GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
It’s a 600-year-old holy place: a shrine where the local people come to pray, learn about the Quran and remember family members who passed away. The roof is missing, and parts of the outer walls have started to crumble into individual bricks scattered on the ground, but the local people revere it as one of the most holy places in the area.
“I can tell that it’s important to the local people from the way they treat it,” said Cpl. Eric Peterson, a native of Sabetha, Kan., and an assistant patrol leader with Charlie Company. “They go to it everyday to pray.”
Although the Marines of Charlie Company may not be Islamic or completely understand the importance of the shrine, they respect its significance and want to help the local government reconstruct it. An Afghan archeologist traveled here in July to survey the site and determine its value to the local community.
Charlie Company plans to partner with the Afghan government for the reconstruction.
“It makes me very happy that the Marines are going to help reconstruct the shrine,” said Haji Sharafudin, a native of Garmsir. “I am excited to see the refurbishments done soon.”
Projects like this are an important part of counterinsurgency operations for the Marines with Charlie Company. Six months ago, the area was infested with improvised explosive devices laid by insurgent forces. Through the efforts of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, the area was cleared. When 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, nicknamed the ‘Lava Dogs,’ arrived three months ago, their focus transitioned from IEDs to strengthening the local infrastructure.
“It’s different this year,” said Capt. Charles Siedlecki, the company commander of Charlie Company and a native of Berlin, N.J. “My (main) weapon is a cup of Chai and a lot of patience. I teach my Marines about tangible effects and intangible effects. A tangible effect is taking fire, attacking a position and killing the enemy. That’s tangible because you can see it. An intangible effect, for example, is our persistent patrol presence. The drug smugglers don’t want to come into the bazaar because of our presence, and that is intangible because you can’t see it. Every infantry Marine has been trained to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, but that’s not what we are doing here. We’re working with the intangibles, like building a soccer field to improve relationships. It can be frustrating sometimes, but I try to ensure my Marines understand that intangibles often have more effect than the tangibles.”
A significant example of Charlie Company’s focus is the Safar Bazaar. A year ago, the bazaar was a safe haven for insurgent forces. Now, thousands come each week to take part in commerce. Partnered coalition forces and the Afghan government continually work to further develop the bazaar. Roads have been improved, a water reservoir is being built and solar streetlights are being installed. The local citizens are adding second floors to display more goods at their shops, and new shops open every week.
To capitalize on economic growth in the area, Charlie Company and local Afghan National Army soldiers had a sports complex built, which opened late July. During the opening day more than 200 people attended the ceremony, cheering and laughing — something that was foreign to this area a year ago.
“It brings a smile to a place that hasn’t been smiling for a long time,” said Sgt. Luis Henriquez, a civil affairs non-commissioned officer with 1/3, and a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. “It helps them forget about all the bad things that (have) happened in their past. If we can make them forget about war for just one second, then I think it is worth it.”
The civil affairs Marines at Forward Operating Base Rankel have been busy scheduling over 30 projects in the area since their arrival in April, including mosque refurbishments, construction of a high school, and microgrants for small businesses. Shuras are held every Monday, which are usually attended by more than 25 elders from the area. At the first shura, less than five showed.
“Since we have been here, there has been an increase in the acceptance of Marine forces by the local people,” said Sgt. Trevor Gorham, an intelligence analyst and native of Seattle, Wash. “I think that can be attributed to Charlie’s patrol effort. I have gotten reports of insurgent forces not wanting to come into the area because of coalition forces.”
An insurgent remnant remains in the area, but Charlie Company teams up with the Afghan National Police and ANA to push insurgent forces farther away and provide a secure environment for the local community. The company has been pushing south since its arrival, adding more than five kilometers of secured battle space to their area of operations.
The Marines of Charlie credit their Afghan National Security Forces counterparts with progress in the area. A bond has been formed, and it is not uncommon to see a friendly Marines vs. ANA soccer game.
“The ANA are taking charge,” said Gorham. “Everyday, I receive positive reports of what the ANA soldiers are doing and how they want to take the initiative.”
The progress in the area continues. The Deputy District Governor made his first visit to Durzay in late July, one of the southernmost areas in 1/3’s region. There are also plans to build a government outreach center, so officials can visit multiple times a week.
Charlie Company plans to continue on their current course of working with the local community and providing a safe place for the people to live.
“Since we arrived, a lot more elders come to the shuras, more people are moving back in to the area, and the bazaar draws thousands from all over Helmand,” said Staff Sgt. Keith Hoy, the civil affairs team chief and a native of Stuarts Draft, Va. “That just proves how much this area has progressed.”
The battalion supports Regimental Combat Team 1, under 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which serves as the ground combat element in Helmand. The mission of the division is to partner with Afghan National Security Forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations to secure the Afghan people, defeat insurgent forces, and enable ANSF to assume security responsibilities in the region. Ultimately, the partnered forces promote the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.