Gates Visit Highlights Marines’ Success in Sangin

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)

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