Khan Neshin district governor Shah Mahmood presents a gift to U.S. Marine Col. Roger B. Turner Jr., the commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 5, here, June 29, 2012. Turner and his staff conducted their final battlefield circulation of Marjah, Nawa, Garmsir and Khan Neshin districts, observing the progress made by Afghan security forces and the district governments over the last year. (Photo by Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez)
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (July 30, 2012) — When the Marines and sailors of Regimental Combat Team 5 arrived here in August 2011, their predecessors from RCT-1 had already planted the seeds of transition with Afghan National Security Forces.
Through this partnership, the people of Marjah, Nawa, Garmsir and Khan Neshin districts were able to begin rebuilding a land once controlled by a Taliban insurgency.
“Initially, we were in the lead in conducting counterinsurgency operations, partnered with the Afghan forces,” said Col. Roger B. Turner Jr., the commanding officer of RCT-5. “Additionally, we were developing their governance, in order to create an environment that allows the Afghan government to become increasingly capable.”
The initial mission of the “Fighting Fifth” followed the trend of previous coalition units, with Marines leading operations and simultaneously training the Afghan National Army and police forces. Civilians from International Security Assistance Force nations partnered with Afghan officials in the district governments, working in concert with the military mission in the Central Helmand River Valley.
“About midway through [the deployment], the mission changed,” explained Turner. “The Afghans took the lead and we were in support of their operations.”
With Afghan forces taking the lead, Marines operating under RCT-5 shifted their focus to an advisor mission. This shift included Marines mentoring and assisting Afghan forces in counterinsurgency operations, and allowing Afghan government officials to take the lead in providing for the people of their districts.
Transitioning lead security authority
“Our security situation was good, and there was momentum established when we arrived in southern Helmand,” said Turner. “The two key challenges were changing the narrative from a coalition to Afghan led mission, and to take care of the remaining areas of resistance that were impeding progress.”
After maintaining the security throughout the fall of 2011, RCT-5 shifted its focus to mentoring and advising ANA soldiers, specifically those with 1st Brigade, 215th Corps. Subordinate battalions in the RCT-5 battlespace also focused on developing the capabilities of the ANA, as well as the Afghan Local Police, Afghan Uniformed Police, Afghan National Civil Order Police and Afghan Border Police forces.
“Our mission was to provide persistent advice, mentoring, coaching and teaching to the 1st Bde., 215th Corps, across all the warfighting functions,” said Lt. Col. Barry Harrison, the senior advisor for the RCT-5 Brigade Advisor Team.
Upon arriving in southern Helmand the BAT found that their ANA counterparts were capable of conducting independent operations at the company level. Despite their basic tactical proficiency the brigade remained reliant on support from coalition forces in several key areas.
“They [the brigade] were heavily dependent on coalition forces for logistics, intelligence and just about all of the other enabling functions that support the tactics,” explained Harrison, a native of Houston. “We wanted to focus on improving their ability to operate independently in those functions.”
Marine advisors tackled two primary logistical requirements, fuel and water, during the first few months of their deployment. The brigade was highly dependent on their advisors for fuel to power vehicles and generators, and bottled water for Afghan soldiers at the brigade headquarters and subordinate kandaks (ANA battalions) throughout southern Helmand.
“We helped them improve and maintain fuel storage facilities at the brigade headquarters and at kandak locations,” said Harrison. “We helped the brigade logistics officer establish contracts for fuel delivery… that has allowed them to store sufficient fuel for operations on a monthly basis.”
The brigade has also used their contracting system to establish wells or bottled water delivery for their positions. Fuel and water sources at key brigade and kandak positions have been in use by Afghan soldiers for the past nine months, Harrison said.
In addition to finding a solution for two of the brigade’s main logistical problems, the BAT developed training to improve ANA combat support capabilities. Artillerymen and combat engineers with the brigade’s 4th Kandak made the greatest strides over the last year, conducting several artillery training exercises, providing illumination for operations, and building and demilitarizing ANA positions in Marjah, Nawa and Garmsir districts.
The brigade demonstrated its improved tactical and combat support capabilities through its planning and execution of several major operations during RCT-5’s yearlong deployment.
Operation Tageer Shamal (Shifting Winds) was the first brigade-level operation, planned and led by the ANA following the transfer of lead security authority in Marjah and Nawa districts to Afghan forces and the Afghan government. Afghan soldiers with 2nd Kandak, 1st Bde., 215th Corps, and Afghan police, supported by Marines with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, moved to the outskirts of Garmsir district along the western side of the Helmand River, clearing the area of insurgent activity, weapons and improvised explosive device-making materials.
This initial stage of Operation Tageer Shamal laid the groundwork for follow on operations on the outskirts each of the four districts in southern Helmand. Prior to this operation, Afghan and Marine forces were primarily focused on district population centers, or green zones. The increased presence and effectiveness of the various branches of the Afghan police allowed the ANA and Marines operating under RCT-5 to turn their attention outward.
The bulk of the responsibility to train Afghan police across southern Helmand fell on the shoulders of Marine police advisors at the regiment and battalion levels. These advisors conducted training on “blue side” tactics, or traditional western-style community policing, and military tactics with the various Afghan police forces.
“They [Afghan police] are very good at securing an area,” said Capt. Nicholas McAdams, the RCT-5 Police Mentor Team officer in charge. “They were very good at keeping the bad guys out and if the bad guys show up, they can push them out. But they weren’t too involved in community policing efforts, proper detainee handling techniques and all the stuff that goes into being an actual police force.”
McAdams and his team worked primarily with AUP and ALP forces in Marjah, developing the police and assisting in the consolidation of Marine positions across the district.
The PMT began their deployment training small police units in military tactics to maintain the basic skills already acquired by the Afghan policemen and conduct an initial evaluation of their capabilities. As the deployment progressed, they focused more and more on blue side tactics, eventually developing a “train the trainer” program that gave non-commissioned officers in the AUP and ALP the necessary skills to train their own policemen.
“We had a pretty well established training routine,” explained McAdams. “We started to see which guys were excited for us to come around and train them. We focused on those guys because we knew that they were the ones that were going to follow through and train their own.”
While the RCT-5 mission was built around partnered counterinsurgency operations and training the various Afghan forces, the regiment and one of its subordinate battalions recognized a window of opportunity to turn the tide on a major source of insurgent funding in southern Helmand.
Operation Psarlay Taba, a partnered counternarcotics operation conducted by 2nd Bn., 9th Marines, and the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, targeted opium production facilities and narcotics trafficking in the Bari Desert, northwest of Marjah. The security situation had developed to a point where Afghan and coalition forces could turn their attention to the outskirts of the district.
“Marjah was a district in transition,” said Lt. Col. Michael Styskal, the commanding officer of 2nd Bn., 9th Marines. “Marines and ANA moved out to the periphery… the police were set in and the district government was working.”
To attack this critical insurgent funding stream, the battalion designed an operation that included heliborne raids on suspected opium production facilities and aerial interdictions on vehicles transporting narcotics. However, guaranteed mission success called for more capabilities than a Marine battalion alone could provide.
The NIU is an elite counternarcotics police force that falls under the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. Closely resembling American SWAT teams in both tactics and organizational structure, the NIU operate in eight to 16-man teams. Their unique capabilities made them ideal partners in an operation with a heavy emphasis on heliborne raids.
“The NIU was involved in all mission selection and would help us decide which targets to take action on,” said Styskal. “They were the main effort, the assault force on all these raids.”
During the four-month period 2nd Bn., 9th Marines and the NIU conducted raid missions in support of Operation Psarlay Taba, the partnered force captured over 26,000 pounds of opium products. The bulk of the finds came in the form of dry opium, but significant amounts of wet opium, morphine and heroin were also recovered from production facilities and vehicles transporting narcotics.
The traditional summer fighting season in southern Helmand has yet to emerge. Styskal agrees that his battalion’s aggressive counternarcotics operations played a key role in bucking this trend, though he maintains that two years of partnered counterinsurgency operations by Afghan and coalition forces are responsible for sustained security in Marjah district.
“There is no threat that can defeat the ANSF in Marjah today,” said Styskal. “They just have to be confident in themselves and their ability to secure the district.”
In the span of 12 months, the regiment and its subordinate battalions were able maintain security in district green zones and spread security to outlying areas of each district in the RCT-5 area of operations. This increased security has allowed district governments to grow in concert with Afghan security forces, improving the lives of a population that suffered under Taliban rule only a few years ago.
Developing governance and quality of life
A year ago, the district governments in southern Helmand each held their own unique challenges. Nawa was recognized as having the most efficient and mature government, while the neighboring districts of Marjah, Garmsir and Khan Neshin needed significant work to provide a better quality of life for their populations.
Though the challenges for each district varied, the RCT-5 governance mission was focused on one goal: to prepare each district for transition to the control of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, while continuously improving the quality of life for the people of southern Helmand.
Three of the four districts in southern Helmand have district community councils, elected by the people to advise the district governors and GIRoA line ministers.
“Unfortunately, they [council members] didn’t have actual legislative powers,” said Maj. Victor Ruble, the RCT-5 Effects Officer. “They acted as a bridge between the old system of paying tribute to [village] elders and the new government, which is democratically based.”
Although the council members, who were more often than not village elders, had no legislative power, they act as a check and balance for the appointed district governor.
“They work with the appointed governor and ministers, who are not from the district, to find synergy in their execution of governance, rule of law and development,” explained Ruble, a native of San Clemente, Calif.
Striking the right balance between elected and appointed officials is, without a doubt, critical to the success of the district governments. Over the yearlong deployment, RCT-5 saw Afghan leaders acting with initiative and taking responsibility for the growth of their district.
One of these men is Nawa District Governor Abdul Manaf. Appointed to govern Nawa two years ago, Manaf arrived at a time when there was little to no security in the district. The district center had been destroyed by years of fighting with the insurgency and a constant barrage of violence directed toward him, local civilians and coalition forces.
Opium growth and drug use was rampant among the population and many government officials were corrupt. Manaf immediately took the reigns and has led a relentless campaign t to improve the quality of life for his people.
“I want to encourage everyone here to go out and get an education so we can bring stability, both men and women,” Manaf explained. “I want to bring peace and security for the entire district of Nawa so it will be a beautiful place that people will want to come and see.”
Although he wasn’t born in Nawa, Manaf strives to build his connection with the people of his district through constant communication. He keeps the Nawa population informed on his plans for the district during weekly call-in radio shows. When he’s not broadcasting his messages over the airwaves, he can be seen conducting shuras throughout the district or interacting with people shopping in local bazaars.
“Manaf is a cult of a personality,” said Ruble. “He runs the district and works very well with the elders. Even though he’s not from the district, he has very much embraced Nawa and the elders have reciprocated.”
In Khan Neshin, newly appointed district governor Shah Mahmood recently held a governance and security shura at the district center. Mahmood discussed the continued coalition and Afghan partnership in his district, touching on key topics such as security and agricultural development.
The most significant development during the shura was the formation of an elders council. This new council will work alongside Mahmood, advising him on the needs of the Khan Neshin people until funding for an official DCC is received from the Helmand provincial government.
“The elders’ shura is the main way to bring issues of the local villages to light,” said Mahmood. “The elders come to the shura and discuss their issues with me… that’s a very big thing for the population.”
Though strong leadership from district officials like Manaf and Mahmood has enabled RCT-5 to improve the quality of life for Afghans throughout southern Helmand, challenges remain.
One such challenge facing district governments in the RCT-5 battlespace was a lack of funding from the Afghan government. Early on, a number of schools, hospitals and mosques were built by Afghan contractors using coalition funds.
After several months of coalition funded development projects, GIRoA’s District Development Program was put in effect. Officials were able to manage and distribute funding provided by the Afghan government according to the needs of their districts.
“Over the course of the year, we were able to transition all the funding [from coalition] to Afghan funding,” said Turner. “They began using Afghan [funding] systems as opposed to coalition money.”
Marine civil affairs teams worked with district officials, mentoring and advising them on the proper allocation of DDP funds. Schools, health clinics and other government funded projects began popping up throughout southern Helmand. The funding program has allowed the Afghan people to rely more on their district governments, rather than coalition forces.
“Now, in the three northern districts specifically, they have a fairly mature government which is representative in nature,” explained Turner. “They have an elected DCC which works with appointed ministers in healthcare, agriculture, water distribution, transportation and education systems.”
The Safar School, the first school built by the Garmsir district government, is a key example of these Afghan funded development projects.
The Safar area was once an insurgent hub with little to no educational opportunities for the youth of southern Garmsir. Once Afghan and coalition forces were able to secure the area, education for children in the area, and thus the potential for a brighter future, became a realistic possibility.
“The Marines and our government have presented us with this building; now it’s our job to see that it’s used as a school,” said Malim Wazir, the Safar School’s head teacher at the school’s opening. “Every boy and every girl has the right to learn. We must ensure they receive this education.”
As the Afghan people began seeing the capability of their own government, their trust in elected officials has continued to increase. This trust is evident in the increased attendance at shuras and district elections held over the last year.
The village of Hazar Joft in Garmsir played host to perhaps the most important election of the year in April 2011. Voters came from across the district, casting over 2,200 ballots to successfully fill 34 seats on Garmsir’s community council.
District elections were first conducted under the guidance of coalition forces in 2009, but only people from the northern part of Garmsir closest to the district center were able to vote. In subsequent years, the increased security provided by Afghan and coalition forces has allowed governance to expand further south, reaching out to votes in the southernmost areas of the district.
“We’ve seen a lot of progress in governance,” said Turner. “We understand that it’s really key because ultimately, the competition between [GIRoA] and the Taliban is who is going to be able to provide those services.”
Maintaining success and overcoming challenges
Although Afghan security forces have maintained steady progress while taking charge of most areas in southern Helmand, challenges certainly pave the road ahead.
“These people have endured about 30 years of turmoil and have had absolutely no predictability in their lives until we were able to get ahead of the security about 18 months ago,” Turner said. “They really cherish the security they have.”
“If something starts to go poorly, the population puts a lot of pressure on their Afghan leaders and their security forces to make it right, Turner explains. “That [shows] there’s a very authentic and genuine feel that they really want to maintain their security and they don’t want it to go back to the turmoil that existed prior to our efforts here.”
According to senior leaders with RCT-5, one of the biggest challenges that lie ahead for Afghan forces in southern Helmand is the lack of support from their higher headquarters at the provincial and national level.
“We have about 8,000 Afghan forces in this area of Helmand… they can overmatch the Taliban on any day of the week, and they frequently do,” said Turner. “At the tip of the spear, they do awesome, but with some of the maintenance and supply actions that function all the way from Kabul down to the forces in the field, they still need work.”
Coalition forces are still heavily involved in mentoring higher chains of command on establishing proper supply and maintenance operations, critical to the daily tactical and operational capabilities of Afghan forces at the lowest levels.
“We probably need to stay involved [with logistics] so they can sustain their effort over the long term,” Turner added.
With security under control and governance functions in place, the people of southern Helmand are enjoying the fruits of the labors of both coalition and Afghan forces. As they observe the success of their own security forces, the confidence in the Afghan government to sustain this stability should continue to grow in kind.
“As we draw down, I think that one of their biggest challenges is relying on the institutions that we’ve helped them build, that they’ve built upon themselves,” explained Ruble. “Once they see that the institutions in place are effective as long as they work through them, I think they’ll be absolutely fine.”
The “Fighting Fifth” held command over 10 different battalions during the regiment’s yearlong deployment in southern Helmand. Marines and sailors with RCT-5 conducted over 40 named offensive and combat support operations, consolidating nearly 180 coalition positions to 15 before transferring the battlespace to RCT-6 in July.
“The Marines that are out there maintain a great relationship with their Afghan partners, the population and elders…they’re absolutely our secret weapon,” said Turner. “Early on when we still had Marines out inside the districts, if you go on patrol, you would see a corporal or a sergeant, and he would literally be like the mayor of the town. Whether it’s a shopkeeper, an elder or kids, they would go up and say hello to him.”
“Those Marines out there were able to change the fight,” said Turner. “The conduct that those young Marines displayed completely undermined the Taliban’s narrative.”
The professionalism of Marines on the battlefield allowed coalition forces to maintain their relationships with the Afghan people, even after shifting to a mentoring role.
“We were able to take a backseat and put the Afghan forces more and more at the forefront,” said Turner. “The only way we have done it is because all of the hard work that has come before us, and all the Marines that have worked with the Afghan forces throughout the years, that have created the conditions that allow them to thrive.”
As their yearlong deployment comes to a close, another battle streamer will be added to the already prestigious lineage of the “Fighting Fifth.” When they head home to Camp Pendleton, Calif., early next month, the Marines and sailors of RCT-5 will no doubt reflect on their time in southern Helmand.
When they do take a moment to pause, they will remember where they began, how far they’ve come, and see clearly the difference they’ve made in the lives of the Afghan people.
Editor’s note: Regimental Combat Team 5 was assigned to 1st Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force served 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 was 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 during their yearlong deployment.
Quotes from Lt. Col. Michael Styskal were taken from the story “Blocks of Marjah secure, Marine battalion shifts focus to counternarcotics,” written by 1st Lt. Chris Harper. Quotes from Col. Roger B. Turner Jr. about Operation Tageer Shamal were taken from the story “Afghan, Marine forces clear remnants of insurgency in southern Helmand,” written by 1st Lt. Chris Harper. Quotes from Nawa District Governor Abdul Manaf were taken from the story ”The busiest man in Nawa,” written by Staff Sgt. Andrew Miller. Quotes from Khan Neshin District Governor Shah Mahmood were taken from the story “Khan Neshin governor reaches out to district elders,” written by Cpl. Anthony Ward Jr. Quotes from Malim Wazar were taken from the story “Garmsir district continues progress in education with Safar School construction,” written by Cpl. Reece Lodder.