Claiborne: Heading back to Darien from Afghanistan
As my team’s mission here draws to a close I thought I would follow up on my first article to The Darien Times and take a moment to relate some of our Marine unit’s progress over the past seven months. Hopefully these reflections will provide insight into what is possible here in Afghanistan. At a time of substantial national debate, I believe it is important for people back home to understand how we are spending your tax dollars, and above all to validate why some have had to pay the ultimate sacrifice.
In retrospect, I cannot help but reflect on the first few days leading up to our deployment when we were told that we would be training the Afghan Border Police. As many know, our problems in Afghanistan are rooted in Pakistan as it has become a critical safe-haven for our enemies. From drug lords, Taliban affiliates, basic gangsters, anti-American mercenaries, to the remnants of Al-Qaeda cells, all have taken refuge in Afghanistan’s unscrupulous neighbor.
Exacerbating our initial trepidation of working with an inexperienced force in an unpredictable environment were reports that the border police were routinely dubbed as the weakest and most corrupt force in Afghanistan. They regularly taxed civilians, allowed the smuggling of arms and drugs, and aided insurgent activity. A friend offered an interesting perspective when we received our mission stating that we would most likely not encounter much enemy resistance as we were working with Afghans who were a uniform away from being criminals themselves.
We moved to the de-facto border of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province and the Garmsir District with apprehension. Reports on the Garmsir District prepared us for a busy seven months. Just a year and a half prior to our arrival the British described this place as the OK Corral, nearly being forced out of various outposts. What made Garmsir so volatile was its geographic location.
Set near the border of Pakistan on the fertile Helmand River, Garmsir is home to some of the largest opium crops in the world. Supplying over 90% of the world’s opium, Afghanistan is a gold mine for nefarious activity. The Taliban have exploited this, financing a ten-year war against coalition forces. With the Marjah and Garmsir districts, lush with opium, The Helmand Province is the crown jewel of Afghanistan’s opium production, creating a thriving home for these extremists.
Armed with this knowledge we believed we were already a step or two behind the enemy. The initial assessment on our Afghan Border Police counterparts was simple. They were a young and inexperienced force plagued by drug abusers and lead by the corrupt. From selling government issued gasoline, dealing government munitions, establishing private security companies with government equipment and personnel, and shaking down civilians in the streets, corruption beset the border police. Our challenge was to eliminate all that and point them in a new direction. By removing the individuals that plagued productivity, and promoting the just, we inspired other soldiers to work diligently and honestly.
Our counterparts began to realize the gravity of their positions, to respect the authority their country had given them and take pride in what they were doing to build a better Afghanistan. Soon we were making headway on the fight against corruption, ridding their pay roster of nonexistent individuals whose compensation went directly into the pockets of the commanders. Next we worked to establish three thriving checkpoints that have been free of corruption.
We advanced our 200-man company from a group of rag-tag soldiers and drug abusers, some as young as 14 years old, to an established, respected, and self-sufficient force with pride in their accomplishments. Independently they provided security for provisional- and district-level elections, helping Afghanistan take its first steps toward democracy. One of the most rewarding moments in our deployment was our assistance in the safe opening of a school. Being able to see these impoverished and war-torn children have an opportunity to learn was truly something special. The school is now attended by more than 200 young students, eager to learn in order to advance their lives and their country.
We certainly faced our share of challenges on this deployment; however, by exploiting our relations with locals, and successfully mentoring of our counterparts, we were able to overcome what seemed at first to be insurmountable obstacles. While these successes come with great financial and emotional expense to our country, one thing that is for certain is that this mission is achievable, and what has happened in the Garmsir Province over the past two years is an example of what a successful counterinsurgency war can accomplish: the development of a self-sustainable, and independent local government with civilians who are free from the intimidation of an insurgency and who possess a profound sense of pride.
First Lt. Claiborne graduated from Darien High School in 2002 and Gettysburg College, where he majored in political science, in 2007. His parents, David and Virginia Claiborne, still live in Darien.