PATROL BASE WOLFPACK, Afghanistan -- A task force headed by 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion struck a key insurgent trafficking hub on the Pakistan border at the beginning of an operation designed to stem the flow of narcotics, weapons and fighters into, out of and around southern Afghanistan, March 14-17.
The raid took aim at the Bahram Chah village complex, the most trafficked import and export point for insurgent opium and logistics in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, and marked the kinetic opening of Operation Rawhide II.
Third LAR Bn.’s companies C and E rolled into the rocky foothills along the province’s southern border and probed the Bahram Chah bazaar and two villages flanking it. The Marines were backed by the firepower and maneuverability of their light armored vehicles and supported by a host of coalition air, Marine artillery and mortars, and Army route clearance assets.
The raid was intended to locate and destroy any structures harboring insurgents or illicit materials to include weapons, explosive device-making materials and narcotics production facilities, especially within the bazaar, said Lt. Col. Kenneth Kassner, 3rd LAR commanding officer.
The bazaar had been identified as a major production point for improvised explosive devices and opium, while the adjacent Juma Khan and Haji Wakil villages were known to house these and other illicit activities and insurgent fighters, said Capt. Allen McBroom, C Company commanding officer.
Bahram Chah sits on a valley floor, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest Afghan government seat and far outside the range of the normal coalition security presence. The area had long been a favorite staging and distribution point for insurgent activity, and a hotbed for the opium processing and exporting that serves as the financial lifeblood of the insurgency, said Kassner.
“For the enemy, Bahram Chah is isolated from much of the coalition’s activity,” he said. “They know it takes effort for us to conduct operations this far south.
“If [the enemy] can’t get his fighters and weapons in, that destabilizes his efforts, and if he can’t get his narcotics into Bahram Chah to convert into opium, then that greatly reduces the financial strength of the insurgency.”
When the Marines entered the valley on the morning of March 14, the area was quiet. The bazaar and adjacent village were like ghost towns. The calm was soon broken by a series of small arms, rocket propelled grenade and mortar attacks from hillside fighting positions as the Marines moved to isolate the bazaar and Juma Khan village. Over the next three days, sporadic insurgent attacks continued while the Marines worked to clear their objectives of improvised explosive devices and locate insurgent structures to destroy.
Throughout the raid, periodic explosions echoed through the valley as the battalion used virtually every supporting arms asset available to the Marine Corps to clear lanes through IED-infested routes and destroy insurgent buildings and fighting positions. The support included everything from artillery and mortars to helicopter-launched Hellfire missiles and engineer vehicle line clearing charges.
When the dust had cleared on the morning of March 17, the bazaar lay in ruins, one of the few structures left untouched being the local mosque. Specific buildings from which the battalion had taken fire or within which Marines had observed explosives or narcotics processing were destroyed in the adjacent Juma Khan village.
While the bazaar was not completely destroyed, rebuilding it to the point that it can be used again will cost the insurgency precious manpower and resources, said Maj. Oscar Rodriguez, 3rd LAR Bn. operations officer.
The battalion was able to achieve significant surprise and deception during the raid, rendering many of the insurgent defenses ineffective. Intelligence reports had estimated hundreds of IEDs and enemy fighters waiting to defend the valley, said Rodriguez.
“Our endstate was disruption of an enemy logistics hub, and we accomplished that,” he explained. “[The enemy] spent a lot of time building up his defense and emplacing IEDs, and we pretty much just swallowed him.”
No coalition forces were killed, no serious casualties were sustained and no civilian casualties occurred during the course of the raid. At least 50 insurgent fighters were killed, said Rodriguez.
Much of the fighting during the raid took place between insurgents based in the hills and Marine LAV crews firing back with their 25mm cannons and machine guns.
On March 15, an element of dismounted scouts with E Company clearing a section of Juma Khan village came under intense fire from a group of insurgents that had apparently lain in wait in the seemingly deserted village, said Rodriguez.
The Marines took cover and ensuing air and artillery strikes killed the insurgent fighters, he added.
In the wake of their attack on Bahram Chah, 3rd LAR Bn. plans to launch the next phase of Operation Rawhide II, which will consist of interdictions in the far south of Helmand province.
The battalion, the most southern-based unit in Helmand province, has been conducting interdiction efforts in the form of vehicle checkpoints and clearing targeted villages in the Helmand river valley to the north of here since arriving in Afghanistan in November. The unit will now shift its efforts further south toward the wide-open and largely unpatrolled desert leading up to the Pakistan border, said Kassner.
The raid and increased interdictions were timed to coincide with the start of the insurgency’s seasonal offensive, which has traditionally begun in the spring, he added.
“This operation will be used as a spoiling attack for the enemy’s seasonal offensive, and therefore greatly disrupt any plans he has for his spring and summer campaigns,” he explained.
The raid served as a follow-up to a similar operation, Steel Dawn II, carried out by 1st LAR Bn. in October. That operation differed from Rawhide II in that 1st LAR Bn. forces spent less time in Bahram Chah and did not follow up with the same shift in interdictions planned by 3rd LAR Bn.
“We have conditioned the enemy that we strike Bahram Chah and leave,” said Kassner. “During Operation Rawhide II, we are going to strike and stay. It will be very disruptive to his efforts.”