SANGIN, Afghanistan - Since the beginning of the war, Sangin has built a reputation for heavy fighting. In 2008, the Marine Corps deployed to the district in an effort to curb insurgency. Over the years, the Marines fought some of the war’s bloodiest battles within the district and sustained a large amount of casualties.
Over the last year, the landscape of the district has changed dramatically. The Afghan National Army’s 215 Corps and Afghan Local Police have taken over the lead security role and jointly have conducted several large-scale operations against insurgency within the district’s Green Zone, a small stretch of fertile ground known for concealing insurgents’ movements.
The Marine Corps has taken a secondary role, serving as advisors for the counterinsurgency mission. As the Afghan National Security Forces continue their security transition, Security Force Assistance Advisor Teams (SFAATs) remain committed to assisting them.
At Forward Operating Base Nolay, advisors with 2nd Brigade, 215 Corps, assist the Afghans in advancing their means.
“We’re here to re-enforce the Afghan solution,” said Col. Christopher Douglas, the team leader from Ballston Spa, N.Y.
“They have a great grasp of the area and what type of future they want. We may have minor solutions to add to their overall plans, but at the end of the day it’s our job to reinforce the solution they come up with.”
Afghan soldiers are manning security checkpoints, conducting offensive operations, directing security patrols and completing daily resupply missions. They are communicating their mission to the locals and are aiding them every chance they get.
The brigade is governing the region successfully and working with the local police to maintain stability as ‘one team with one objective.’ Although the brigade is achieving success, they are still working hard to improve their capabilities.
Douglas and his team took over advising in November and have worked hard to build a relationship with the soldiers of 2nd Brigade.
“Rapport means establishing a relationship,” said Capt. Paul Tremblay, the deputy team leader from Parrott, Va. “For Afghans, who grow up in a tribal culture, your word, reputation, and character mean everything.”
For Afghan soldiers and leaders to trust the Marines, they have to get to know them based off of the relationship and time they spend with them, said Tremblay. The time spent just building a relationship with Afghan soldiers gives them credibility, both as a person and as a military leader.
“There’s strength in numbers and there’s strength in presence,” said Tremblay. “So something as simple as a meeting, the more people who are there, the more meaning it has. Even if we have nothing to offer, our presence shows something to our counterparts. “
Tremblay said the presence of advisors at 2nd Brigade meetings and briefings serves two purposes—it showcases to the Afghans they both want to and are willing to provide feedback on military decisions that impact combat operations in Sangin.
Making an impact
Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gilmore completed a deployment in Afghanistan in 2011. When he arrived here again in November, he said he was surprised at how much the province had changed.
“When you come back for another deployment, you come back with the expectation that very little changed or that you’re picking up where you left off,” said Gilmore, a logistics advisor from Jacksonville, N. C. “This time, though, that’s not the case. I was very surprised to see that these guys have improved. Their abilities have increased dramatically during the last two years.”
For some of the advisors, this is their first deployment to Afghanistan. The Marines attended multiple classes prior to deploying to learn how to teach basic skillsets to their Afghan counterparts. Most of them had lower expectations of the Afghan soldiers’ skills.
“This is my first time in Afghanistan and I didn’t really know what to expect other than what I heard from other people that had been here and what kind of training we got prior to coming out here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Guadalupe Pineda III, the team’s chief engineer advisor from San Antonio. “In the little time that we’ve been here, I’ve been able to see [Afghan soldiers] are at least, if not more than, proficient. I’m very impressed with where they’re at.”
Since the brigade demonstrated an understanding and comprehension of basic skillsets, the advisor team has focused on advancing different areas of the brigade with follow-on training in specific areas, including troop accountability.
Due to the size of Sangin, tracking troops and troop movements is important in battlefield planning. Advisors want to establish a quicker, easier method for the brigade to track wounded, killed or missing in action soldiers. Accurate troop counts will enable commanders to properly reinforce and resupply combat outposts.
Capt. Eric Rice, the team’s administration advisor, said the brigade does a good job of tracking their wounded and dead until they leave Nolay. He said he wants to see them communicate better amongst themselves and with other commands to track troop movement more efficiently.
The future of Nolay
As coalition forces continue to drawdown troops in Afghanistan, the 2nd Brigade advisors are scheduled to be the last advising unit to serve in Sangin. The team hopes to leave a lasting impression; however, they know it is up to the ANSF to have the knowledge, capability and courage to stand on it’s own against insurgency.
The advisors have faith the ANA will be able to maintain stability in the region and are confident the ANA will continue to have a positive influence on the future of Afghanistan.
“Whether we’re in the lead, they’re in the lead or we’re shoulder-to-shoulder, we’re trying to solve this complex problem together,” said Tremblay. “We have a mutual interest in the stability and future of Afghanistan.”