FORWARD OPERATING BASE SABIT QADAM, Afghanistan, March 9, 2011 — When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited this small base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province yesterday, he noted that Marines have brought nearly unprecedented security to the part of Afghanistan where the Taliban wielded the most power.
The base and surrounding outposts are home to Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. With 29 Marines killed and 150 wounded, the regiment has suffered more casualties than any other U.S. unit in Afghanistan, fighting to drive the Taliban from their former heartland.
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Morris, battalion commander, and operations officer Capt. Richard Barclay told reporters traveling with Gates about the Marines’ fight to bring security to the province’s Sangin district.
Barclay said Sangin is a small but strategic area that was the Taliban’s main poppy-growing and drug-production area for years. The district is near the province’s main north-south road, Route 611, and Sangin wadi, or dry riverbed, which runs east to west.
Combined, those two terrain features historically have allowed insurgents coming through the mountains between Kandahar and Helmand provinces nearly unlimited access to all of Helmand, Barclay said.
“Looking at it ‘large picture,’ Sangin is definitely a narcotics, weapons and insurgent personnel superhighway and crossroads,” Barclay said. “This is definitely an area [the Taliban] want to hold on to.”
Since the Taliban largely have been driven from the area, Barclay said, the district government has re-established control, and the Sangin bazaar has become a “commercial hive” of 900 shops. Meanwhile, coalition and Afghan forces have moved onto more small bases in and among the population centers, and cleared Route 611. Formerly, large stretches of the road were impassable because of insurgent mines, he said.
Morris said his Marines moved into Sangin with “no misconceptions about how difficult it was going to be,” and fought hard to drive the Taliban out of the area. The Sangin area was “a sea of insurgency for a long time,” he added.
“The insurgents had absolute sanctuary everywhere to process their drugs, and to do research on their [roadside bombs],” Morris said. “They’ve had three or four years of refinement and practice up here.”
While Helmand produces a lot of poppy, much more raw opium comes in to the area’s 30 to 35 major drug-processing labs, Morris said.
“Then it gets moved through the … pass, down to Kandahar, down to Qetta,” he said. “This area, this wadi … has provided, historically, about 50 percent of the funding for the Taliban senior leadership in Qetta.”
Morris said when the Marines arrived, their patrol bases “were literally ringed by Taliban flags.” The Marines took most of their losses in the first two months of their deployment, but in the past three months they’ve pushed the Taliban back.
“We’ve been very successful in killing a lot of Taliban, capturing a lot of Taliban, and driving those low- and mid-level insurgent leaders out of the area,” he said.
The Afghan people like the security the Marines and Afghan forces provide, he said, adding that they “are definitely starting to feed us more information.”
Morris said in the next few weeks, the Marines expect to see more violence in the area, as spring weather will make the Taliban will feel more confident moving in close to Sangin to try to reassert their authority.
“They’re going to have a real hard time doing that,” he said. “Patrol bases, combat outposts, and patrols of partnered ISAF and ANSF forces are going to meet them at every turn.” He noted that indicators suggest the Taliban and insurgents have started trying to move forces and bomb-making materials into the area.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and Afghan forces have expanded and deepened their presence in the area over the last three months, the Marine commander said.
During his visit, Gates said the Marines have made a major contribution to the overall counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Securing Sangin provides a link among northern Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces, he added, allowing commerce routes and the reach of government in an area formerly inaccessible from other parts of the country.
The secretary termed the Marines’ actions in Sangin “a major strategic breakthrough.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)