WEB SPECIAL - Battleground Afghanistan


Battleground Afghanistan

By WARSHIPS IFR Special Correspondents

The assault carrier USS Wasp arrives home carrying elements of the US Marine Corps units that fought in Afghanistan. Photo: US Navy.

Returning home aboard the amphibious assault ships of the USS Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group, the sailors and marines of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) could look back on a job well done, as their tour of duty in Afghanistan had helped create the conditions for successful elections.

The Wasp group (also known as ESG-2) had departed the USA in mid-February and, following exercises in the Adriatic (see WIFR June 04), about 2,200 marines deployed over 500 miles inland to central Afghanistan. This was one of the farthest land deployments in Marine Corps history and for over half the tour the 22nd MEU and an Army infantry battalion formed Task Force Linebacker, which was tasked with protecting an area bereft of US and Coalition troops since 2001.

The marines of the 22nd MEU conducted extensive combat operations, accounting for over 100 Taliban and anti-coalition militia.

Their primary role was to secure the major population centres to facilitate UN electoral registration efforts. In this they were reckoned to have assisted 60,000 Afghan men and women to register to vote. In addition the US Marines' AV-8B Harriers from the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) logged more than 1,300 combat hours. Similarly, the Fighting Griffins of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), clocked 3,600 hours of combat flight, which equated to over 2,800 sorties. As well as providing Close Air Support for the marine infantry they also conducted troop and cargo transportation. During their missions HMM-266's aircrew were constantly at risk from small arms fire and Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs).

Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters insert the Battalion Reconnaissance platoon of Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines into the Dey Chopan region of Afghanistan during Operation Asbury Park. Photo: USMC.

OPERATION Thunder Road was the 22nd MEU's final major combat operation in Afghanistan, undertaken between June 27 and July 10. This was a battalion-sized mission in the Cahar Cinah district of Afghanistan's Oruzgan province. While Alpha Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines established blocking positions to the north, Bravo, Charlie, and Weapons Companies pushed up from the south. Thunder Road bagged a large amount of arms and ammunition, which was destroyed by Marine and Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams. During the search of one village marines from Bravo Co. came under fire and in the subsequent exchange one enemy fighter was killed. An attempted attack against BLT 1/6's forward operating base several days later was driven off by Afghan National Army forces operating with the task force. At least one attacker was killed. No marines or Afghan government forces were killed or wounded during these engagements.

Marines of Charlie Co., Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, thread their way through a narrow village alley in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province during a search for weapons caches and anti-coalition fighters during Operation Thunder Road. Photo: USMC.

The 22nd MEU's first major combat operation commenced shortly after arrival. Between April 15 and April 19 Operation Ulysses IV was designed to provide reconnaissance of the routes between Kandahar Air Field and Tarin Kowt, site of the MEU's future forward operating base. Next came Operation El Dorado, lasting from April 25-May 10, which concentrated on the Shah Wali Kowt valley, between Kandahar and Tarin Kowt, and was designed to deny the enemy forces sanctuary. The marines achieved this through extensive patrolling together with cordon and search operations. As the three rifle and weapons companies of BLT 1/6 pushed deep into Oruzgan, a series of Ground Assault Convoys (GACs) left Kandahar Air Field en route to Tarin Kowt.

After the GACs had pushed through they established Forward Operating Base Ripley, which served as the MEU's base of operations for the next 11 weeks.

On May 4, the first of nearly 300 sorties flown by Marine Corps KC-130R Hercules supply aircraft flew into FOB Ripley. During these operations, the marines met fierce resistance, resulting in the death of Corporal Ronald Payne on May 7 and the wounding of six other marines by direct fire or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

The marines also conducted Operation Blade Runner in late May, hunting weapons plus the Taliban and other anti-coalition militia.

The following month, during Operation Asbury Park, in the Dey Chopan district of Oruzgan province, elements of 22nd MEU became caught up in a major firefight.

Unusually, rather than hit and run or laying IEDs, as is their normal practice, the Taliban and anti-coalition militia stood their ground.

MARINES and sailors from the MEU's Command Element, Service Support Group 22, and HMM-266 found themselves supporting BLT 1/6. Close air support was provided by Marine Corps attack helicopters and Harriers, as well as Army AH-64 Apaches and also Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft. Even B-1B Lancer strategic bombers were called in. The operation culminated in a battle that broke local resistance, and no further contact was made until June 17. About 100 enemy fighters were killed, while only a handful of marines were wounded. In early July, Task Force Linebacker sent the Army's 2nd Bn., 5th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, attached to the MEU, back into the Dey Chopan region for Operation Asbury Park II.

NOW that the 22nd MEU is home, the marines and sailors will be able to enjoy leave and maintenance before another deployment somewhere in the world for ESG-2. In the meantime stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan continue, as does the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts. The elections were a success, but Afghanistan still has a long way to go. No doubt the US Marines will be back.

Parts of this report were based on material supplied by the US DoD.