FORWARD OPERATING BASE PAYNE, Afghanistan --
The rocky, rolling desert landscape of southern Helmand province sees little traffic other than the occasional farmer with a tractor load of firewood, late model pickups ferrying fuel to isolated villages, and shepherds with small flocks of sheep and goats, but through this austere environment trickles the lifeblood of the area’s insurgency – narcotics, weapons and bomb-making materials.
To help stem this subtle flow, the Marines of 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion have added roving patrols of light armored vehicles to the mix of desert travellers since arriving in Afghanistan in November, conducting interdictions in the form of vehicle checkpoints.
During their deployment, the Marines have stopped and searched thousands of vehicles, said Cpl. Kevin Greenwald, a scout team leader with C Company, 3rd LAR Bn., and a native of River Grove, Ill.
“Every time we see a vehicle, we interdict it,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll head to the more heavily trafficked areas and we’ll see 50 vehicles a day.”
At the checkpoints, LAR scouts carefully comb each vehicle and its cargo for signs of illicit materials. The Marines look for drugs such as poppy and marijuana, ammonium nitrate and other explosives-making materials, and weapons.
So far the interdictions themselves have not yet yielded much in the form of actual illegal materials, although that in itself could be a sign that they are working by forcing the insurgency to seek more difficult routes to move the materials, said Greenwald.
“We’re making them go around,” he explained.
Another reason for the relatively small amount of seized materials is that so far the Marines have been operating in the off-season for the local poppy harvest, which won’t begin until the spring, he added.
Nonetheless, the Marines spend months at a time out away from their patrol bases to keep up the pressure, living out of their vehicles in the middle of the desert.
It’s a task that light armored reconnaissance units like 3rd LAR are well designed for, said Lt. Col. Kenneth Kassner, 3rd LAR Bn. commander.
The LAVs travel in self-supporting platoons, each packing enough firepower, mobility and supplies to last for weeks away from base. When paired with occasional fuel and logistics convoys, the units can sustain themselves virtually indefinitely.
“LAR was conceived and designed for extended operations like this,” said Kassner.
The checkpoints also provide a means of communicating with the local populace, which could otherwise be difficult given the extreme dispersion of population centers in the area.
Occasionally the Marines encounter Afghans who have no idea who they are. One man even asked if the Marines were Soviet soldiers, said Greenwald.
“Some of the poor shepherding families we encounter have probably been living like this for hundreds of years,” he said. “When we talk to the drivers and passengers, we try to get the word out about why we’re here and why we’re stopping them.”
The destination and origin of many of the illicit materials that pass through this area is the insurgent stronghold of Bahram Chah, a remote border crossing in the hills near Pakistan in the province’s extreme south. Third LAR Bn. conducted an attack on Bahram Chah, March 14-17, and plans to follow up the strike by shifting its interdiction efforts closer to the border, said Capt. Allen McBroom, C Company commanding officer and a native of Lubbock, Texas.
“I see the enemy moving to other ingress and egress points along the border,” he said. “The enemy has a task he wants to accomplish that revolves around keeping the coalition and Afghan forces from putting in roots in the Helmand River valley and setting up Afghan governance.
“We’ll continue to disrupt his ability to operate in this area.”
As for as the interdictions, Greenwald sees them going one of two ways upon arrival of the poppy harvest.
“We always question the drivers, ask them where they’re coming from, where they’re going, who’s growing poppy and where the insurgents are,” he explained.
“Once harvest season starts, we’ll see who’s been telling the truth.”