Article and photos by Sgt. Ray Lewis
Task Force 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Afghanistan
BALA BALUK, Farah Province, Afghanistan â€“ Bala Baluk, a place where insurgents frequently terrorized Afghan residents, is now much safer due to the cooperative efforts of U.S. Marines and the Afghan National Police (ANP).
After months of training and fighting alongside each other, the Marines and local police have forged a common bond in their efforts to drive out insurgents who have carried out malicious attacks against coalition forces.
Through counterinsurgency and continuous security operations, the ANP and â€œGunfightersâ€ of Company G, Task Force 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Afghanistan, have brought calm to a once volatile region. Decreased enemy activity here is evidence that the Marines and ANP have struck fear into the hearts of enemy forces that now seem reluctant to carry out more vicious attacks.
â€œTheir will has been broken,â€ said 1st Lt. Peter R. Dixon, an infantry officer assigned to Golf Companyâ€™s 2nd Platoon. â€œThey wonâ€™t fight us because they have learned some hard lessons.â€
Dixon said he has received several reports from informants who say the insurgents are terrified of the Marines and that they donâ€™t want them here in Afghanistan. Efforts to rattle residents and disrupt peace in this part of Afghanistan have proven futile, as the Marines and ANP continue to dominate all opposing forces.
Because the insurgents know they cannot match the superior firepower of the Marines, they seek to harm them by placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in their path of travel. Other tactics used by the insurgents include firing mortars and launching rocket attacks against the Marines and local police.
â€œWe know how great our Marines are, so we know theyâ€™re going to perform courageously under fire. But, the enemy was quite surprised,â€ said Dixon, an Atherton, Calif., native. â€œThey were shocked when they first started fighting us.â€
Fighting has been fierce throughout Golf Companyâ€™s area of operations. While the Gunfighters are confident in their ability to overpower the insurgents and drive them away to help Afghan residents, the price of success has not come cheap. Both sides have suffered combat losses.
â€œEngaging the enemy together has created a unique and distinct bond between us and the ANP,â€ said Staff Sgt. Carlos J. Hernandez, a platoon sergeant for Golfâ€™s 2nd Platoon and Los Angeles native. â€œWe fought right beside them. We lost people; they lost people. Yet, we kept pushing forward.â€
In reflecting on the intense fighting against insurgents during the beginning phase of this deployment, Hernandez said several Marines and ANP officers were wounded following an ambush against his platoon. After caring for those injured, the Marines returned to the village with the ANP to seek out the insurgents.
â€œWe made sure not to shoot where there were buildings or non-enemy personnel,â€ Hernandez said. â€œWe were meticulous with our fire discipline; we took the Afghan people and the village into consideration.â€
Later, the Marines held a â€œshura,â€ or meeting, with local villagers. There, the people thanked the Marines for keeping them safe as they conducted combat operations.
The Marines and ANP have made headway within the community by suppressing the enemy and restoring security. Still, many locals remain hesitant to trust the Marines. Because Afghan residents have been threatened by insurgents for decades, many have lost hope that their quality of life will improve.
â€œAt first the people were timid. So, we talked to the village elders, held shuras with them, and sought out ways to help improve their situation. Once they saw that we were here to help them, they began opening up and coming around us more,â€ said Cpl. Oscar L. Garza, a squad leader and Corpus Christi, Texas native.
With increased protection from the ANP, coupled with support from Golf Company Marines serving throughout this region, many residents are denying the insurgents occupancy and telling them to leave their community. As the people witness the joint effort between the Marines and ANP to keep weapons and fighters away from their doorsteps, Garza said they are now beginning to show signs of trust.
Since the Marines arrived in April and began training with the ANP in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, they have seen significant improvements within ANP operations. Police officers here have consistently demonstrated courage under fire by displaying strong leadership skills and a sense of honor. Serving with the Marines has caused many to develop a team concept, as many feel they cannot lose with the Marines on their side.
Running to the sounds of the guns has become a commonality between the Marines and ANP. Whenever gunfire is heard, Dixon said the policemen immediately run towards it and show the Marines they are ready to take action against the enemy.
â€œLast time we got rocketed, within two minutes the ANP had mounted up. Minutes later, their trucks were across the desert, and they had hunted down the insurgent rocket team and arrested them,â€ Dixon explained.
The ANP play a key role in the effectiveness of combating insurgents. The policemen conduct searches, make arrests, search for weapons, and patrol constantly. The policeman can differentiate the insurgents from the rest of the civilian populace — something the Marines could not detect easily without ANP assistance.
â€œThey pick up on things that weâ€™d never pick up on,â€ said Dixon, explaining how the ANP help Marines identify insurgents. â€œWeâ€™ll be driving down the street, and the ANP would stop and get out after recognizing a person was an insurgent due to his turban and hair. Because theyâ€™re local, they would know the guy is an insurgent. Weâ€™ll search him and find an insurgent ID on him signed by Mullah Omar himself.â€
The ANP has chased out various criminals, many of whom were hiding under the banner of the insurgents. The local police have provided a rule of law, and have also settled land and civil disputes.
â€œStore owners can park their trucks where they want because the ANP are now seen as protectors,â€ Dixon said. â€œThey know that nobody is going to steal their merchandise. Thatâ€™s what people want, to be treated fairly.â€
With the newfound confidence that the ANP has instilled in their people, they are closer to providing the safe environment the people say they want and need. The Marines said the atmospherics of the surrounding areas is a tell-tale sign that people are ready to stand up to insurgents.
Garza said the progress has come at an ideal time, as the battalion is preparing to return to their families in the United States. The policemen are thankful for what Marines have done for them, but they are also sad to part with the men with whom theyâ€™ve forged a unique bond.
â€œAnytime we go to visit the ANP commanders, theyâ€™re happy to see us,â€ Garza said. â€œThey know its time for us to leave, but theyâ€™re still sad.â€
Although the ANP has much work to do as a unit, the Gunfighters feel they have laid the foundation for continued success. Yet, they hope the ANP remains a strong force here so all their efforts to train them wonâ€™t be in vain.
â€œWeâ€™ve had a hard deployment,â€ Garza said. â€œBecause weâ€™ve lost so much with the casualties, this means so much to me and my men serving here.â€
The Marines of TF 2/7 deployed to Afghanistan in April to conduct counterinsurgency operations with an emphasis on police mentoring. After seeing how far the ANP have come in such a short span of time, the Marines have reason to be proud of their efforts to bring peace and prosperity to the Afghan people.
â€œWe took the area from insurgents and gave it back to the Afghan people with the help of the ANP, and we were capable of that in just 8 months,â€ Hernandez said. â€œSo, our mission here was a complete success. Every Marine in this company needs to be proud of that.â€