FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- As the Marines and Sailors of Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines patrol the rugged mountains of south-central Afghanistan, interspersed among their tri-color desert uniforms are the green uniforms of the Afghan National Army.
Less than three years after the Taliban regime was ousted from Afghanistan, the joint patrols and combat operations are a vital instrument in demonstrating to the Afghan people the legitimacy of the central government and its commitment to their security.
"The forces we have with us are disciplined, motivated, and proud of what they're doing," said Lt. Col. Asad A. Khan, commanding officer of BLT 1/6, the ground combat element of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).
The ANA unit assigned to the 22d MEU (SOC) is the 1st Co., 3d Bn., 2d ANA Brigade, and is broken down among the companies of BLT 1/6 and the MEU Command Element. Each of these detachments are assigned a U.S. Army advisor, or embedded trainer, who provides guidance and advice to the ANA soldiers and who serves as a liaison between the Marine and ANA commanders.
Capt. Clay Gardner is one of these soldiers, all of whom are drawn from the 3d Bn., 172d Infantry, a National Guard unit headquartered in Vermont with forces throughout New England and Oklahoma. A labor relations specialist in civilian life, Gardner says the ANA troops have come a long way since his arrival in Afghanistan last November.
"They usually go straight from training into combat, so there's no adjustment period," said Gardner "Many of them are former Mujahideen or Northern Alliance fighters. They're not afraid to pull the trigger, they just need to learn to work together, and so far are doing really well."
The presence of these local troops are invaluable to the MEU's success as they conduct combat and civil military operations in the Oruzgan province. During a recent 'cordon and knock' operation where the MEU searched for enemy insurgents and hidden weapons caches, having an uniformed Afghan soldier nearby helped dispel the myth the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is a unilateral one.
During these patrols, the ANA stood security alongside Marines and were on hand as the villagers were questioned and houses and sheds searched, providing an important insight on local customs and traditions to the Marines, and helped root out enemy caches.
"The people need to see the ANA when we go through," said Sgt. First Class Eric Bates, who normally works as a police detective and whose ANA squad was assigned to BLT 1/6's Alpha Company. "Eventually we'll [U.S. forces] leave and the Afghan people need to have faith in the ANA."
The ANA stood up in January 2003, has a current strength of around ten thousand troops, and by 2009 is expected to number more than 70,000. Training is conducted by French, German, and U.S. forces. Most of the ANA's uniforms and basic equipment are of U.S. origin while weapons and vehicles predominately come from former Soviet Bloc countries.
"I'm amazed at how professional the force has become after such a short time," said Khan, who saw action with the initial U.S. invasion force to hit Afghanistan in late 2001. "They are truly committed to making a difference in their country's future."
During a meeting with the Afghan commander of the 3d Bn., Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commanding officer of the 22d MEU (SOC), applauded the soldiers' fighting prowess and impact on their nation's future.
"The future of Afghanistan is linked to the ANA," McKenzie told the Afghan commander. "Your soldiers are brave and fight very well. We are proud to work with the ANA and while with Task Force Linebacker they will be well taken care of."
In addition to its Command Element and BLT 1/6, the 22d MEU (SOC) consists of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced) and MEU Service Support Group 22. The unit is Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker for Combined Joint Task Force 76.
For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.