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NEWS | Aug. 2, 2012

Afghan forces increasingly in security lead in southern Helmand province

By Staff Sgt. Brian Buckwalter , Regimental Combat Team 6

COMBAT OUTPOST DEHLI, Afghanistan (August 2, 2012) — As Marines drove along the narrow dirt roads of southern Helmand province they watched farmers tend to their corn fields and livestock. They saw children running alongside vehicles and swimming in a river that irrigates the fields surrounding it. Trucks carrying bags of wheat and other products passed the Marines’ convoy regularly on their way to deliver their goods to bazaars and customers in the area.

Also on this road in the Central Helmand River Valley are Afghan National Army recruiting billboards showing soldiers smiling in uniform. There are anti-insurgency billboards too. One depicts a man in jail, his head in his hands. A thought bubble over his head shows the wife and children he left behind.

The billboards reinforce what everyone in the area is seeing, more ANA influence and fewer insurgents.

It’s not uncommon to see ANA soldiers or Afghan police race up and down the road in their pickups, running between their manned checkpoints and outposts along the route.

In places like Marjah, Nawa and Garmsir, Afghan forces are out in front, providing security for their own people. Marines, who had been fighting alongside Afghan forces, are stepping back.

“It was shoulder to shoulder,” said Sgt. Maj. Matthew Putnam, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6. “Now it’s over the shoulder.”

This shift began around the beginning of the year, said Col. Roger B. Turner Jr., the former commanding officer of the area of operations in southern Helmand province. The Marine Corps’ mission in the region is transitioning from Marines being out in front leading operations to Afghans taking the lead. 

Marines, as part of Security Force Assistance Advisory Teams, are starting to focus primarily on advising and training Afghan forces, according to International Security Force officials. Marines continue to provide assistance in capabilities that Afghans are still developing, like battlefield medical evacuations and explosive ordnance disposal.

This shift in roles is counterintuitive to Marines who are trained to be combat focused, said Col. John R. Shafer, commanding officer, RCT-6. The regiment now controls the Marine battalions in southern Helmand province.

“We love to run to the sound of the gun,” he said. But by putting Afghans in the lead, “success is never having to leave the (base).”

As long as there is still a threat, the assistance teams will conduct operations alongside their Afghan partners, ISAF officials said. But, the primary focus of the assistance teams will be to advise and train their Afghan counterparts in everything from infantry tactics and counter-improvised explosive device techniques to vehicle maintenance and administration.

Putnam, from Saratoga, N.Y., has seen the results of increased partnering with Afghans in southwest Afghanistan. He was last in Helmand province less than a year ago with 3rd Bn., 8th Marines. He and his Marines were providing security along Route 611 south of Sangin while it was being paved and “nothing was partnered” where they were, he said. 

Now deployed to southern Helmand province, Putnam said the Afghans who are mentored by Marines are successfully conducting security operations.

“I never would have expected it to be so secure … in less than 11 months,” he said.

In Marjah, the ANA are “taking care of their own business,” said Lance Cpl. Terance Bonelli, infantryman, India Company, 3rd Bn., 8th Marines.

Bonelli, from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, occasionally patrols with Afghan soldiers and said the ANA continues to build its confidence and are increasingly involved in security missions.

With this larger, more capable ANA presence, Marines are outside the wire less frequently.

Lance Cpl. Ryan Kreeger an infantryman with India Co., said a friend of his who was leaving Marjah had some advice for Kreeger on how to pass the time. “If you can fit an Xbox in your pack, do it.”

Afghans in the entire region, from Marjah to Garmsir, are enjoying relative quiet without much insurgent activity in the Central Helmand River Valley.

“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 in a recent RCT-5 story. “They really cherish the security they have.”

“We’ve pushed them to the point where they can’t take us head to head,” said Lance Cpl. Jorg Esquivel, infantryman, India Co., about the insurgents.

As the security situation continues to improve, far fewer Marines are in the area than there were just a few months ago.

Putnam said that 3rd Bn., 8th Marines, has taken over what was the responsibility of three battalions before: 2nd Bn., 9th Marines, was in Marjah; 2nd Bn., 6th Marines, was in Nawa; and 3rd Bn., 3rd Marines, was in Garmsir.

ISAF officials said because the transition of security responsibility to ANSF is conditions based, fewer Marines doesn’t mean less security. It means Afghan forces are more capable. 

Officials also said they’re committed to ensuring Afghans have full security responsibility of their country by the end of 2014.