DMTX. Whilst the media's attention focuses on Operation Moshtarak, counting the casualties as the public debates if the war is winnable, large parts of the remainder of Helmand have been pacified by U
Whilst the media's attention focuses on Operation Moshtarak, counting the casualties as the public debates if the war is winnable, large parts of the remainder of Helmand have been largely pacified by US Marines. I joined the CAAT (Combined Anti-Armour Team) of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines on a patrol in Afghanistan's Helmand Province to see what the war was like for the majority of those not grabbing the headlines. Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 23/02/2010. (images taken 22-23/02/2010)
These marines form part of the 2MEB that deployed to Helmand last year with a focus on pacifying their areas of operation before expanding into new territory towards the south.
The CAAT team function as the battalions quick reaction force, always on call 24/7. They ride in several MRAP armoured vehicles specially designed to resist IED's whilst capable of traversing very rough terrain.
This time the team was tasked to provide over-watch security for 36 hours in the Baji Bast Pass, allowing resupply convoys to reach outlying patrol bases. The pass, dominated by the Three Kings mountain, is a natural choke point favoured by the Taliban for planting IED's and ambushing vulnerable resupply convoys, named 'combat trains'.
The strength of resistance meant that previously all supplies flowing north to Golestan had to go by air. A Marine operation cleared the pass without resistance, re-opening the resupply route by 'road'. That road is a compass bearing along the base of a pass whose surface resembles that of Mars.
And so, after an early start, the team reaches their positions below the towering mountains and wait. There are insurgents in the area but the strong presence of Marines has reduced their willingness to attack. And so the war is fought along other, more subtle lines.
The Marines continuously scan the area to ensure no IED's are laid, and observe the local traffic. The odd bike picks its way up the pass, or goat herds wander from the nearby nomad tents through an abandoned village.
The vehicle is crewed by three marines, commander, driver and gunner, as well as their medic, a Navy Corpsman. They take it in turns to man the Mk.19 grenade launcher, or resting in the drivers seat.
They are young. Some have girlfriends, are engaged or married. They talk of back home, of how much 29 Palms California, where they are based, looks just like Afghanistan.
The hours drone on endlessly, but the scenery is beautiful. They swap rations from the MRE's, smoke, smoke again, bet on if there will be an IED, and talk of movies, women, celebrities, women, cars, rifles, hopes, dreams and... women.
It isn't summer yet, but by day the sun bakes one in their heavy body armour. The combat train, a long line of armoured and logistical vehicles better suited to a highway bounces its way across the martian terrain.
By night the temperature drops as the Marines take turns pulling nigh time security. There is no ambient light in the valley, just that of the moon and the canopy of stars. It is beautiful.
The next day... waiting, and more of the same. The mountain we sit under looks less beautiful today, the hours longer. Three young boys approach the vehicle, having walked from beyond the horizon. Fumbled Pashto and hand signals reveals that they are merely curious, and thirsty. The Corpsman gives them water, and beef jerky before they disappear into the heat haze, as specks shimmering over the horizon from whence they came.
The Marines talk of their tour, of clearing out Naw Zad and when things were more exciting. This is Helmand, but it is for the most part peaceful. The odd firefight or IED. War is, as they say, 99% boredom. This vehicle was their third. It is ok, but not their favourite. Their first was ok, but they struck an IED. Their second was brand new, but they left it at another base that had yet to receive any, this one is ok, only.
The radio crackles, jokes and banter back and forth between the vehicles, or indicators of approaching traffic. The radio crackles again, the combat train won't be doing its return run today, it has been 'pushed to the right' until tomorrow morning. The 36 hour mission has just become 48, but such is life.
The next morning spirits lifted as the combat train approached, clumsily fumbling its way up the pass. That meant a return to flat beds, warm shower and three ample meals a day.
But the break is short lived, they are the quick reaction force after all, and this is just another day in a long tour. They clean up their vehicles, fix faulty equipment, and get ready for the next day's patrol, and on it goes, at least for a few more month, until they get to go home.