SANGIN DISTRICT, Afghanistan --
The dirt along Route 611 has been pulverized to dust, turned to a trail of fine powder dotted with boot prints belonging to the Marines of Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. The footprints cover the landscape, blown away by wind, convoys of armored transports and civilian caravans, only to be replaced the following morning by another series of exhausting patrols.
Each day the Marines and sailors of 1st Platoon depart Patrol Base Florida and make their rounds through their area of operations in the Sangin District.
When they first arrived, their presence was greeted with malevolent intent, in the form of small arms and indirect fire. Even the patrol base itself became a target. In the months following their arrival, the insurgency has been pushed to the fringes – replaced by a local populace struggling to find a voice after a long silence due to past fear and intimidation.
Travelling roads and footpaths that have become as familiar as the streets where they grew up, the Marines of Company A, have come to recognize the faces of the men and children they pass during each patrol. They know histories and stories, having literally exchanged words while breaking bread.
The key to their success, the Marines say, lies in their understanding of counter insurgency operations – not the bland and dry version presented at press conferences or during presentations, but something more tangible and raw, something more simple and honest – that, when done right, will keep them safe.
“It's Marines doing what Marines do and the knowledge that COIN on the small scale will bring them home,” said Cpl. Henry Kornegay, squad leader, from Cullowhe, N.C., and a 2008 graduate of Smokey Mountain High School. “Be decent and they'll keep [improvised explosive devices] out of the village.”
The cornerstone of counterinsurgency strategy lies in empowering the public, and in doing so making the insurgency irrelevant.
“When we first arrived it was pretty kinetic for the first week or two, even the patrol bases were getting shot at. (We) pushed out a pretty aggressive patrol rotation,” said 1st Lt. Edward Yoo, a platoon commander from Bronxville, N.Y., and a 2009 Bowdoin College graduate. “People began telling us that security has improved.”
However, with the end of their deployment in sight and their area of operations seeing steady improvement, the Marines must fight a different threat – complacency.
“In a COIN fight, security comes first,” said Yoo. “By doing the basic things and building trust, the area has calmed down a lot, which is the result of doing the less flashy things each day. It's easy to lose focus so close to the end…need to focus on shuras and collecting as much data as possible to bring [our replacements] into a good place.”
Though they have come far, the Marines of Alpha Company understand their time is not yet up and there is still a job to do, explained Kornegay, knowing that though the area has seen a break in the violence, it can return at any moment, and only their instincts and self discipline will keep it from spilling over when and if that time comes.
“(I’m) really fortunate to have a squad where complacency isn't a threat,” continued Kornegay, who is now on his second deployment with 1/6. “Everyone acts the same as if we're taking contact every day. People talk about having a switch – I think it’s something that's built in. Marines are still Marines. If you give them a mission, they're still going to do it.”