FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELARAM, Farah Province, Afghanistan — Marines from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment conducted Operation Germinate to clear Taliban insurgents out of a pass through the Buji Bhast Mountains near here Oct. 6-10, 2009. The pass is the most direct route from the southern plain here to the district center of Golestan District in the mountains, where part of 2/3's Company F is located.
The first element of 100 Marines left here by convoy the evening of Oct. 7 headed for the southern entrance to the pass. Hours later, a second airborne contingent of 100 more Marines and Afghan soldiers flew into previously identified positions in the pass to keep the enemy from escaping into the mountains. The Marine and Afghan national army forces aimed to push the enemy out — one way or another.
"I figured it was either going to be a ghost town or it was going to be a significant battle," said Capt. Francisco X. Zavala, Company F commanding officer, "Unfortunately, there was some battle, but it was nothing my Marines couldn't handle."
As the ground-side element rolled through the pass, the rest of the Marines and ANA soldiers who had been inserted via helicopter blocked the eastern and northern exit routes. Their supporting mission was to stop and search Afghans fleeing the area and prevent any possible insurgent support from reinforcing their comrades.
It didn't take long for them to attract the wrong kind of attention.
"We saw spotters throughout the hills, and we were just waiting for something to happen," said Staff Sgt. Luke N. Medlin, the engineer platoon sergeant and part of the eastern blocking position.
A few hours after they assumed these blocking positions, the Marines and Afghan soldiers started receiving fire from machine guns, rifles and mortars from enemy positions in the surrounding hills. The Marines quickly dispatched the initial attackers and called in a UH-1N Huey, an AH-1W Super Cobra and an F/A-18 Hornet to destroy the enemy position further uphill.
"We were attacked from a well-fortified fighting position in the hills," Medlin said. "My Marines quickly returned fire, giving us time to maneuver and overwhelm the position with fire until air support got there."
Once the sound of gunfire died away, the Marines began searching the mud-brick buildings scattered throughout the pass to ensure they hadn't missed any hidden insurgents and introduce themselves to the people living there.
The Marines spent the next two days moving from compound to compound, working with the people and maintaining a visible presence in the pass to keep the enemy from trying to move back in. They did receive some small-arms fire, but it was quickly dealt with.
"During the clearing of one compound, a woman drew a pistol, aiming it at one of the Marines," said 1st Lt. Shane Harden, weapons platoon commander, F Company. "Lance Cpl. (Justin B.) Basham demonstrated extreme composure and great fire discipline not to shoot her. Within a split second he realized that he could use a non-lethal method to disarm her."
At first the people in the Buji Bast pass were skeptical and nervous when the Marines came into their villages, Harden said, but after explaining why they were there, the people accepted their presence.
"Luckily the people that were still in the compounds cooperated with us, once they seemed to understand why we were here and what we were doing. It really helped speed things along," said Lance Cpl. David W. Parrotte, an infantryman with Company F.
During the searches the Marines collected not only weapons and grenades, but also large supplies of IED-making materials, like batteries, connecter wires and open radios. They also found 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrite and 1,500 pounds of sugar, which are both primary components of homemade explosives, according to Zavala.
In some of the compounds, anti-International Security Assistance Force propaganda was found and confiscated. Some of the contraband was linked to two men who were taken into custody.
On Oct. 10, the last day of the operation, male and female corpsmen were brought in to treat and assess locals while battalion commander Lt. Col. Patrick J. Cashman held shuras with elders in the villages. These meetings gave the residents a chance to ask questions and put in reimbursement claims for any goods or property damaged during the searches.
During the shuras, the medical personnel treated and assessed some of the local population for symptoms of sickness and injury. The 2/3's medical personnel treated approximately 300 people.
At each of the meetings, Lt. Col. Sakhra, commander of the Afghan 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 207th Corps, talked to elders about actions they should take to keep insurgents out of their towns and the pass. He talked about the power of unity against the Taliban insurgents who threaten their way of life and stressed that they need to trust the Marines and help them eliminate the threats.
"Lieutenant Colonel Sakhra did a fantastic job pointing out the responsibilities of the elders," said Cashman. "He has the cultural knowledge to tell them where they are wrong and how they need to change to save the lives of their people."
Cashman added that most of the problems in these small, isolated towns result from the younger men having no way to provide for a family or find legitimate work. So, some of them pick up a gun and take what they want. It is the responsibility of the elders to guide their people and help them prosper without using violence as an easy way to make a living.
After the meetings, the people were given food and water to take home, and instead of leaving immediately, the Marines and corpsmen stayed to give as much time as possible for the villagers to bring their sick and elderly for a checkup.
This four-day operation to clear insurgents out of the Buji Bhast Pass promises safer travel for Afghan people and coalition forces alike. But equally important are the first building blocks of trust laid down between the Marines and ANA and the residents of the pass.