Text and photos: Cpl. Reece Lodder, Regimental Combat Team 5, US Central Command
GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan (February 16, 2012) — The thunderous clap of low-flying helicopters reverberates off an endless desert landscape. Inside the mechanical fortress, rows of Afghan Border Police and U.S. Marines stare out the open back hatch, calmly watching the wilderness rapidly retract beneath them…
Hazy brown clouds explode skyward, masking the helicopters as they descend into the dust. Shadowy figures emerge and rush into a security cordon as the rotor wash dissipates. Within moments, they’ve established communication with their now distant headquarters.
Any thoughts of the showy entrance quickly fade as members of the partnered force pick up bulky packs and begin moving to their next position. A laborious hike leads them to a shallow bowl carved out of a sand dune, their patrol base during Operation Shahem Tofan (Eagle Storm) Feb. 10-13.
In the barren Registan Desert near the former Forward Operating Base Rhino — the first U.S. position established in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom — ABP and Marines with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, scoured dusty highways for smugglers and insurgents moving across the eastern desert into Helmand province.
The ABP’s mission was a shift from their current assignment in Garmsir, where they keep watch over the district’s southern population centers. Under the coalition mentorship, they are returning to their core capability of interdicting insurgent activity across Helmand’s border. This mission is one of the most challenging among those of the Afghan National Security Forces, said Capt. Robert Murray.
“The ABP are the frontiersmen of the desert … they go where no Afghan or coalition forces have gone before,” said Murray, the officer in charge of the Border Advisor Team 2 in support of 3/3, and a native of Currituck, N.C. “They’re becoming Afghanistan’s force in readiness for securing the untouched parts of Helmand province as its city centers expand outward.”
As the two heliborne elements flew southeast into the desert, an armored convoy moved into eastern Garmsir under the cover of darkness. When the sun rose on the operation’s first full day, the partnered forces covered three parallel objectives.
At their defensive positions, the ABP followed the Marines’ examples, digging foxholes to shield themselves from the chill of desert winds and incessant sand storms. Catching the last strain of bitter cold before the arrival of spring, they began working through a cycle of patrolling and posting security at their defensive position, breaking the grind only to catch a moment’s rest.
In both daylight and at night, the partnered team set out in search of criminals. The Marines worked to establish a pattern of life in the unfamiliar area, collecting census information and biometrically enrolling travelers. From the seats of all-terrain vehicles, their ABP counterparts spotted traffic from afar and sped off to search and question the passersby.
Capt. Jason Armas, the commanding officer of Weapons Co., 3/3, said the ABP’s willingness to excel during the mission was evidence of their growth into competent soldiers.
“A couple of years ago, they weren’t capable of doing sustained operations in an austere environment like this,” said Armas, a native of Rye, N.Y. “Now, they’re grasping the ideas we’ve given them. They’re willing to go out on their own … they aren’t hamstrung in proximity to Marines.”
Long before they took to the desert, the ABP took an active role in the planning process. “The Marines won’t always be here, so we’re learning how to plan and conduct operations on our own,” said Lt. Mohammad Zarif, the commander of 4th Tolai, 2nd Kandak, Helmand ABP. “We wanted to show them the ABP can take on the challenge of providing security for our own country.”
Murray said the ABP prepared for the operation by coordinating with their higher command, rather than depending wholly on the Marines for logistical support. He called their personal provision and transportation of fuel, food, water and cold weather equipment a “logistical victory.”
Though the operation yielded few tangible results in the form of illicit activity, Armas said the process was the mission’s main success. Ahead of the nearing transition to Afghan-led security in Garmsir, he said the coordination, transportation and implementation of the operation was as important as its end result.
“Planning operations together with the ABP has driven them to start working toward their borders, where they’re using their mobility assets as a smaller, lighter, faster force under the overwatch of Marines,” Armas said.
Battered by 30 years of sustained conflict, Zarif said the people of Afghanistan are tired of war and eager to live in peace. His smile widened and he beamed with pride as he declared himself part of the catalyst within the Afghan forces.
“We want Afghanistan to succeed and to be secure; we want to be able to move around our country without the enemy trying to attack us,” Zarif said. “We’ve gained experience by working with Marines and we’re ready to protect our country. The way to peace here is by maintaining security along our borders.”