Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a four-part series chronicling a trek across Nawa district called the Nawa Victory Walk, a four-day, 30-mile patrol by U.S. Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers. --
NAWA DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan – They arrived early by vehicle convoy to the small Afghan National Army outpost named Dangar in the northern part of the district. Marines and sailors with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, stood beside their Afghan counterparts, ready to depart for the four-day trek that lay before them – approximately 30 miles in total.
The hike would be difficult. Each man carrying more than 60 pounds of body armor, food and water would be tested, their mental and physical endurance challenged, but if Afghans and Marines have anything in common, it's their ability to endure.
The walk joined Afghan Lt. Col. Gul Ahmad, commanding officer of 1st Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps, and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Tyler Zagurski, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, in a patrol across the district to speak with local residents and key leaders, assessing problems and celebrating successes along the way.
“The Nawa Victory Walk will show that Nawa is safe and secure,” said Zagurski, a Mercer Island, Wash., native. “The markets are open and the security forces are welcome to walk and greet people and celebrate Nawa’s progress.”
The Nawa district stands right on the cusp of transition, according to Zagurski. The district is scheduled to be the first area to transition full security responsibility to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in the central Helmand River Valley because of its progress in security, governance and development.
Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles forged ahead of the patrol offering additional security along the route. With the vehicles on track, the patrol began, footsteps moving from a thick rocky carpet lining the interior of the patrol base to a sparse gravel road. A crisp fall wind blew, providing temporary comfort to the security forces pushing down the road. They reached their first stop before many could break a sweat.
A lavish Afghan home rose before the combined forces. Inside, lush pillows and intricate carpets lined the floor, yet each decoration paled to the smile stretching across the face of Haji Janan as he welcomed the Afghan soldiers and Marines into his home.
Janan, a local elder in the Haynak area of the district, knows the pain of war. He spoke of his time fighting the Russians during their invasion of Afghanistan and displayed his scars, a constant reminder of his time fighting with the Mujahideen. As he spoke, brightly dressed children ushered in hot chai tea, bowls of mangos, and plates of nuts and candy.
Janan passionately described his dislike for the insurgency and explained the difficulties of eradicating poppy growth in the area, which insurgents use to fund their activities. He explained the money made from one acre of poppy is equal to approximately 100 acres of wheat. He suggested the cultivation of cotton, but admitted it is often expensive to grow. He plans to grow wheat and tomatoes this coming season, but to do so Janan pressed the importance of security for Nawa.
“Security is our first priority,” said Janan. “When the Marines leave, I think it will be fine, because now it's the locals against the (insurgents) too.”
The officers took their leave after several cups of tea, but not before Janan could offer a promise.
“I am strong in this friendship; anything I can do, I will help,” said Janan. “I can see you are strong in this friendship – this will be an honest friendship.”
“I can always use honest friends,” replied Zagurski.
The Afghan soldiers and Marines pushed on down the road. Flak jackets began to dig into their shoulders and water ceased to quench their thirst, but they defied the heat one step at a time.
Shortly after leaving Janan's house, the security detachment passed a brightly-colored graveyard. Men, women and children walked along gravel roads and on dirt paths in between the ornately decorated graves. Suddenly, a distant blast broke the low hum of English and Pashto conversation. Someone had detonated an improvised explosive device and sporadic machine-gun fire riddled the air.
Afghan Local Police patrolmen, Afghan National Army soldiers and Marines pushed forward toward the danger, providing a heavily-armored and confident barricade between the gunfire and the residents ducking for cover. Screams pierced the air, disrupted only by the crackling gunfire as groups of children in search of safety raced past the advancing fighting force.
The ALP ran ahead of the Marines as they moved between mud compounds and crumbling walls. The security forces pushed hundreds of meters out into the more desolate desert area in search of the waning gunfire. The attack had been brief, the aggressors fleeing the scene before they could be apprehended. The incident highlighted the unique nature of the district. While security forces have driven insurgents away from the more-densely populated areas of Nawa, there are still remote areas of the desert where Afghan forces and Marines are eradicating the dwindling insurgent presence.
Local Afghan security forces began an investigation into the incident and the patrol continued on its journey. The troupe made its second stop at patrol base Sphin Ghar shortly after its unexpected detour. Major Abdul Latif, commander of the 4th Tolai, similar in size to a Marine company, welcomed them and had a meal prepared for the visiting patrol. Rice, various meats, spiced vegetables, and beans filled their plates while the officers discussed security in the area.
Filled and refreshed, the commanders and their security detail continued on – the setting sun presenting a deadline for the day’s movement. They passed canals and farmers working in their cornfields. When they rounded their final turn for the day, a white guard post peaked the horizon, offering solace for the weary group.
In total, the service members hiked more than 14 kilometers before 5 p.m. The Marines stripped their body armor once inside the protective walls of precinct Loy Kolay, an ANA security outpost. Soaked in sweat, they broke out a volleyball and played a game before calling it a night, knowing full-well they had a 12 kilometer hike the following day. What adventures the next day would hold – only time would tell.
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1 in 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.