GAMRSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan (November 09, 2011) — Walking down the street of a local bazaar here without a flak jacket or Kevlar seemed a little risky. I hustled past the group of local Afghan government officials, took a knee and snapped another photo. A local man involved in a pending investigation was released from custody and the district leaders wanted to celebrate his return. Marines from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment escorted the man to the district center and were in turn invited to take a walk around the Hazar Joft bazaar here, Nov. 2.
A little more than three years ago the same bazaar was considered “hot,” with daily mortar explosions and small arms fire; thus the anxious feeling when walking around “slick,” or with no body armor.
“In 2008, the Hazar Joft bazaar was a haven for insurgents,” said Lt. Col. Sean Riordan, battalion commander of 1/3 and a native of Montclair, Va. “There were gun fights regularly, right here in this area. As we walked through, the provincial National Directorate of Security director stopped and pointed out a building where he was captured by insurgent forces.”
“The walk through was important as a demonstration of the progress,” Riordan added. “Now, you can walk through at night and it’s just a normal, sleepy, country Afghan town. You could have never have done that before, even a year ago.”
The district governor, district community council members and local Afghan National Security Forces leaders had invited us to join them on this walk. After we finished, we were invited to stay for dinner. The meal featured staple of the local cuisine – pomegranates, lamb, chicken, rice and bread. the food was delicious and fresh, unlike generic military rations. We stayed at the district center another hour and returned to base well past dusk.
“My role as the battalion commander with senior representatives of the Afghan government, local leaders and tribal leaders in Garmsir is unique,” Riordan said. “Where they may have very good relationships with other people, they’re focused heavily on the leaders and commanders of Marine units because we represent a rough equivalent to their tribal elder system. They know the points of influence are through guys like battalion commanders, company commanders and platoon commanders.
“That’s why I walk through the bazaars with no body armor,” Riordan added. “You’ve got to accept some level of risk, and you also need to be mindful that everything we do sends a signal. So walking around with senior Afghans with no body armor means the Americans and senior Afghans are comfortable enough to do that. You hope it is sending the right signal to the people that things are returning to normal.”
Not every Marine gets to spend an evening with district leaders, but many Marines throughout Garmsir spend time with their local elder. It’s part of the counter insurgency mission in Afghanistan: the better you know the local people, the better you will know the local area, the better you will know how to operate and provide security.
“It’s definitely a requirement to be successful,” Riordan said. “You have to have personal relationships across the whole district with every aspect of the population. With elders, government officials, key influencers who may not be in the government, mullahs and businessmen … with everybody. You have to know them and they have to know you.
The fact that the local leaders invited us on a walk on their own accord is a symbol of progress in Garmsir. It means the local people are confident in the security of the area; they feel safe. Having relationships with the local people only strengthens their resolve.
Not only has the battalion commander developed relationships with the local leaders but the platoon commanders and company commanders of 1/3 have as well. As leaders of Marine forces, they are on call to speak with local leaders when the situation arises.
These relationships often parallel the atmosphere of an area. If the presiding Marine commander has a good relationship with the local leaders, the area often progresses in the same manner the relationship does.
“It takes good relationships from the beginning,” Riordan said. “If [local leaders] didn’t trust my motives then they might not ever want to sit down to discuss things with me. Once you are accepted by them, you open up the communications and communication is the key to being effective.”
“What I found over the course of seven months and being an advisor to two foreign armies for more than three years is that you have got to have a mix of firmness and accommodation,” Riordan added. “I am the anomaly, I am the outsider so I need to know when, where and how to apply being firm and directive. I have 1,300 Marines in the battle space with guns, I am the strongest individual in the district, but I need to conduct myself appropriately so we continue to have good relationships.”
Riordan’s relationships with the local leaders have been successful during his seven-month deployment. The collateral effects of these relationships are readily apparent across the district.
Garmsir has the most permanent school building projects in Helmand. Afghan National Security Forces in the district are as prepared as any in Helmand to transition authority of security. Further evidence of infrastructure development can be found in bazaars across Garmsir, many with electric street lamps and newly christened shops opening daily.
Others within the battalion have followed their commander’s lead. Company commanders, platoon commanders and squad leaders go weekly to the houses of local leaders, not just to build professional relationships, but personal ones as well.
“My personal experience has been great,” Riordan said. “Any area of the district I go to, I know people and people know me. It’s not everybody, but I think that is a good example of the success the battalion has had.”
“The way I do things as battalion commander here is not unlike the way I did things when I was an adviser… by, with and through Afghan counterparts,” Riordan added. “It’s being flexible enough to understand that their culture is stronger than the way I want to do business. You have to go with the local solution and reinforce the local power brokers or local decision makers. Then, when you are patient and have good relationships and you need to emphasize something or disagree with something, you do that from a position of being a friend.”
The atmosphere of personal and professional relationships with elders, district council members and other local government officials is dynamic. Often meetings, or shuras, last for hours. The language and cultural barrier make every aspect of communication that much more difficult.
Meeting local expectations of what Marine forces can provide, while pushing district leaders to independently provide for their people is also a challenge. But during the past seven months, the relationships made between Marines of 1/3 the people of Garmsir have been instrumental in overcoming these difficulties.
“Every relationship I have with the district community council members and the district governor himself, has affected our whole mission. Everything we are doing here is by, with and through the Afghans to set them up to be ready to take the lead security responsibility in Garmsir,” Riordan said. “Our Afghan National Security Forces are very successful. “They are showing all the necessary capabilities to take responsibility of security… when 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment comes in, the Marines will fully be in support of ANSF. When we arrived, the ANSF were in support of us, we were the battle space owners.”
Building relationships with government officials and local residents has ultimately helped build Garmsir into one of the most secure districts in Helmand. For Riordan and other leaders from 1/3, the importance of these relationships cannot be overstated.
“We’d never have been as successful, we’d never had gotten the schools projects through…we would have never been able to target the insurgents that we did and we would have never been able to have as much access to information if we didn’t have the personal relationships. By making friends you’re actually setting the conditions to be successful.”