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Combat patrols in Helmand province are intimidating business. That felt especially true this past month, which had the distinction of being the deadliest of the war so far for U.S. forces. The terrain of narrow canal roads in the southern Afghanistan province and the nature of the current fight with Taliban insurgents here mean Marines are logging 90 percent of their time patrolling on foot, and not always by themselves. Part of the strategy here in winning over the local population and shoring up security is to use Afghan forces as often as possible and in ways that will “put an Afghan face” on operations.
Another facet of that strategy — arguably the most important — is conducting patrols and operations in a way that does not alienate the locals.
The southern boundary of Marine Corps operations in this region might as well be the de facto border with Pakistan. Beyond that line, there’s little to no Afghan governmental organization or security forces. Marine units on that edge are taking the brunt of full-on combat action, with Taliban fighters attacking them with small arms and sniper fire and buried bombs on a near daily basis.
Combing over Helmand on foot is a search for the boogie man, defined and measured with each step. Combat patrols are planned around the anticipation and expectation that you will get attacked. The Taliban fighters are highly organized, and are operating in four- to five-man fire teams with military precision. The IED (imrovised explosive device), however, is a favored weapon that maximizes the moment of surprise while also conserving manpower. IEDs constructed from homemade explosives, such as ammonia-based fertilizers, are being found all over the region with more frequency.
Some of the buried bombs have been packed in ways that indicate insurgents are trying to make them more difficult to detect, such as in rubber cylinders. Some are indiscriminate, activated by pressure plates. Others are command detonated, triggered for specific targets. The variety of tactics and potency used show just how adaptive the Taliban is as an enemy.
I recently linked up with a team of Marines who were only too happy to help me learn firsthand just how nerve-wracking taking on this province by foot actually is. The grunts of “Rincon” — a call sign they chose for their team to pay homage to a popular surfing point in Hawaii — are a team of 10 Marines attached to 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines and tasked to embed with the fledgling Afghan Border Police unit in the Garmsir District.
The ABP is the newest arm of the Afghan security forces, and boasts more troops than the national police force in the Garmsir region of Helmand. They are a hybrid force of sorts, needed to fill the role of soldiers in the rural areas while operating with the sensitivity of a cop when dealing with locals in villages. The border police wear grey camouflage uniforms, but have little else in terms of personal protective gear. Many have no helmets, no bullet-proof vests. They barely have weapons.
The precarious nature of their task of going up against the Taliban sank in for me recently. As Rincon Marines prepared to conduct a joint patrol with border police, I readied my own gear and nerves for the walk through the flat farm fields. I made sure my tourniquet was in the front pocket of my flak vest, and I strapped my passport to my calf in a pouch concealed under my pants leg, both long-held rituals of mine after a reporter working in Iraq was shot years ago. His medical evacuation was delayed, I had heard, because there was difficulty reuniting him with his travel documents. As an added precaution, I mentioned the location of these items to Sgt. Nathan Brannan, the Marine I would be shadowing during the patrol.
“You might not want to put in on your leg,” Brannan said.
I knew instantly what he was referring to and the gravity of situation kicked in. If I were to step on an IED, my passport would likely not survive, nor would my leg needless to say. “Why don’t you put it in your pack,” he said coolly, as if he was referring to a bottle of water.
And so the patrol began.
We launched out of the Marine outpost in a traditional formation with Afghan troops reluctantly leading the way. It’s easy to understand why they can feel timid at the front of foot patrols, or even convoys, where they are prime targets. They feel exposed from their lack of the gear that protects American troops, and therefore think Marines should be on point. The Marines, however, are adamant that they need to front the charge. “This is their country.” It was a sentiment I was hearing several times a day.
The heat of the day was overwhelming, as we headed out across the field plots. The relentless midday sun was blazing overhead, and my back was already wet with sweat thanks to my flak vest. I carried a small hydration backpack with water and a few snacks in case we were out longer than planned.
I followed Brannan’s every step, over parched dirt that crunched loudly under foot, through brackish standing water that reached almost knee deep, and then through the mud. It was thick as cake batter, sucking my foot in all the way over my calf. It reminded me of the pluff mud in the marshes back home in South Carolina. I fought panic as I felt my boot start to slide off my foot. Sgt. James Renwand would later offer me his hand as Brannan and I climbed out of the wadi up a mound to firm ground.
Planted fields were lush with low-lying crops that resembled lavender and herbs. Those fields lying fallow were scattered with prickly nettles, which grabbed at our pant legs as we passed. They were just one more thing to watch out for. Some field plots were littered with dried up dregs of the last harvest. I scanned the dirt constantly from left to right and back again looking for suspicious mounds or protruding wires, as my boot pulverized poppy pods left blanched and brittle in the sun. Narcotics, such as opium and marijuana, are popular crops in the area.
Brannan jumped over a drainage ditch, easily stretching his long legs across the divide. I had to hop in order to cross the distance. The land was eerily level and open, giving little cover. Family farming compounds edged the plots, most had large adobe walls that seemed ideal for concealing the small firearms so prevalent in this area.
The patrol stopped along a tree line for observation, while Brannan and I crouched down at the base of a mound of hay that gave concealment. About 30 yards away, a young man tended his field, slicing stalks with a sickle, ignoring his audience. Brannan, who was recently selected to join Special Forces, scanned the horizon and the wall of a nearby compound.
He, like most of the Marines on the training team, has multiple combat tours under his belt. His actions seemed instinctual. As we sat, he told me of his native Australia, where he grew up after his father took a job there, and how he worked to alter his accent so that the others could understand him. His voice held no trace of betraying his efforts. The only evidence of his homeland was an Australian flag patch on his vest.
The minutes stretched on and close to an hour later, the decision was made to return to the outpost.
As we grew closer to the base, I could smell wafts of smoke from burning marijuana, and I made a joke about insurgents trying to lure us into a trap. I was finding that jokes, even lame ones, could help cut the tension. It might be coming from the post, as sometimes the Afghan troops smoke it, someone said.
During the patrol, Brannan was careful to walk on the mounds edging the fields, or to place his foot where it made sense. He was acutely conscious that a wrong step could crush a plant and chip away at a farmer’s means of making a living. Hours after the patrol began, it was apparent that the Afghan troops hadn’t picked up on the strategy. The border patrol took a different approach leading our patrol straight through a field thick with lush green alfalfa plants.
Brannan, like the other Marines ahead of him, had no choice but to follow. Our steps fell in on top of blades pressed flat by the dozen or so others in the line ahead of us. A farmer, flanked by his children, stood stiff and stared intently as we passed.
“This is bad,” Brannan said, of the apparent blatant disregard for the farmer. I felt a knot tighten in my stomach, and I walked quickly to clear the field. I was unable to keep the farmer’s gaze.
From the look on that particular Afghan face, the border patrol had quite a distance to traverse before they caught up.