JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- When the U.S. Marine Corps' 3rd
Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, ventured into the Tora Bora mountains
recently to hunt down enemy fighters, they instead found Afghans eager
for a brighter future.
The mission, dubbed Operation Celtics, began as an offensive in an enemy
sanctuary - the rugged mountains of Nangahar province that stretch along
the Pakistan border. It was one of several missions launched last week
by coalition troops to locate insurgents. Afghan National Army soldiers
took part in the operations. "Lima" Company Marines were prepared for a
fight, but found themselves sipping tea with village elders.
In the first few days of the operation, the Marines distributed roughly
eight tons of civic aid. And not a shot was fired.
"It's a sign of success that we're not getting shot at," said Capt. Eric
Kelly, Company L commander.
Insurgents operating in the area would likely rely upon local villagers
for support while transiting through the high-altitude passes, Kelly
said. Marines patrolled into remote villages, set up security and talked
with local citizens to assess their needs and gain information on enemy
Keying the radio, Kelly called to battalion headquarters at Jalalabad
Airfield, where aviation assets from the U.S. Army's Company F, 3rd
Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment -- known to troops as "Big Windy" --
were on standby to airlift bundles of civic aid.
Within minutes, Marines heard the heavy "thud-a-thud" of the CH-47
Chinook echoing through the valley. A U.S. Air Force controller working
with the Marines popped a canister of green smoke to mark the landing
zone and talked to the approaching Army pilot. Marines rushed into the
blowing dust to pull bundles of supplies off the helicopter's back ramp.
"When fighting an insurgency, the way to win is to get the people on
your side," said 1st Lt. J.P. Sienicki, 25, of Long Valley, N.J. "When
you're handing out food and blankets to help people in this rugged,
austere landscape, you're helping out on the most personal level."
Security during the mission was key, said Sienicki, Lima's weapons
platoon commander. The Marines were "set up for success" by having Air
Force A-10 Thunderbolt II jet fighters overhead during the mission's
initial stage, he said. A platoon from the Afghan National Army marched
alongside the Marines, contributing to interaction with the Afghan
citizens and establishing perimeter security when the troops stopped
"If our Army works hard with the Americans and gets back on its feet,
then we will no longer need the U.S. for support," said Janet Ghul, an
Afghan soldier from Chapahar province.
Ghul and his fellow Afghan troops use their knowledge of the local
culture to assess progress during the military operations. Ghul recalled
how the Russian soldiers stormed his home and killed his father. The
coalition forces' approach makes Afghans feel more comfortable, he said.
"Before, they did not like foreigners," Ghul said. "Now they see (the
United States) building the country, and they are happy."
On a ridge overlooking the Pachir Agam valley, Marines set up camp
outside the Gerakhil Primary School, a 12-room edifice built in 2004 by
a U.S.-led provincial reconstruction team. About 700 local boys who once
studied out in the open now have furnished classrooms, said Capt.
Michael Greer, 35, an Army Reserve officer from the 450th Civil Affairs
"You build a school, and you make people choose," Greer said. "It's
either help from the Afghan government and its coalition allies or
supporting the bad guys."
Nearby, Afghan villagers clustered around the helicopter landing zone.
Sgt. Joshua Allison, of Stroudsburg, Pa., spent the afternoon of his
23rd birthday loading the arms of Afghan boys with bundles of blankets,
rugs, food and medicine. In the village, Navy Corpsman Daniel Mayberry,
21, of Gaithersburg, Md., began treating ailments and injuries in a
"We're trying to better this country's problems and let them know we
care," Mayberry said. "The local people are trying to get on with their
everyday lives, and there's people - Taliban and al Qaeda - threatening
their lives. If we show them that we're here to help, they may tell us
where's the bad guys with the weapons."
Gaining the locals' trust is the only way to get their support, said
Cpl. Stephen Patterson, 22, of Conyers, Ga.
Patterson often mans a 60 mm mortar on Marine firebases. But when he
gets out on patrols, he sees the Afghanistan's future in the droves of
children who swarm around Marines.
"There's something about kids," Patterson said. "Their parents saw what
other foreign armies did here, but the kids are exposed to the way we
are doing things. Maybe they can tell their parents about what we're
doing, and remember what we've done for them."