Zaranj-based Afghan forces expand capabilities, develop skills

Posted: March 15, 2012 in Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan Security, Development, Education, Helmand province, Photos

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Story by Staff Sgt. Brian Buckwalter

ZARANJ, Afghanistan — Barely a mile from the Afghanistan/Iranian border a group of Afghan National Security Forces are experiencing a level of success coalition forces hope spreads throughout the country.

The compound they operate out of, a provincial-level Operation Coordination Center, is a hub for all ANSF activity in the area. It’s near Zaranj, the Nimruz province capital, and insurgent activity in the area is low. They enjoy the support of the provincial governor, and their capabilities continue to expand. This is all happening with little more than monthly visits from coalition forces.

“They’re self-sufficient. They have no mentor team,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Stephens, the Regional Command Southwest logistics chief for ANSF development. “The discipline they have out there, the military professionalism that they have, it’s all self-taught and self-sustained.”

Instead of coalition forces being embedded with the ANSF there, a common practice in other parts of the country, Marines from RC(SW) visit about once a month to provide needed mentorship, equipment and supplies.

The RC(SW) operations director for ANSF development, Col. Michael Gann, has been working with the ANSF in Zaranj for the past seven months.

“Business was getting done, but information was very stove-piped,” he said of his first visit during August 2011.

At the time, the lack of sharing information between the different parts of the ANSF stunted the capabilities of the Operations Coordination Center. Inside the OCC, the Afghan National Army, uniformed police, border police and the National Directorate of Security all worked separately.

Through mentorship like classes on reporting techniques, the Marines were able to change some of those practices. The Afghans are now reporting to the regional OCC in Lashkar Gah daily and are passing information between each element of the ANSF.

“These guys are committed, they are operational and functioning,” said Gann. “Albeit not optimal, the fact that they’ve been able to cross-cut across the ANSF pillars is crucial to the continuing success they’re experiencing.”

The area around Zaranj is, for the most part, quiet and stable, said Gann.

Before this progress was made, the Marines had to first earn the trust of the ANSF on the compound. The Marines achieved that by living and eating with the Afghans while they were there.

Trust was also built through helping fix little problems that would arise, said Stephens. Marines worked on projects every visit, from bringing reliable generators for power to testing their well to make sure they had potable water to helping set up a basic aid station.

“They’ve come a long way in trust and friendship,” said Gunnery Sgt. Philip Collins, the RC(SW) operations chief for ANSF development. He’s made the trip to Zaranj about a dozen times. “We showed up at first, and they were very standoffish. Now at the end, they were more than hospitable. They’d give you the shirt off their back. You see the genuine care … we’re viewed as an equal with them.”

As II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) Marines prepare to leave the RC(SW) area of operations, I MEF (Fwd) is beginning the process of taking over responsibility for the region. One of those responsibilities is to check in with the Afghans at the Zaranj OCC.

“I hope I MEF does a better job than we did,” said Collins, after a recent trip to Zaranj to show I MEF Marines the area. By building trust and helping the locals, the Marines and Afghans formed lasting bonds and friendships, said the Sugar Land, Texas, Clements High School graduate.

Stephens, a Plano, Texas, native, agreed. “We’ve developed a good relationship with these people. I know some of them by name and some of them by face, and they know me. We feel pretty comfortable working side by side with them, and they do a good job maintaining their border.”

Possibly the biggest sign of improvement in the region is that the Marines were able to legitimize the ANSF at the OCC, said Gann. The governor, Abdul Karim Barahawi, started looking to them for help in the area, and regular meetings are held at their compound.

“I see it as a model for others to look to,” said Philips, referring to other developing regions throughout Afghanistan. “They were able to transition without much coalition help.” He, too, credits the governor and other senior leaders in the region for the help.

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