Following the initial push, Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade planted a flag in the heart of the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province. From small outposts, Marine combat troops fanned out across the dusty terrain to meet the locals. The Taliban have not offered the resistance many Marines expected, but first contact in this volatile region is anything but risk free.
“Please don’t be scared of the Marines,” says Capt. Albert Flores, the commanding officer of Alpha Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion.
Flores is speaking to local Afghan men who are seated in front of what the Recon Marines have decided to call a bazaar — a handful of merchant stands near a sole gas pump where two dirt roads meet.
The young Afghan men are tense. They tell the Marine captain it’s not safe to be seen with the Americans. After some courteous comments, Flores signals to his Marines and the patrol consisting of four lone up armored vehicles moves on.
A dozen miles away in the Nawa district, just outside of the newly established Marine outpost named Blue Falcon’s Nest, Sgt. Ryan Lindner of the 1/5 Marines is a bit more successful. Local business owners, the few who have remained in town since the Marines arrived at the beginning of July, invite the sergeant to tea.
“If there were a school here, are there teachers who could work at the school?” Lindner asks his hosts.
Lindner is looking for “key leaders,” men who can make decisions in the community and are a part of the local Pashto power structure. Finding such men is easier said than done, but once first contact is made nothing is left to chance.
In casual conversation the Marines mix questions about security with queries about how to improve the situation in the area. It’s called TCAF (Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework), and it’s one of the methods the Marines are using to quickly assess hostile territory where no Americans have gone before.
After a few queries, Lindner discovers that many of the farmers who tend to the fields fled the area when they learned of the Marine offensive. The local economy is agrarian. Wheat and watermelons are common crops in the area, but dried out poppy husks are stacked in almost every field.
Helmand province is the leading regional cultivator of poppy, the raw material used in the production of heroin. Besides supplementing the income of the local farmers, the drug trade, marijuana, hash and opium provide income for the transnational Taliban movement.
In Afghanistan, the Marines intend to combat the economic motives of the insurgency through the use of CERP Funds or Commanders Emergency Response Program money made available to hire Afghans for local public works.
“If we do help build a school here, we have to make sure the project is sustainable,” Lindner explained.
Learning from Iraq, in Afghanistan, Marines are initially emphasizing projects that Afghans can immediately run, as the question of future troop levels in Afghanistan largely remain unanswered.
“Do you know anything about possible Taliban here in the area,” Lindner asks his hosts and patiently waits for a reply through his interpreter.
“You have to ask the same questions a couple of times before the Afghans give you an answer that makes sense,” Lindner said.
Afghans rarely speak directly, but the answers they do give are important and could even save lives.
Two days before, and not far from where Lindner sat down for tea, someone lobbed a fragmentation grenade at a foot patrol of 2nd platoon, Bravo Company Marines from 1/5 of Camp Pendleton. One Marine had to be evacuated by helicopter to the medical facility at Camp Leatherneck — the major Marine base in Helmand province.
The leader of that patrol, Sgt. Michael Medina, did not enter the compound from where he thought the grenade was thrown. Marines are reluctant to go into Afghan homes without a member of the Afghan authorities. The Marine combat presence of 4000 far outnumbers the roughly 600 Afghan soldiers in the area of operations.
First contact means first impressions, impressions that can have a long-term effect.
“We’ve just started this, and we can’t let the Marines get a bad reputation.” Medina said.
Originally from Los Angeles, Medina realizes the importance of counter-insurgency tactics. In Iraq, he was sent home due to heavy injuries sustained in combat.
“What we do now will effect the next Marines who come in to replace us.” Medina said. He spoke to several of the Afghans who lived in the area where the grenade was thrown. No one heard or saw anything.
“That’s how it is right now, they’re afraid.” Medina said.
But fear is not the only reaction Afghans have to the newly arriving Marines.
After initial failure to communicate with the locals, Flores and the 2nd Battalion Recon Marines met with a more cooperative crowd of Afghans just down the road.
What initially seemed like a communications failure for Captain Flores turned out to be productive patrol, but first contact can be deceiving.
On that same patrol, a little farther down the road, Flores lost two of his Marines, Master Sgt. John Hayes and Lance Cpl. Roger Hager when the lead humvee triggered an IED buried deep under the road.
Three other Marines in the vehicle were severely wounded. They were immediately evacuated and are currently being treated in the United States.
Explosive Ordinance Disposal Marines (EOD) said the anti-tank mines were probably “legacy” IEDs, devices placed long before Captain Flores and his Marines had even arrived in Helmand and long before first contact had ever been made.