3/6 Marines rebuild, provide security for Afghanistan town
By Capt. Brendan G. Heatherman
| | July 26, 2004
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
The town of Surobi isn’t much different than any other village in Afghanistan. Roughly forty-five miles east of Kabul, the town pours down from a mountain into a riverbed where villagers bathe, wash clothes, and seek relief from the relentless summer heat. The bazaar along the hectic main road through town is typically packed with colorfully painted trucks, half-starved livestock, and shoppers with children making their way through their daily routine. Shopkeepers peddle their trinkets, linens, and Pepsi Colas to truck drivers and taxi cabs making their way from Kabul to Jalalabad and back, toiling along the brutal, unimproved road. Elsewhere in town, scores of children flock to poorly maintained and equipped schools, the sick seek help from the town doctor, who is regrettably ill-equipped, and women carry their babies on the side-roads. It’s a difficult life for the people, compounded by the fact that evil men of the old regime lurk in the hills surrounding the town, terrorizing the people who strive for nothing more than progress. The terrorists burn schools and threaten potential voters. The people live with the realistic threat of the Taliban and Hizb-I-Islami terrorists within an arms reach of their families. It’s not much different from any other town in Afghanistan, with one exception…the presence of the men of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. Forward Operating Base Surobi lies just northwest of the town, nestled securely at the base of the Naghlo Dam, the major supplier of power for not only Surobi, but also the capitol city of Kabul. “Our mission here is to provide security for the district and provide civil, military and humanitarian assistance to the people,” said Capt. Conlon Carabine, Headquarters and Service Company commander and camp commandant for the base. “Our presence here has been extremely helpful to the people and to the district police and highway patrol,” he added. Gen. Dauod, Surobi district police chief agrees. “The Marines have helped rebuild our town and keep the Taliban from threatening the area,” he said. “I consider them friends.” The mission introduces a new concept to the Marines, one that they will need a period of time adjusting to. The concept is to disrupt enemy operations in the district using the combined arms effect of combat and humanitarian operations, two seemingly exclusive methods used simultaneously. The base overlooks a swift-flowing river sweeping out from the dam, high mountains, and rusted, hulking relics from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from several decades ago. The base itself is a former retreat for the wealthy in the area and was once served as headquarters for Gilbuddin Hikmatyar, the leader and founder of Hizb-I-Islami, one of the major terrorist organizations in the country. The Marine contingent arrived in the town in May, relieved a detachment from 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, who had been in the area for more than a month. When the Marines arrived, the headquarters building was occupied by animals and had grown into an abhorrent state of disrepair. The Marines, alongside local and American contractors, installed electricity, billeting, head facilities, and numerous other improvements to insure that the base would be able to house follow on units for years to come. Humanitarian assistance for the town became the main effort for the Marines when they realized the dire needs of the villagers. “What we saw was pretty bad when we first arrived,” said 1st Lt. Jay Mogge, the battalion’s paying agent for the Commanders Emergency Relief Program. “The school was definitely unsanitary and under-equipped; they had no books or desks, their heads were disgusting, their playground was a trash heap, and their lunch room was a pile of dirt.” The Marines went to work quickly. They provided the entire district with new desks for the students. They built a playground and restroom facility for the students, an outdoor lunchroom with pavilion-style shade, and put ceiling fans and lights into the classrooms. “They seem so happy to see progress in their school and town,” said Mogge. “Whenever we come around, they welcome us like we’re relatives. It’s been a great experience helping these people out.” In addition to the work done at the school, the Marines have contracted to build numerous wells in communities both in and around the town, provide new uniforms and nametapes for the district police officers, and begin the process of building a community center. The Marines of 3/6 have also provided supplies and equipment for the local clinic, to include an x-ray machine, ultrasound machine, and a new ambulance. “The Marines have helped us more than we can ever thank them,” said Dr. Badar, the local doctor who runs the clinic. “We had nothing before the Marines came, now we have everything we need. I don’t want to see them go.” The projects not only served the townspeople by providing needed facilities, but gave the men of the town employment, bolstering their local economy.The second part of the mission has proved to be equally as challenging. Providing security for the district included running numerous foot and vehicular patrols all around the town and the district, cordons and search operations to confiscate weapons caches, and raids to capture Taliban leaders. In addition, the Marines have conducted vehicle checkpoints throughout the area to deter weapons from being imported into the capitol city of Kabul. Surprisingly, the travelers who have been stopped at the checkpoints are not angry at the time delay. “We are happy that we have security in our villages now,” said one traveler in the back of his mini-van, packed with his family. The checkpoints have also given the Marines a chance to interact with locals and learn their customs. “At first it was difficult to understand them,” said Cpl. Justin Henshaw, who works in the operations shop, “but as you get to know them, you realize they are actually pretty good people. I can actually speak a little of the language now.”The Marines are beginning to blend in with the local culture. Each day, swarms of villagers visit the base, some to get much-needed work, some to offer information about enemy activities in the district, others to bring food and talk with their new neighbors. Although most of the people in the district seem to welcome the presence of the Marines, there are many in the district with different ideas. Engineer Sher Hasan Sangaar, the representative of the Ministry of Power, is responsible for the operations at the dam. “I get death threats every day. I am aware of several meetings between Taliban and Hizb-I-Islami leaders who plan on blowing up the dam and attacking the Americans. I am afraid; I know they are out there and they are planning,” he said. Sangaar’s fears are occasionally realized. The forward operating base has recently been attacked with rockets and mortars; fortunately no Marines or civilians have been injured. “They typically attack during the extreme dark hours at night before the moon rises,” said Sgt. Jason Karras, sergeant of the guard at the base. “When they attack during the day, their fire has been pretty inaccurate. They will shoot a rocket or a mortar round at us then run away before we can get there. It’s frustrating.” The biggest threat in the area seems to be from improvised explosives devices, a major threat throughout the country. Rumors have run rampant through the town about a multitude of terrorists operating in the area who have threatened to use this weapon, but to date, no Marines have been attacked. “I think the main reason we’ve avoided these kind of attacks are because of our aggressive patrolling and vehicle checkpoint efforts,” said Carabine. “We’ve also done a lot for these people and made friends. The people in the town give us information and we can prevent attacks before they occur. In a way, the villagers themselves are another line of defense. Like I said earlier, it’s a different type of mission than we’re used to but we’re adjusting.” As the villagers leave the base for the day and the last day patrol returns, the villagers make their way back to their homes, smiling and waving. They feel secure despite the presence of terrorists just outside of town. It seems as if the new concept of a combined arms effect is working. And the Marines are adjusting quite well.