MARJAH, Afghanistan -- It was early morning and the moon still lit the sky. A frigid winter breeze lashed the Marines as they trudged across frost-covered farmland, quietly making their way to the landing zone. In the cover of darkness, they crouched in an empty canal and awaited their flight.
As the first rays of sun began to peer over the tree-line, loudspeakers from nearby mosques resounded Muslim prayer verses across the countryside. As the Marines waited, the chopping sound of helicopter rotors grew gradually louder. The helicopters flew into position, scooped up the fighters and disappeared into the clouds.
On Jan. 15, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment launched Operation Integrity, in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan. The main purpose of the operation was to successfully cordon off a suspected hotspot for Taliban activity, search for weapon and IED caches, disrupt enemy logistical operations and gather census data on locals in the region of Sistani.
When the sun rose, locals stepped outside to discover their village surrounded by a massive convoy of armored vehicles. Helicopters flew in and inserted Marines and ANA soldiers in the surrounding farmland.
With security set and unmanned aircraft monitoring from above, the Marines and ANA swept across the countryside, knocking on doors and searching compounds.
“Our primary task is to disrupt Taliban activity by searching suspected bed-down locations and possible weapons caches,” said Capt. Ronald Diefenbach, commanding officer of Weapons Company, 2/9. “Even if no insurgents or weapons are captured, we’ll keep the enemy on his toes and have the opportunity to engage with the local population on a number of issues.”
After searching several compounds and talking to locals, Diefenbach noticed a trend. Unlike previous ops he had been on, the majority of the locals had no problem informing on the Taliban this time.
Diefenbach found that most of the Taliban had left the area. Known hiding spots for Taliban contraband turned up empty.
Hopefully, the Taliban are starting to leave for good, he said.
Diefenbach suggested that locals have been more willing to cooperate after seeing the effectiveness of coalition operations, such as a recent one in northern Marjah that brought numerous Taliban fighters and commanders into custody. He said the positive feedback from the locals this time was probably due to increased security and stabilization of the region.
“[The capture of Taliban leaders] genuinely increases people’s positive sentiment about [Aghanistan’s government] and their Marine partners,” said Diefenbach. “Their willingness to speak out has to do with the increase in security. If you’re not worried about someone threatening your family, you’re more likely to provide information and side with the government.”
As the operation continued, the ANA took the lead.
“[ANA] were the ones conducting the searches,” said Diefenbach. “They were the ones dealing with the locals primarily and getting a feel for the local populace, since they are the future of Afghan secuity.”
“The abilities of our ANA partners are increasing every day, so one of the goals of this operation was to get the ANA out there and have them execute the mission with little help from the Marines,” said Capt. Jason M. Quinn, officer-in-charge of Operation Integrity with 2/9.
Cpl. Nicholas Kovarik, an intelligence analyst with 2/9, said that the partnership between 2/9 and ANA managed to search over 200 compounds and gather census information on nearly 300 individuals.
In an area that was once ravaged by daily firefights, officials said the lack of Taliban presence during this operation could be another indication of the weakening insurgency in the region.
“Overall from start to finish everything was a success,” Quinn said. “We managed to collect a lot of census data and a lot of intelligence that is going to help us and [other units] in the future.”