GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan - The heart of Garmsir district is safe.
For the past five years, coalition forces have operated with Afghan National Security Forces to defeat the insurgency in the central Helmand River valley. Driven from the green zones, or populated areas, of districts in southern Helmand, enemy fighters have sought refuge in locations west of the Helmand River. This area on the outskirts of Garmsir district has been, until now, nearly untouched by Afghan and coalition forces and the Afghan government.
During Operation Tageer Shamal (Shifting Winds), Afghan forces and Marines with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, cleared the area of insurgent activity, weapons and improvised explosive device-making materials.
Marines are transitioning the lead for security responsibility of Garmsir to Afghan forces and the district government. Together, the partnered forces increased security and the ANSF presence on the east side of the Helmand River, but there are few signs of Afghan government to the west, said Lt. Col. Matthew Palma, the commanding officer of 3rd Bn.
Palma said the operation brought Afghan forces to this largely untouched area, enabling them to promote legitimate governance and remove remnants of insurgency.
“When the people see Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, they see governance,” Palma said.
Col. Roger Turner, the commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 5, said the increased ability of Afghan forces to secure the population centers of Garmsir has given the ANA and Marines the opportunity to conduct operations on the periphery of the district.
“We’re going to operate deeper into the west bank of the Helmand River,” Turner said. “Together, we can operate in areas the enemy has rarely seen us. By removing enemy safe havens, we’ll prevent him from being able to insert himself into the district center and attack the population.”
Long before sunrise on the first morning of the operation, lines of shadowy figures treaded through frozen fields toward the rhythmic whir of helicopter blades. Shrouded by the black of night, Marines and ANA soldiers filed into the steel birds to begin their assault.
The packed helicopters lifted off amidst the roar of their spinning rotors and vanished into the darkness. After traversing the barren desert, the birds soon touched down, their noise echoing over a landscape pocked with rocks.
In three interlocking positions, ANA soldiers and Marines with Weapons Company and Co. I and L, ran down the ramps, emerging from screens of dust to move on their objectives.
Further west, Marines with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion stood ready to block enemy movement toward the desert. Simultaneously, the Marines of Co. K, teamed with the Afghan National Police to screen traffic on the eastern side of the Helmand River.
Greeting Afghan homeowners in their native tongue, ANA soldiers led the Marines in searching compounds for illegal drugs, weapons and materials used to make improvised explosive devices.
“We’ve learned a lot from the Marines – searching, patrolling, and sweeping for IEDs,” said ANA Sgt. Khal Mohammad, an infantryman with 2nd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps. “Now, I’m proud to lead them during this operation.”
Their thorough searches yielded IED components and several hundred pounds of illegal poppy seed, but the partnered forces came across little insurgent activity.
“We’re making progress in Garmsir every day,” Mohammad said. “Ten years ago, the insurgents were stronger than us, but today they are weak. We’re stronger than them because we’ve been trained by professionals.”
While the compounds were cleared, Marines collected census information, logging names, number of residents and taking photos of household elders. Identifying these local leaders allowed ANA and Marine commanders to set up shuras (consultations) with the elders and bring local issues to the Garmsir district government, Palma said.
During the shuras, Afghan and Marine leaders discussed the operation, strength and capability of Afghan forces, development of the local infrastructure and community involvement in the ANP. In the village of Kartaka, an elder thanked Palma for his visit, saying he was the first coalition forces commander to visit the village over the last decade of conflict.
The operation aimed to reach areas of Garmsir untouched by the Afghan government and the partnered forces and is only the first step in a campaign extending throughout southern Helmand.
Palma said this phase was a demonstration of what ‘right’ looked like for a battalion-level operation, including its conception, planning, rehearsals and execution. Afghan forces will now be tested on their ability to replicate this process.
“This will be an opportunity to turn over control to our ANSF partners and allow them to take the lead,” Palma said. “By nature, we’re problem-solvers, so this will be a difficult transition for us. It will be a big step to command and control an operation at their level, and logistically sustain their own force in Garmsir.”
Despite the daunting challenge, ANA Capt. Sayed Akbar, the commanding officer of Weapons Tolay, remained positive ahead of the transition of lead security responsibility to Afghan forces in Garmsir.
“As we fortify ourselves and get more logistical support, we will be able to do operations like this on our own,” Akbar said. “Even when there are less Marines here, we will be capable of bringing security to Garmsir.”