MARJAH, Afghanistan -- Like tomb raiders, the Marines unearth the deadly treasures of those who no longer rule Helmand province. Scouring dry creek beds and abandoned compounds, they collect caches of AK-47s, Soviet era grenades and homemade explosives buried by the insurgents.
Capt. Walker Koury, the commanding officer with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, said his troops find caches every day as citizens of Northern Marjah warm to the Marines.
“I think this makes it much more difficult for them to return,” said Koury, addressing the possibility of an insurgent spring campaign in the area.
For Fox Company, weapons cache finds are the most tangible evidence of the insurgent’s woes in northern Marjah. The company has averaged three per day over the last three months, accumulated more than 240 since the beginning of their deployment almost five months ago, and accounted for more cache finds than any other Marine company in Afghanistan, Koury said.
Koury, from Nashville, Tenn., said the increased rate of cache finds is a byproduct of the growing support for Marines in Northern Marjah.
“If the people support the Marines, they’ll tell them that the (insurgents) are coming,” explained Koury. “Who’s going to spot the (insurgents)? Not us. The people. Because they’re going to see the (insurgents) moving with the weapons, so that’s (why the insurgents) are having to hide all of this stuff … What they’ll do is hide the weapons where they’re going to conduct the attack.”
“So therefore,” concluded Koury, “I’m literally attacking their ambush position, but they’re not there; they’re weapons are.”
1st Lt. Shane Harden, the Fox Company executive officer, noted a significant decrease in insurgent small arms attacks since the beginning of the deployment. Harden said firefights used to be a daily occurrence. Now, he said, more than two weeks have passed since their last engagement with the enemy. Harden, from Dublin, Ga., believes the decrease in violence is directly related to the increase in cache finds.
Koury, whose company supports 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, said the turnaround in Northern Marjah is the byproduct of a change in command philosophy. The former battalion focused more on destroying the enemy, whereas 3/9 and Fox Company have concentrated more on building relationships with the locals, Koury said.
Harden noted that Fox Company and 3/9 face a weaker enemy than past Marine units in the area – units that adopted a more aggressive approach by necessity, he said. He conceded that Fox Company's approach wouldn't have been possible in the spring of 2010, when local insurgent forces were a more formidable threat, and he credited previous battalions for laying the groundwork for the present phase of counterinsurgency operations in the region. Nevertheless, he said, Fox Company saw no progress until a point early in the deployment, when they shifted their focus from killing the enemy to embracing the community.
Koury illustrated the problem Marines have had in the past.
“Say you get attacked, and you go through – you break people’s stuff,” he said. “You point weapons at people, and every time your (base) gets shot at, you return with machine gun fire. Now what are the people going to think about you? You can see it however you want, but they’re not going to like you.”
“The next day, the (insurgents) come by, and they go up to these people and say, ’Hey, you know the guys who broke your door? The guy who just pointed that weapon at your kid? That guy who searched your house? He’s coming down the road in 15 minutes. We’re going to put this bomb in the road, and don’t you say anything to him.’”
Koury looked up, breaking off the narrative. “Would you say anything to him? Would you tell him there’s a bomb in the road?”
In Northern Marjah, the people will, asserted Koury, because the Fox Company Marines have avoided endangering the civilian population in pursuit of insurgents.
Sgt. Gerry Cariaga, a squad leader with Fox Company, said he’s surprised at how much of the deployment he’s spent talking to people and searching for buried weapons. He said departing Marines from the last unit warned that violence would resume with the changing of seasons.
“They said, ‘Hey, once it gets hotter, it’s going to get worse.”
Cariaga, from Solsona, Ilocos Norte, Phillippines, said he’s sometimes disappointed by the unfulfilled prophecy. He sometmies misses the firefights, he explained, but overall, he’s glad that his company has found a safer, more effective way to operate.
“If you treat people with respect, they will respect you,” Cariaga observed.
Koury attributes the company’s success – the uncovered caches, burgeoning public support and reduced hostility – to Marine discipline. Marines prefer the gallantry of combat to playing the role of neighborhood watch, but they will always restrain their natural aggression for the sake of mission accomplishment, he said.
“You can kill every (insurgent), but if you don’t have the support of the people, it doesn’t matter,” Koury said. “In fact, you don’t have to kill any (insurgents), and you can win.”