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HELMAND PROVINCE — What began as a window of opportunity, a simple chance to change the status quo in the Central Helmand River Valley, turned into an ongoing counternarcotics operation that has prevented the annual summer fighting season from getting off the ground.
Operation Psarlay Taba, a partnered counternarcotics operation conducted by 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, and the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, targeted opium production facilities and narcotics trafficking in the Bari Desert, northwest of Marjah district.
When Lt. Col. Michael Styskal, commanding officer of 2nd Bn. 9th Marines, arrived in Marjah in December 2011, the situation had changed dramatically since his last deployment there a year before.
Styskal’s predecessor with 3rd Bn., 6th Marines had moved his battalion to the outskirts of Marjah. Afghan security forces, anchored by perhaps the strongest local police force in the country, were in control of the blocks, or main population centers, of the district.
“Marjah was a district in transition,” said Styskal, a native of Lake Villa, Ill. “Marines and ANA (Afghan National Army) moved out to the periphery… the police were set in and the district government was working.”
With the blocks secured, Styskal and his Marines were able to shift their focus outward.
“We chose to fight the enemy on our footing,” said Styskal. “We targeted where we knew they would be protecting their narcotics.”
The sparsely populated Bari Desert caught the collective eye of the battalion’s intelligence and operations officers. The high rates of poppy cultivation and narcotics trafficking in the desert made it a focus of pre-deployment planning efforts.
“The insurgency is involved in every level of the narcotics industry,” said 1st Lt. Ben Leape, an intelligence officer with 2nd Bn., 9th Marines and native of Annapolis, Md. “They supply (poppy) seeds, they tax land owners, they secure training sites, and they provide security for transportation to get these drugs out of the area.”
The insurgency’s ability to funnel narcotics in and out of southern Helmand is critical to funding their operations in Marjah and neighboring districts. When that ability is lost or diminished, logistical support to insurgent fighters, like weapons and improvised explosive device components, is severely reduced.
To attack this critical insurgent funding stream, the battalion designed an operation that included primarily heliborne raids on suspected opium production facilities and aerial interdictions on vehicles transporting narcotics. However, guaranteed mission success called for morel capabilities than a Marine battalion alone could provide.
A uniquely Afghan skill set was required.
The NIU is an elite counternarcotics police force that falls under the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. Closely resembling American SWAT teams in both tactics and organizational structure, the NIU operate in eight to 16-man teams.
Their unique capabilities made them ideal partners in an operation with a heavy emphasis on heliborne raids.
“The NIU was involved in all mission selection and would help us decide which targets to take action on,” said Styskal. “They were the main effort, the assault force on all these raids.”
Members of the NIU are trained and mentored by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and are widely held as experts in Afghan narcotics law.
“NIU is a special operations force and we have a very bright future,” said Capt. Farouk, commander of NIU Team 10. “We always have training going on when we aren’t working. We want to be the best of the best.”
“They are very talented in tactical site exploitation… in getting the evidence they need to get convictions and funneling that evidence through the Afghan justice system,” added Capt. Brooks Boehlert, the 2nd Bn., 9th Marines raid force commander and native of Siletz, Ore.
The difficult part in any counterinsurgency fight is not taking threats off the battlefield, but ensuring they are removed for as long as possible, if not permanently. This is where the NIU’s almost instinctual ability to efficiently navigate an often complicated Afghan court system comes in handy.
“You can put a guy in jail for 20 years for narcotics,” said Styskal. “Catch him with an IED (improvised explosive device) and he might be on the street again in two weeks.”
Yet it is more than their tactical and investigative ability that sets the NIU apart from other branches of the Afghan National Security Forces.
“They take great pride in their integrity as a unit,” said Leape. “Narcotics is at the root of a lot of the corruption issues we see in Afghanistan… the NIU take extreme care to avoid any allegations or possible perceptions of corruption.”
Potential members of the NIU are highly screened for intelligence and physical ability, and their background checks are more stringent than other branches of the security forces. Their unique understanding of Afghan law combined with the respectful treatment of people they encounter further elevates their status among the ANSF.
“They have much deeper knowledge, and certainly more experience, dealing with Afghan counternarcotics law,” said Boehlert. “They have a clear sense of purpose when it comes to their job.”
“I wanted to do something to help my people and my country,” added Farouk. “When people use these drugs they are throwing their lives away.”
During the four-month period 2nd Bn., 9th Marines and the NIU conducted raid missions in support of Operation Psarlay Taba, the partnered force captured over 26,000 pounds of opium products. The bulk of the finds came in the form of dry opium, but significant amounts of wet opium, morphine and heroin were also recovered from production facilities and vehicles transporting narcotics.
“By taking their funding, we disrupted their ability to organize any spring or summer fighting season, “said Styskal.
Though these counternarcotics operations appear to have prevented the manifestation of the annual fighting season, Styskal cites other factors that have contributed to steady progress in Marjah.
“We were able to get in front of the poppy harvest through our narcotics interdiction,” said Styskal. “But what we see now is also the result of three years of coalition presence and an aggressive eradication campaign led by the police in Marjah.”
Gradual progress is a measure of success in the district. Over the last seven months, Marines have seen a growth in the confidence of the Afghan forces in Marjah. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve noticed the people of Marjah grow more confident in their security forces as well.
“There is no threat that can defeat the ANSF in Marjah today,” said Styskal. “They just have to be confident in themselves and their ability to secure the district.”
Though emphatic in his assessment of the ability of Afghan forces to maintain security in Marjah, the Marine commander understands the challenges the district will face in the future.
“Continued support from the provincial (Helmand) government for the police and ANA is critical,” said Styskal. “As we transition from coalition to Afghan lead in security, there has to be support from the international community.”
Ongoing counternarcotics operations will contribute to continued stability of Marjah, but the departure of 2nd Bn., 9th Marines leaves a significantly reduced coalition presence. Their replacements with India Company, 3rd Bn., 8th Marines will carry on their work advising and mentoring an Afghan force that has clearly taken the lead in providing security in the district.
One thing is certain – the coming months will be telling for the future of Marjah and the rest of southern Helmand province.