SRE KALA, Helmand province, Afghanistan -- A large plot of austere terrain in the southern portion of Khan-Neshin district is home to local farmers who make a living growing crops far from the more developed districts of southern Helmand province.
The villages of Sre Kala and Paygel can be found among this austere terrain, along with evidence of an insurgency whose members have moved from northern districts to escape the growing reach of Afghan National Security Forces.
Until recently, the hundreds of kilometers of desert and marshland terrain in this area of Helmand’s southernmost district were previously untouched by Afghan or coalition forces. Marines and sailors of 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, swept through 324 square kilometers of southern Khan-Neshin during Operation Highland Thunder, Feb. 15-22.
The clear, part of the ongoing Regimental Combat Team 5 winter offensive, Operation Tageer Shamal (Shifting Winds), was conducted to prepare the area for follow on counterinsurgency operations by Afghan forces.
The Helmand Afghan Border Police will soon join their Marine counterparts to begin partnered operations around Sre Kala and Paygel, further extending the southern reach of Afghan and coalition forces. The addition of the ABP will aid coalition efforts to curb insurgent drug and weapons trafficking activity in the area.
“This area is pretty large,” said Sgt. Jared Carlson, a squad leader with Alpha Co., 1st LAR and 26-year-old native of Kaneohe, Hawaii. “There’s a lot of enemy activity… You can tell by the atmosphere [in the villages].”
Due to logistical constraints, Afghan forces regard this segment of the Helmand River, which extends to Dishu Ferry, as their southernmost area of influence in the province. The establishment of two new patrol bases in Sre Kala and Paygel will further strengthen their ability to operate in this area of Khan-Neshin.
“The number one thing we’re doing is disrupting the enemy to set the conditions for the arrival of the Afghan Border Police,” said Capt. Sean Williams, the Alpha Co. commander, 1st LAR and 30-year-old native of Aurora, Co. “We’re doing that by conducting a lot of dismounted patrols in the green zone, where everybody lives.”
After establishing Patrol Bases Sre Kala and Paygel, Marines with 1st LAR led the operation on foot, using dismounted patrols to sweep for insurgent activity, weapons and drug caches.
Mobile units of the battalion set up blocking positions and vehicle check points to catch insurgents attempting to flee the area, while India Co., 3/3 conducted helicopter inserts to disrupt insurgent freedom of movement.
“We want to get [the ABP] established here, so they have the ability to be able to push west,” said Williams. “Going into the villages, collecting biometrics data, getting to know the elders, getting to know the lay of the land is going to help set them up for success.”
“We want to get them here and have something for them to fall in on,” explained Williams. “It’s always easier when there’s a baseline already established.”
The terrain presented uncomfortable obstacles during numerous daylong patrols. Marines treaded through waist-deep canals, and marched through knee-high patches of mud, averaging 10 kilometer treks on a daily basis.
“The terrain in our previous area of operations was a lot more forgiving,” said 1st Lt. Gil Barndollar, a platoon commander with Alpha Co., 1st LAR and 30-year-old native of Portsmouth, N.H. “Here, the biggest challenge is the canals…They’re a lot deeper and wider, we have very little choice but to cross them.”
In order to avoid enemy ambushes and improvised explosive device attacks, Marines avoided crossing the makeshift bridges built by locals and other well traveled routes.
“During an overnight outpost, one of our Marines was carrying his [overnight] pack along with an electronic countermeasure device while crossing a canal,” recalled Barndollar. “He got off-balanced and fell back into the water…everything in his pack got wet. As soon as we got to our OP, we had to dry all his things and keep him warm to avoid hypothermia.”
Regardless of the inherent difficulties presented by the terrain, Alpha Co. Marines found multiple caches during their foot patrols through the muddy marshland and seemingly endless desert.
These caches contained several AK-47s and RPK medium machine guns recently used against coalition forces, over 3000 7.62mm rounds for the weapons, drugs and IED components.
“Being able to find the enemy’s tools of the trade is a great victory,” explained Carlson. “Hopefully it’s keeping this area safe and helping it progress, especially with the ABP coming in.”
Marines with 1st LAR will continue to strengthen their positions at Sre Kala and Paygel in anticipation of follow on operations with the Helmand ABP. The partnered forces look to mirror the steady progress made by their counterparts in northern districts, as Marine forces gradually shift into an advisory role and the ABP take the lead in counterinsurgency operations.
Editor’s note: First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment are currently 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.