- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

COP JAKER, Afghanistan | Members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines are heading home, with the first units due stateside just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

For the rest, the most dangerous period is just beginning. It’s called the “Rip,” or “Relief in place,” — the time when tantalizing thoughts of home make it easy to lose concentration, and a new unit unfamiliar with the turf arrives to take over.

“Its too late in the game to be complacent. Its too close to going home to get blown up,” 1st Sgt. David Wilson howled at his Marines in the Nawa district of Helmand province when none would admit to dreaming of home.

The incoming forces, meanwhile, are at the forefront of what is expected to be a major buildup, with as many as 35,000 additional troops arriving over the coming months.

President Obama, foreshadowing a long-awaited announcement on his plans for the Afghanistan war, said in Washington on Tuesday that he is determined to complete the mission begun almost a decade ago against al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.

“After eight years, some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done, it is my intention to finish the job,” Mr. Obama said during a joint appearance with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“And I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we’re doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, that they will be supportive.”

For the Marines at Combat Outpost (COP) Jaker, finishing the job means staying focused long enough to get home in one piece for Christmas. And that means there will be no holiday from duties on Thursday. Patrols will be conducted as usual, and checkpoints along main roads will be manned.

There will be holiday food, of course, if the helicopters and supply trucks can deliver it on time. But there won’t be the catered dining halls and decorations enjoyed on rear bases and featured on television news programs at home. It will be chowing down in the dust.

In case the helicopters don’t make it, Marines have three live turkeys purchased from villagers, stashed in a pen, awaiting slaughter and cooking over an open fire.

And on Friday morning, Sgt. Wilson and fellow noncommissioned officers will keep driving the same message:

“They [the enemy] try to take advantage of a new unit coming in and try to demoralize them with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades], IEDs [improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs] and sniper fire,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Lyne, of Charlie Company.

The 5th Marines, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., have been in Afghanistan since late spring and in the Nawa district since midsummer. They’re handing over responsibility for 400 square miles of desert and farmland and 90,000 people to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, from Hawaii.

About 500 Taliban gunmen were thought to be in the district when the 5th arrived. Most have been pushed into the neighboring district of Marjah, where there are no U.S. forces, but they continue to reinfiltrate in small numbers to intimidate the local population and plant IEDs, U.S. troops say.

“There are still people moving around,” said Charlie Company’s commander, Capt. Brian Huysman. “We aren’t seeing the 20-, 30-man elements anymore. It’s more three-, five-man cells planting IEDs.”

Capt. Huysman’s unit operates in a 54-square-mile area. COP Jaker, where a new district center is being built, is the hub. It’s little more than a large compound of dust and gravel surrounded by dirt barriers. Five sub-COPs, or patrol bases, have been established in the company’s area as a cordon, of sorts, to hamper insurgent passage and facilitate daily interaction with villagers.

Each patrol base has 20 Marines or less, as well as a half-dozen or so Afghan police.

“There isn’t a local who doesn’t see a Marine and an Afghan policeman every three to five days,” Capt. Huysman said. “And they see we aren’t shaking people down like the Taliban, kicking in doors or disrespecting their religion.

“IEDs remain a threat, but the people started pointing them out to us soon after we came here.”

The Taliban continues its efforts to maintain influence on Nawa’s people, and it’s understandable. The district is valuable real estate. Its prime winter crop in the past has been opium.

“The drug trade remains a major source of revenue for anti-government forces and organized crime operating in and around Afghanistan,” a September report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said.

“Poppy talks here,” said Master Sgt. David Dial of 1-5’s Weapons Company.

Sgt. Dial, who with a squad of Marines manned an austere outpost called Norzai, said farmers had told him the Taliban taxed the crop and/or acted as middlemen in its sale. In some instances, he said, farmers said they were ordered to grow it.

With increased security in the district, the Afghan government is trying to nudge farmers into abandoning the illicit crop. Each of 4,800 Nawa farmers the government has registered and approved is receiving 220 pounds of winter wheat seed and has been warned that opium will be confiscated and buyers interdicted by anti-narcotics police.

Capt. Huysman and other Marine officers said the key to helping maintain security in his area is the knowledge that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force has no plans to leave the district.

“The people need to know the Marines are staying,” Capt. Huysman said. As part of the effort to reassure villagers that security will be maintained, flyers are being handed out explaining the transition, and meetings are being held with village leaders.

Outgoing Marines, who are leaving in phases, are also mentoring their replacements.

“They’ve had the same training you had before coming here, but you know the area,” Sgt. Wilson told a squad of Charlie Company Marines at Green Nine, an outpost near the Nawa district capital. “You’re going to have to watch these guys.

“You have to set them up for success. Their success is going to have everything to do with the groundwork laid here.”

Incoming Marines will partner with outgoing Marines on daily patrols through villages and fields. Those leaving will brief the others on specific security points in their areas of responsibility, tell them who the key leaders are and introduce them to villagers.

“They need to know everything you’ve learned here,” Sgt. Wilson exhorted.

The first main-body units from 1-5 are scheduled to be home Thanksgiving night. Those left behind will be back in the United States by the middle of next month.

The time for a Marine to think about home, Sgt. Wilson said, is when he is on the plane that’s carrying him out of Afghanistan.

• Richard Tomkins can be reached at .

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