KHAN-NESHIN, Helmand province, Afghanistan -- As a CH-53 Sea Stallion touches down in the open desert, it whips up moon dust, creating a sandstorm obscuring the landing zone to the onlookers near a stopped vehicle.
A squad of Marines disembarks the ‘bird’ in a well-choreographed show of force, and begins moving toward the vehicle.
The air interdiction force has landed.
Marines and sailors of 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment and 2nd Bn., 11th Marines, conducted an AIF mission in support of an Afghan Border Police led clearing operation here, Dec. 7-8.
"Insurgent forces were fleeing to the south during the operation," said Capt. Stephen Bartoszak, Charlie Company, 1/25 executive officer, and 27-year-old native of Centereach, N.Y. "Our mission was to stop any of those forces, and deny them the freedom of movement in the open desert."
As the ABP conducted the clearing operation in Khan-Neshin district, southwest of the Helmand River, the AIF circled in the air, searching for suspicious vehicles or personnel.
"We were searching for insurgent activity enablers," said Capt. Darren Wallace, Charlie Company, 1/25 company commander. "The area is a hotbed for smugglers transporting weapons, improvised explosive device components and narcotics."
Once a target has been identified, the team lands and moves toward the vehicles or individuals in question.
"It’s a very dynamic situation," said Bartoszak. "We have to treat everyone we encounter as a threat, but we still have to be professional with them."
The task at hand was not an easy one; the team often had to search large groups of people and vehicles, in a very short window of time. The members of the AIF also collected biometric data from each individual they encountered, which is then added to a databank used to identify insurgents in southern Helmand province.
The largest group the AIF stopped during their mission included almost 35 individuals, Wallace said.
Having performed numerous missions of the same scope, the AIF had the experience to deal with challenges, such as communicating in the noisy confines of their helicopter and through the ‘brown-outs’ created by sand during their extractions.
"It’s very difficult to communicate while we’re in the bird," said Bartoszak. "So, we developed basic hand-and-arms signals to let each other know what targets we have on the ground."
The AIF acts as a quick reaction force from above, playing a unique role in support of counter-insurgency operations in southern Helmand.
"With the limited time we have on the ground, it’s our job to find weapons and improvised explosive device components to deter these insurgents," said Wallace.
Mission success for the AIF depends heavily on the speed, discipline and professionalism of its Marines and sailors.
"I came out to the operation to see my Marines perform," said Wallace. "They worked very well and they were very professional with the locals."
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment and 2nd Bn., 11th Marines, are assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.