Marines of Operation Godfather seeing significant improvement in Helmand province

 

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

GARMSIR, AFGHANISTAN – The Marines strode single-file across dusty farmland that the Taliban had controlled days earlier, facing little resistance beyond a boy who said, “Please, don’t step on the poppies.”

Not a single bullet was fired in the first few days of Operation Godfather, a 400-man offensive conducted with Afghan forces to clear out the last insurgent haven along the central Helmand River valley in Afghanistan’s Garmsir district.

Marine officers concluded that the show of force beginning Friday – helicopters rushing through the sky, trucks hauling ready-to-be-built bridges, and convoys spanning the desert horizon – had caused the Taliban to back down.

“If we were here alone, we’d be shot at,” said Lt. Brett De Maria, while leading a morning patrol through farming villages. “But we’ve got air support and tons of vehicles.”

The offensive seemed a surreal departure from the past year of brutal violence and fighting in Helmand province, the epicenter of Afghanistan’s opium industry and a corridor to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. Almost 40 percent of the 499 U.S. deaths in Afghanistan last year occurred in Helmand, according to the Web site iCasualties.org, which tracks U.S. combat fatalities.

Marines recovered about two dozen weapons caches – evidence, they said, that the Taliban had planned to fight under better circumstances at a later time.

The hidden weapons also reflect the difficulties of combat in the dead of the Afghan winter, when temperatures plummet so low that fingers and toes surrender to an aching numbness.

Another possible reason the operation proved less violent came from a Marine infantryman. He noted that Marine patrols are smaller in Sangin, a district in northeastern Helmand where 29 U.S. troops have been lost during the past half-year.

“They’re patrolling seven, eight guys, while we’re 31 deep,” the infantryman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his comment could be interpreted as a criticism.

There are key differences between the Taliban in Sangin and Durzay, the main village in Garmsir, which was targeted by Operation Godfather, said Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the regional commander for southwestern Afghanistan. The insurgency in Sangin is mostly composed of local fighters defending their home turf, while those in Durzay are “professional cutthroats” who smuggle opium and stepped out of “the bar scene in ‘Star Wars,’ ” he said.

“Durzay is a spot on the map where they sell their evil things, so they’re not going to fight to the death,” Mills said.

The Taliban does tend to go after smaller patrols, some Marine officers said, because of the insurgency’s own modest size. In parts of Garmsir, just one or two men with a pistol can intimidate a whole village.

There are roughly 60 Taliban fighters in the area around Durzay, according to military intelligence. Isolating them from villagers by constructing permanent bases and checkpoints staffed by U.S. and Afghan forces was the operation’s goal.

“The true test, and we’re speculating now, is whether they start messing with those patrol bases,” said Lt. Col. Robert Schwarz, the executive officer of the regimental combat team overseeing Garmsir. “We’re betting they will, but it will be limited at best.”

Breaking the Taliban’s sway will eventually mean eliminating the poppy and marijuana sprouts already visible in some fields.

As part of the operation, detachments of Marines and Afghan troops went door to door conducting a census of farmers, who freely volunteered their connections to the drug trade.

“Do you have any weapons?” Khalid Noorzai, the deputy director for Helmand’s counternarcotics police, asked one household in Anbari village.

“I don’t have a knife, but I have opium,” said Mohammed Agha, a 17-year-old answering for his absent father.

The detachment decided against confiscating the opium, because it might alienate the family at a moment when the Marines are seeking the support of the people. Drugs often serve as a form of currency and source of wedding dowries in Helmand, said an Afghan police adviser.

Each farmer surveyed was warned, however, that future harvests must not include poppies.

Having transit points along the central Helmand River valley enabled the Taliban to move drugs, men, weapons and money between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With that territory steadily taken away by U.S. troops over the course of a larger 18-month offensive, the Taliban could emerge weakened when the fighting season ramps up again in the spring.

But daily reminders of the Taliban presence remain buried in the ground for the Marine battalion stationed toward the southern end of Garmsir.

The battalion has unearthed about 300 roadside bombs since November, according to its commander, Lt. Col. Matthew Reid.

Although more than 90 percent of the bombs were removed before a tire or boot triggered a detonation, one Marine was killed and three were wounded in blasts.

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