Marines and sailors wait in the cold, dark, desolate Afghan desert. The air is heavy with moisture, teasing the troops with a potential downpour.
If the rain came, then the aircraft wouldn’t. The rain never came.
An MV-22 Osprey swooped down into position next to the Marines and in an instant they were loaded inside. Each Marine was carrying enough water, food and gear to last them for several days away from any kind of support.
On Nov. 26, Operation Western Gambit began. Marines from 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, loaded into helicopters and trucks from their bases in Now Zad and Musa Qal’eh Districts to enter into villages where coalition forces had never been to disrupt the insurgent forces controlling the area.
“There is a lot of enemy activity and a lot of things to expect. We expect direct and indirect fire; the threat is really real,” said 1st Lt. Okechukwu Ihenacho, the platoon commander of 2nd Platoon, Weapons Company, 2/4, before the operation began. “The biggest threat, obviously, is the (improvised explosive device) threat. The Taliban knows that we are in Now Zad and have anticipated our movement. They have likely established IED belts in our direction of travel, in plans to mitigate our movements into those towns. They are not necessarily fighters, but do facilitate IED making and IED emplacement.”
This threatening insurgent strong hold in the battalion’s area of operation is mostly home to impartial Afghan citizens. Their lives are ruled by an impeding insurgent presence ultimately controlling their lives with threats of pain and death. Operation Western Gambit opened the door for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to help bring order and justice to the people of the villages.
“We will introduce the Afghan National Army to the outskirts so they can secure the security bubble around the area,” Ihenacho, a Fontana, Calif. native, said. “We will introduce the Afghan National Police to the population centers so they can control them and influence the populace. The tribal elders, which are very linked to the central government, will be brought into the fold. We will introduce them to GIROA and hopefully that will lead into the development of those areas.”
The operation began with night inserts from an MV-22 Osprey into the desert, several kilometers outside the villages. The Marines trudged through the uneven terrain aided by night vision goggles and navigated their way to the villages as the sun rose on the horizon. The plan for disrupting enemy forces was to not just merely make a presence, but to go through the villages and, with the aid of the ANA, clear houses, ridding any remaining traces of insurgent supplies.
“Clearing will take no more than four days from the start, but the continuous operations will be ongoing until certain conditions are met,” Ihenacho said. “We want to build up the ANSF and GIROA forces in the area until it is safe to turn back to them. There is a clear delineation between the insurgents and the local populace. The insurgents don’t really have a lot of sympathizers, they are pretty much fence sitters, they’re gonna go with whoever the winning side is. Once we show that we’re the winning side they’re gonna come to our table. It is that simple.”
The ANA soldiers huddled together in a calm silence, aside from U.S. forces, as the Osprey landed. For most of the soldiers, the operation was unlike anything they had yet experienced. They were mentally preparing to undertake the huge upcoming responsibilities. Most of the soldiers had never been in a helicopter before.
The movement began unhindered, moving through three adjacent villages in the first day of the operation. Marines could be heard joking that the operation was over after the first day, but they understood the reality the mission was far from complete.
The Marines with 2nd Platoon inserted by helicopter and cleared their way through two villages by mid-afternoon. They encountered no resistance from small arms fire or improvised explosive devices. The next stop was a third village where they met up with other platoons from Weapons Company for a shura, or meeting, with the village elders.
The once serene operation turned into a hail of gunfire on the Marines position, breaking their luck with maintaining a peaceful environment.
A small group of insurgents fired on the Marines and ANA soldiers from behind walls in a neighboring village, approximately 1,000 yards away from the Marines patrol. Orange tracer rounds streamed through an empty field, impacting in the dirt around the Marines who instinctively fell to their stomachs.
The barren area offered no cover from the incoming fire, save for a small hill, roughly three-feet-tall and 20 wide. Marines and soldiers found cover behind the hill and treated a casualty that received a bullet through the neck. Miraculously the bullet wound was superficial.
“It went as it was supposed to originally, we landed and started clearing three towns without any exchange of rounds happening,” said Sgt. David Pedroza, the squad leader of 1st squad, 2nd platoon. “I was kind of surprised; it seemed like a really boring day. We were about to come back and set up a patrol base at the end of the day when we started taking rounds from Rhazdan Sofla. My squad moved and started returning fire until the enemy retreated over a hill. There was a shura with town elders talking with Marines. The insurgents shot right into the direction of that shura. It is most disrespectful, and hopefully that will show the elders that we are there to protect them while it demonstrates that the insurgents will shoot at them.”
The fire fight, lasting nearly 15 minutes, effectively slowed the Marines from returning to the first village they cleared to establish a patrol base and sleep for the night. A convoy of trucks altered their mission and spent the night on the top of a hill, wrapped around the tired Marines. The convoy provided security for a much needed four-hour nap.
The Marines slept on cold rocky terrain, most without any sufficient way to keep warm. They followed the rule of “pack light, sleep cold at night” for the operation due to the large amounts of ground they covered by foot. Early in the morning, Nov. 28, the Marines arose and began a two-hour hike to another village in the area, the last main objective left in Weapon Company’s clearing aspect of the operation.
The sun nearly cleared the horizon as the Marines approached the village. The patrol moved quietly through a freshly tilled field. The ground was still soft from the recent storms, though only wisps of clouds remained streamed across the orange sunrise. Marines were sinking to the tops of their boots under the weight of their heavy combat load.
Their senses were heightened from the day before, and much like the day before, insurgents exploited the opportunity to unleash machine gun fire on the Marines’ large numbers in barren fields where no cover was readily available. The whistle of the bullet as it streamed past them followed by the sound of the burst told the Marines that they were being shot at and not yet doing the shooting.
Marines again hurdled through a torrent of gunfire; the orange tracers were once more splashing into the mud around them as their knees pumped to work through the thick sludge and get within accurate firing distance before the insurgents retreated.
“Right now it appears that no one really wants us here and they’re doing a good job of slowing us,” Cpl. Eric Mugica, a fire team leader with the unit, said immediately after dodging enemy fire. “It had been raining the past couple of days so the fields are flooded. Myself, I was stuck about knee deep in mud when we were taking small arms fire and was unable to get out while we were taking fire. I eventually pulled out of the mud and got myself some cover.”
The insurgents had cleared the village of its inhabitants the night before in order to effectively combat the Marines. Gun shots shattered the silence intermittently as Marines maneuvered through the urban environment. A single shot crashed into the top of a mud wall, the bullet ricocheted with a frightening hum and breezed just past the head of an Afghan soldier.
Marine snipers maneuvered along the sides of the surrounding mountains, hoping to eliminate the enemy threats as a squad of Marines was pinned into an area by machine gun fire and another was subject to possible sniper fire. Single round shots crashed off the walls a squad of Marines used for cover.
A harrier jet silenced all threats as it roared deafeningly over head. The jet did not destroy any of the village, like it was capable of, but displayed the level of force the Marines were capable of.
“As soon as air came on station the pop shots ceased,” remarked Mugica immediately after the show of force. “We are now trying to clear this village (Tange Sofla) as quick as we can.”
Locals to the area began to trickle in shortly after the firing ceased. When questioned, the villagers said that they are victims of the insurgent rule, and do not agree with what the insurgency stands for but have no other option but to go along with their ideology.
Within hours, the area was filled with its occupants once again. Children flooded the streets and played with the Marines. The adults conversed with the Afghan soldiers in the streets and asked for things the insurgency could not provide, like medical treatment.
The inhabitants displayed a strong interest in working with GIROA officials to help integrate their area into the folds of the district and become part of a bigger whole. The reaction of the area’s population reflected the strong likelihood of the operation’s success, but only time will be able to tell for sure.
“Once we win it’s going to tip the dynamics and start isolating the insurgents a lot more and we will see less insurgent activities,” Ihenacho said. “Whatever the enemy has is not strong enough to defeat a Marine rifle squad. We’re going to kick the enemy in the teeth.”
Article by Cpl. Clayton VonDerAhe, Regimental Combat Team 8