley since their arrival. The units are using a variant of a former Marine Corps counterinsurgency program to increase relations with the local citizens while pushing the insurgency out of their former safe haven.
The Combined Action Program was a population-immersion program in which U.S. Marines lived among local residents, combined arms with local forces, and provided security while gathering intelligence on the enemy. The program died out in the 1970s when U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War came to an end.
The ANA and 3rd Recon concentrate their efforts toward the population, providing a better life for them and ensuring their safety. The enemy’s freedom of movement is denied within the villages, because the Cashf Tolai soldiers and Marines with select portions of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion live among the villagers. The soldiers and Marines have made strides in the area’s security and development.
Their great successes can be calculated and are evident in the Upper Sangin Valley, but it was not an overnight process, considering the Tolai began training in June.
According to Staff Sgt. Jay Mullen, a native of La Porte, Ind., and the training chief for the Cashf Tolai, the unit is the fourth of its kind, but is the first trained by Marine Corps reconnaissance personnel. He explained the tolai can act as a light infantry unit, and it belongs to a combat support kandak, similar to a battalion, which includes a headquarters and service, engineer, route clearance, and artillery elements.
Mullen said he met the tolai in Kabul, but there were a few stumbling blocks he was not expecting. When he arrived, there was no training plan to teach the Afghan soldiers about reconnaissance or intelligence gathering. Mullen had about a week to develop a training plan and start training the incoming troops. He said he created an eight-week training program to teach the ANA how to employ reconnaissance operations to give them the knowledge they would need to function as a recon unit. They would still hold the role of light infantry unit, but would have reconnaissance skills to employ when necessary.
“Training was not a problem. Most (of the soldiers) caught on relatively quickly, even though some of the concepts do not translate well (from English to Pashto),” said Mullen, implying some of the meaning is lost in the translation. “It is very difficult to do anything with the language barrier. Once you’ve got a good idea how long it takes to translate and get through an interpreter and get a lesson plan out there, it’s pretty good. These guys for the most part are motivated. It was very surprising teaching them everything from (infantry assault tactics) to basic hand signals; they got it pretty fast.”
Master Sgt. Roger Smith, a native of Weirton, W.Va., and the senior enlisted advisor for the ANA Cashf Tolai, said the soldiers’ motivation and performance was impressive and the unit has been moving forward since day one. After the unit was formed at the Consolidated Fielding Center in Kabul, where all Afghan units are formed, CFC evaluated the unit, and they received the highest rating of any other tolai being evaluated during that period, according to Smith.
Mullen has seen the drive and motivation of the soldiers since they arrived in Kabul, but the most difficult part about spinning them up on the reconnaissance community and getting them to their kandak was physically getting to Forward Operating Base Delaram I, where their parent unit is located, and then to the Upper Sangin Valley.
Mullen said it was a fight every day during their 14-day journey, and there were multiple attacks on the convoy as the unit was en route to their new assignment. Directional improvised explosive devices and small arms fire are among the few things they encountered.
“There were like seven legs on the journey to get down here, and on the first leg there was a vehicle rollover when it drove through an ambush. Two hours after we got out of there, a 120-pound IED blew up our lead vehicle,” said Mullen as he recalled the experience. “At that same time, (insurgents) attacked the rear end of the convoy with direct fire. It was a fight the whole way.
“It is obvious that coming down here with a 156-vehicle convoy, that is what the insurgents want to stop – the fielding of the army,” Mullen continued. “It was apparent that what they wanted to do was impede our movement as much as possible, so the biggest challenge was physically getting them here.”
The insurgency was not successful in their efforts to stop the unit from moving into the Upper Sangin Valley.
Smith said as the tolai settled into the area, they began to learn and employ their responsibilities of terrain mapping and gathering information on the area, aside from getting to know the local residents. He added the Cashf is used very much in the same manner as the reconnaissance Marines.
Smith said he and his Marines work to ensure the Afghan soldiers are in front, leading the way to get their face out there amongst the people. The Afghans have led patrols, distributed humanitarian-assistance supplies, and hosted shuras, or meetings, in local villages.
The Cashf Tolai soldiers understand local residents are the focus of their operations in the Upper Sangin Valley. For the soldiers and Marines working in the area, knowing the people, their concerns and needs and what drives the local economy, among many other factors, is what keeps the insurgency out of the area. They also understand moving the district in a forward direction means maintaining security, and for the tolai that means living among the people.
Though there are still Marines with the ANA soldiers, the Afghans now outnumber Marines on patrol. The Marines act as mentors and advisors on these patrols, observing how the soldiers are doing and then giving their evaluations after the patrols are complete.
The transition has given the soldiers more of an opportunity to interact with the local villagers. Major A. Niz Minh, the Cashf Tolai commander, said his troops interact well with the local residents and the citizens love his soldiers being around, and Mullen completely agrees.
“Patrolling with these guys is pretty good. The (local villagers) love them. They swarm to them. Some of (the soldiers) fill their pockets with candy and crackers, so as the kids come by they hand out the candy,” said Mullen. “A lot of them go to an extreme and will pack their food for a certain number of days, and they will give out half of their food. It is good to see that. The people really like them, and they really respond to them.”
The operations carried out by the tolai and 3rd Recon has put the insurgency in a corner. The insurgents know they have lost the battle and have left the area. Capt. Jarrod Rothman, the assistant operations officer for 3rd Recon and the senior advisor for the Cashf Tolai, said it gives you a new perspective, considering the history of the area.
“You want perspective? Three Months ago we couldn’t (host) a shura; we couldn’t do a patrol without getting shot at … now that is perspective,” said Rothman, an Anthem, Ariz., native.
1st Lt. Farhad Pachkhan, a platoon commander with the Cashf Tolai, noted that from his perspective the ANA is from the people, for the people. He stated during a shura recently the ANA are here for the people and are here to help. They might not be from the same village, but they are here to help make a brighter future for the people of Afghanistan. Rothman believes the soldiers being Afghan is one of the key factors they have been so successful in the area.
“The ANA have been that bridging piece; they are the link between the (U.S. military) and the (local residents),” said Rothman. “They have a cultural understanding; they see the subtleties we might miss as Marines. That is just a small part of what they bring to the table, but it is an important part.”
Editor’s Note: Third Reconnaissance Battalion is assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8 in 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 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 ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.