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Marines from Camp Pendleton relinquish command of key Afghan territory

March 26, 2011 |  1:34 am

Perry1300Amid praise for a job well done, the Marines from Camp Pendleton on Saturday formally relinquished responsibility for leading the fight against the Taliban in the insurgency's longtime Afghanistan stronghold of Helmand province.

“In February 2010, the Taliban flag flew high here in Helmand,” said Army Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the international joint force. “Today, this land belongs to the people of Helmand.”

Haji Abdul Manaf, governor of the Nawa district, was blunt: “This has been a very good year. We want more good years.”

Their comments came at a ceremony marking the turnover of command responsibility from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Although geographically and culturally distant from the Afghan capital of Kabul, rural Helmand province is considered key to the Taliban insurgency. Helmand is the heart of the nation’s poppy crop -- a cash crop that is processed into heroin and provides enormous profits for the Taliban.

The mantra from military brass is that progress in routing the Taliban and gaining the trust of villagers in Helmand has been substantial but remains “fragile and reversible.”

Progress in Helmand has been costly: 136 Marines have been killed in combat since March 1, 2010 -- 61 of them from Camp Pendleton.

The hardest-hit combat unit was the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which suffered 24 killed in action and more than 175 wounded since relieving a British unit in early October in the Sangin district.

One of the most recent of the regiment's wounded is Navy corpsman Stuart Fuke, 22, of Honolulu, wounded in the thigh during a foot patrol a week ago. A Marine buddy stopped Fuke’s bleeding with rolls of gauze as sniper fire snapped overhead.

In six months of patrols, Fuke, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan, has provided emergency battlefield care to numerous Marines shot by Taliban snipers or wounded by buried bombs.

Fighting the Taliban, Fuke said, “is like fighting ghosts.”

“It’s like the gangbanging school: shoot, shoot and run away,” said Fuke, now recuperating at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before being airlifted to Naval Medical Center San Diego for additional surgery.

“These guys are quick,” he said. “It’s hit-and-miss, they don’t stand and fight.”

In one skirmish, Fuke had a Marine buddy “die in my arms” after being hit; in another he was able to stem the bleeding and save the life of an agonized Marine who lost both legs and his right arm; and in yet another incident, he watched in horror as a Navy corpsman had his legs blown off.

The weapon of choice of the Taliban in Helmand province is the improvised explosive device, sometimes dug into roads or paths, sometimes attached to fences or other waist-high objects in order to inflict maximum blast damage.

“They know they can’t take us on in a fight, that’s why they use the IEDs,” said Col. Patrick Kanewske, chief of staff for the Marine Corps Forces Central Command.

While the command unit -- led by Maj. Gen. Richard Mills -- was from Camp Pendleton, combat battalions came from several Marine bases. Of 20,000 Marines in Helmand during the last year, about half were from Camp Pendleton.

The new command unit is led by Maj. Gen. John Toolan, a veteran of the fight for Baghdad in 2003 and Fallouja in 2004.

A counteroffensive by Taliban fighters is expected soon as they attempt to regain dominance over the farmers who plant the poppy crop. "I expect a counterattack," Mills said. "This area is too important to the enemy for him just to walk away."

In the last two weeks, five Marines were wounded in a firefight in the Reg-e-Khan district that left 30 Taliban fighters dead. Marines also battled Taliban in the Kajaki and Musa Qalah distrtict; weapons caches were discovered in sites scattered throughout the province.

The number of battalions from Camp Pendleton will decrease in coming months as part of a planned rotation. The Three-Five will return home in coming weeks, replaced in Sangin by the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, also from Camp Pendleton, and the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment, from Twentynine Palms.

Former Marine commandant Gen. James Conway, in a visit to Helmand in August, predicted that Marines will be in the province until 2014 or 2015.

 Marines say conditions in Sangin have changed greatly since fall, with more cooperation from villagers and increasing competency of Afghan security forces.

More bomb-sniffing dogs are being deployed, and the U.S. has advanced technology to catch Taliban fighters or their sympathizers burying bombs under cover of darkness.

But for the Marine grunts and the Navy corpsmen, one thing will remain the same in the coming year: Every foot patrol in Helmand province is perilous.

 “You never know when you’re going to step on death,” Fuke said from his hospital bed. 

-- Tony Perry in Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan

Photo: Corpsman Stuart Fuke, 22. Credit: Tony Perry