FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZEEBRUGGE, Afghanistan -- .S. Marines have been defending the area around the Kajaki Dam near here for more than a year, but they are not the only force fighting to protect this key terrain.
Many of the nearly 130 Afghan Uniformed Police officers stationed at Kajaki can literally call the area home, and the Marines based here say their Afghan counterparts have proven themselves in action against the insurgency.
“(The AUP) go out and find IEDs for us,” said Cpl. Anthony J. Chavez, 24, an Albuquerque, N.M., native and a provisional rifleman with Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 8. “We take them out with us on pushes … they’ve contributed (to) us in helping push the insurgents back.”
The AUP is a national security force intended to provide community policing services and rule of law.
“The AUP are important because, other than the provincial governor, they’re the only government influence in these rural areas,” said 1st Lt. Aiden Katz, 25, the officer in charge of the Police Advisory Team from 1st Bn., 5th Marines, RCT-8, and a Queens, N.Y., native.
The Kajaki AUP outfit is notable for its organization and patrolling ability, qualities that stem from the fact that most of the unit’s original officers were recruited out of local families displaced by the insurgency, said Katz.
“From my experience the AUP do tend to be local, but not specifically from (the area they patrol),” he explained. “The majority of these AUP are originally from here.”
Kajaki’s defining features are the hydroelectric dam on the Helmand River and the fertile green zone that winds along it into Sangin district to the south. Coalition security in the area centers around the dam, and the AUP station is adjacent to it.
Much of the population that had lived in the villages near the dam and the nearby green zone fled about five years ago after fighting in the area intensified. The local bazaar closed and most of the locals went with it.
“Five years ago the bazaar was busy and crowded,” said Haji Faziullah Ahakizad, who has been district chief of police for several years. “After the Taliban came all the people left.”
Many of Kajaki’s displaced families settled near the provincial capital at Lashkar Gah. Much of the local AUP force was recruited from there, said Faziullah.
Faziullah and his men have established several posts in the lowlands around the dam. At night, lights from their trucks and checkpoints can be seen from the hillside forward operating base here, patrolling and interdicting suspicious activity.
Marine Police Advisory Teams with 1st and 3rd Battalions, 5th Marines, have been working with the Kajaki AUP for more than a year. The PATs teach the AUP patrolling and rule of law tactics, and serve as an operational liaison between the Afghan forces and the Marines.
Cpl. Brock Bigej, a police trainer with 1st Bn., 5th Marines’ advisory team and a Portland, Ore., native, knows about working with Afghan police. In 2009 and 2010 he spent several months training Afghan Border Police officers in southern Helmand province. By the end of that deployment the ABP had made significant strides under their Marine mentors, he said.
“It was very gratifying to see the progress they had made by the end of seven months,” he said.
The experiences from his previous advisory deployment lead Bigej to volunteer for his current mission. As good as the unit he helped mentor last year were, the police at Kajaki are better, he said.
“This unit is much more organized than the unit I worked with last time,” he said. “They’re moving around at night and during the day providing security. They’re much more independent than the last group.”
The AUP are designed to serve more as a traditional police force than a full-fledged fighting force, but the reduced population around the dam has the Kajaki AUP working the other way around, said Katz.
They are operating much more akin to how the (Afghan National Army) would be,” he explained.
The AUP here have been involved in numerous actions against local insurgents since the Marines took over security of the area. There is plenty of insurgent activity in the area just outside the security bubble near the dam, and improvised explosive devices are a serious threat to locals and coalition forces.
“The insurgents in this area are not from here,” said Faziullah. “They want to fight; we will fight them.”
The result of the AUP aggressively policing in the area has been to create an extra layer of security that benefits coalition units and locals in the area, said Katz.
The police advisors are not the only Marines to note the effectiveness of the Kajaki AUP. Primary security for the area falls to 1st Bn., 10th Marines, and certain AUP officers have achieved quasi-folklore status with the unit.
The Marines talk of an officer nicknamed “IED Dundee,” whom they say has unearthed and disarmed dozens of improvised explosive devices in the area. Other officers are known for their lethal accuracy with rocket propelled grenades and PKM machine guns.
Although most of the local populace may have fled, the AUP are involved in the lives of those locals who elected to stay. In January, a local man stepped on an IED likely meant for coalition forces. Two AUP officers rushed to his aid before hitting a second device. One officer lost his legs, the other lost a foot, said Katz.
“Being from here they have a notable amount of bravery to protect the people and fight the enemy,” he said.
For now the coalition and AUP forces in the area are in a holding pattern in the area around the dam, although Faziullah has plans for the future of his home district that go beyond the current situation.
"My plan is to expand my posts,” he said. “The Marines will help me, and the (Afghan National Army) will help me, and we will bring peace to Kajaki."