FORWARD OPERATING BASE SABIT QADAM, Afghanistan — Ladies and gentlemen, Marine Corps Times has moved on to cover infantry operations at the heart of the war in Helmand province.
Photographer James Lee and I arrived at this FOB last night, embedding in Sangin district with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif. The base was known until recently as FOB Jackson, but coalition forces have elected to give it and several other Sangin bases names with Afghan roots, said Lt. Col. David Bradney, 1/7’s commander. Sabit Qadam translates loosely from Pashto to “constant” or “stronghold,” interpreters here said.
Sangin, of course, is one of the most notorious areas of operations in Afghanistan. British forces arrived here in 2006 and lost more than 100 service members over the next four years. The district was turned over to 1/7’s sister battalion – 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms – in summer 2010. The Marines bulldozed a number of British patrol bases and overhauled a strategy devoted less toward patrolling and more toward holding down the fort.
That fall, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., arrived in Sangin. They faced the single most costly battalion deployment of the Afghan war over the next seven months. More than 30 Marines with 3/5 were killed in action, and an additional 200 were severely wounded.
Violence has subsided over the last few months, but the overall U.S. toll in Sangin is staggering. More than 50 Marines have been killed here in fewer than two years. At least 500 more have been severely wounded. In practical terms, a half of a battalion in amputees has been created here.
The question now: Has Sangin turned a corner or not? Top military officers suggested the district was heading toward pacification last spring, but violence exploded here in June after the poppy season ended. Pendleton’s 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, fought a stubborn insurgency throughout the summer before turning the district over to 3/7 again.
Bradney said in an interview that 3/7 did a “masterful” job of denying IED emplacement through surveillance and quick strikes on insurgents caught in the process. Marines with 1/7 have continued many of 3/7’s counter-IED efforts, leading insurgents in the region to step up attacks with small arms and hand grenades recently, the battalion commander said.
“They’re trying to put them in the ground, but it’s not working for them,” Bradney said of the IEDs. “They’re trying to figure out what else works.”
Marine Corps Times will visit grunts with 1/7 in coming days, seeing the war through their eyes as best we can. The poppy harvest is currently underway, making it an interesting time to get out on patrol.
Bradney said his advice to Marines here has been clear.
“One of the things I keep telling the Marines is ‘Don’t be complacent,’” he said. “Even now, there’s still a level of activity here that will keep you on your toes.”