CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
Military experts have long-deemed limiting the enemy’s movement as vital to an effective campaign.
In the deserts of southwestern Afghanistan, this can prove challenging. There are few roads. Tire tracks cut across the sand like a child’s crayon scrawling on a wall. Traditional vehicle checkpoints can become ineffective, as the enemy can simply avoid them.
“Once you stop one vehicle at a checkpoint on the ground, you can be pretty confident the traffic will stop from there,” said Sgt. Joseph B. Holcombe, an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, from Haughton, La.
To counteract this, the coalition has taken to the sky.
The program, conceived in early 2011, employs aircraft from 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) and utilizes a complex network of coalition resources to identify potential enemy vehicles. Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra and CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters are used to stop vehicles so that Marine Corps and Afghan forces can search them.
Those involved say it has been immensely successful in limiting the enemy’s movement. But perhaps more importantly, large caches have been removed from the region’s illegal drug trade.
“Historically, the Taliban and Afghan drug smugglers have had a very symbiotic relationship,” said Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and the president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. “It’s estimated that the Taliban get a good chunk of their revenue from the drug trade.”
“Each [major] hit has been somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 pounds,” said Capt. Orion Jones, a CH-53D pilot with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 who helped conceive the program. “We pulled about 80 kilograms of refined heroin [on one stop], that was a huge find.”
Jones, a native of Plano, Texas, spoke of the direct effect that counteracting illegal drug trafficking has had on the war.
“The insurgency has to be funded,” said Jones. “We’ve removed a large piece of their funding. They need money to buy their weapons, to sway politics. We’re shrinking their ability to influence the local area.”
The interdiction of illegal drugs translates to millions of dollars the enemy will not be able to use to finance their operations.
“When you can shrink it down and let the local people know the Taliban doesn’t have the power [and] it doesn’t have the money,” Jones said, “we can show the people the power is with the local government, not with the Taliban or insurgents.”
Jones said the operation sends a message to the enemy and law-abiding Afghans that the coalition will find and stop drug and weapons smugglers.
“When they see us, they know people are getting arrested and detained so there are less people willing to take the chance of getting hired by the Taliban to move drugs,” Jones said. “The majority of our stops are very benign. The word is out about what we do now. We land, we come over, we talk. The [Afghan Forces] are always out in front. I’ve never seen Afghan people getting upset or frustrated.”
Holcombe said there’s a positive benefit to stopping people, even those who don’t have drugs. On one recent interdiction, Holcombe said they stopped a vehicle that had been searched a few times before. By the time the forces had approached the vehicle, the man had slices of watermelon cut up to share with the Marines.
“People talk,” Holcombe said. “Something as [memorable] as seeing a helicopter stopping a vehicle, the Taliban are going to know they aren’t safe, and that’s what I like about it.”
Maj. Scott Benfield, a planner for future operations with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) and a Marine Corps Super Cobra pilot, helped devise the Wing’s part of the program.
Benfield said the missions weaken the enemy’s confidence, letting insurgents know they don’t have the ability to move wherever they please.
“It’s done a lot to degrade enemy freedom of movement,” said 1st Lt. Austin Skinner, the platoon commander of 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, and a native of Houston, Texas. “They can get around the gridlock of a checkpoint, but there’s nowhere they can go when we drop down on their car.”
“What we did was a little outside the mold. We said we will land wherever the ground forces want us to land,” Jones said. “They are the mission. We will execute the mission in accordance with them.”
‘The western desert is unsafe; the Americans are coming from the sky.’
That was a report Jones said coalition forces intercepted from the enemy, validating the operation.
Benfield said the coalition targets known enemy transit routes, which the coalition calls “rat lines.” The major from Hickory, N.C., said there are plenty of rat lines in 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward)’s area of operations, but the CH-53Ds can land anywhere a car can drive.
2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) serves as the aviation combat element for the southwestern regional command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, an area that includes Helmand and Nimruz provinces and much of the Helmand River valley.
“I think it gives the coalition forces a presence across the regional command,” Benfield said. “Our troop concentration is in the Helmand River valley, as it should be, but the enemy conducts its movements through the desert under the impression that we aren’t going to go get them there. This extends our reach and allows them no sanctuary, no place where they can feel safe.”
Those involved said intelligence plays a large role in the success of the operation.
“This is real-time, time-sensitive aerial interdiction. We don’t just go to an area and look for stuff. It is a very deliberate action,” Jones said. “We don’t just go out there and stop everybody. Everyone we stop meets some sort of criteria and is a part of a known rat line.”
When those rat lines are keyed in on by the Super Cobras, occasionally the smugglers have tried to flee the speedy attack helicopters.
“I know of three attempts to basically outrun the helicopter,” Jones said. “We’ve never had to fire on a vehicle. Every vehicle that has attempted to evade has either driven into a ditch and disabled itself or we’ve boxed it in to the point where they just give up.
“The first one we did, they disabled their vehicle after attempting to outrun the Cobras and crashing into a [riverbed],” Jones said. “[After] they disabled their vehicle, they got out. They tried to steal a donkey. We rounded them up and took them back.”
Experts said the drug trade in Afghanistan reflects the difficulties of decades of Taliban rule. The Marines involved with the drug interdictions said they contribute to the Afghan fight against the enemy, but also the fight against lawlessness.
“Everybody we [detain], those guys are turned over to the Afghan government for prosecution,” Jones said. “These guys are just poor guys who are hired to move the drugs. They know they’re doing something illegal and that’s why they run but they’ll give up. They’re not looking to get shot or anything like that. They’ll give up as soon as they realize they aren’t going to get away.”
Holcombe said the Afghan narcotics investigation unit helped ensure everything was done in accordance with Afghan law.
“They know what they’re looking for, they ensure everything runs smoothly,” Holcombe said. “With their faces and signatures on this operation, it sets the Afghan court system up for success.”
Benfield said the success of the program has caused the enemy to seek new rat lines, but wherever the enemy tries to hide, the coalition will follow.
“If everyone in Afghanistan started doing this, it would completely deny the enemy the ability to operate,” Skinner said.
Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 and 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment recently returned home, in their stead stand new Marine units eager and ready to continue the program.
“We look forward to continuing the mission and expanding its scope throughout the area of operations in support of combat operations here,” said Maj. Jonathan C. Morel, a native of Slidell, La., who serves as the executive officer of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363, which replaced Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, “The CH-53D is a key element of the mission which has been successful in disrupting enemy freedom of movement in the region.”
“Hopefully [the drug interdictions] expand and continue. I want the next guys to take my product and make it better,” said Jones. “This has been probably the most rewarding part of the deployment for me.
“The effect that we’ve been able to have is noticeable and tangible,” Jones added. “As aviation assets, we can take this back. The guys who work on these helicopters can say, ‘Today we pulled in 3,500 pounds of heroin and pulled two bad guys off the battlespace.’ It’s the tangible results of this mission that make it successful for everyone.”
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