MILITARY: Pendleton unit ready for Afghanistan assignment


CAMP PENDLETON ---- The 1,000 troops from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment that Lt. Col. William McCollough is leading into Afghanistan later this month aren't expecting to win the war.

"We're going there to be successful," McCollough said during an interview at his Camp Pendleton office last week. "For us to be successful, the Afghan government has to win, and we are going there to help give them that ability."

McCollough's men are part of the vanguard of a buildup ordered by President Barack Obama, who is adding 21,000 troops to the 38,000 American military members already in the war-torn, south-central Asian nation.

What those troops are able to accomplish in the Iraq-style surge that comes just before Afghanistan's August presidential election is expected to foreshadow how much the U.S. and its NATO partners can accomplish in a country never defeated by a foreign power.

McCollough knows that history, and he knows there is much work ahead.

"We do not suffer delusions that the area we are going to is going to be fixed on this deployment," the 40-year-old Minnesota native said. "But we are going to set the tone for any unit that replaces us."

The impending seven-month deployment is the first-ever Afghanistan assignment for the "Fighting Fifth" unit headquartered just south of San Clemente on the northern reaches of Camp Pendleton. It's also the first large-scale Afghanistan deployment for Camp Pendleton troops since the 2001 invasion of that country.

Their commander says the troops are trained, rested and ready for their assignment in the troubled Helmand province in southern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. That's where the majority of the opium-producing poppy crop is grown, and where anti-government forces have gained a foothold and stepped up their attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.

"It’s not going to be an easy mission," he said. "Helmand is where the insurgency is funded and where the poppy is grown and processed. The enemy is not going to give up that capability, and we think they will fight to protect it."

McCollough's forces will be there by month's end and plan on establishing combat outposts in towns and villages. That echoes what the Marines did in Iraq's once insurgent-laden Anbar province and is a central point in the doctrine of how to succeed in a counter-insurgency war.

"I don't believe in commuting to work, and I don't believe you can win if you don't live out amongst the people," said the slightly built, youthful-looking McCollough. "We kind of learned that the hard way in Iraq."

Part of the battalion will be partnered with Afghan National Army and security forces as the U.S. moves to speed the development of those groups to help solidify the national government.

Fight ahead

To help ready his troops during their nine months of training, McCollough had them read books about counter-insurgency, the Afghan culture and Islam.

Squad leaders such as sergeants are expected to take the lead role in embedding with local Afghans in areas of Helmand where there are no U.S. and NATO troops.

"We could have two platoons living in a building in a village," said McCollough, whose awards and decorations include a Bronze Star with "V" device signifying valor, and a Purple Heart. "That will be their combat outpost. So when they walk outside, they are immediately with the local population."

The mission for his unit, which carries the motto "Make Peace or Die," is to locate and engage anti-government forces so his troops can, in McCollough's words, "clear, hold and build."

"Just being in an area will displace the Taliban and they then lose control," he said in reference to that strategy, adding he has no illusions that his forces will see fighters flee simply because they move into an area. "There is no doubt they are going to try and fight us, and we have no doubt they are going to lose when they do."

Military authorities predict a spike in roadside and suicide bomb deaths as more U.S. troops flood into the country, noting that such incidents are up 25 percent this year compared with 2008. A task force has said the number will rise to about 5,700 by year's end compared with about 3,800 in 2008.

Through Friday, 53 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Seventy-four American military members have died in Iraq since the year began.

Spartan experience

When all the new Marine units arrive, there will be 10,000 leathernecks in Afghanistan, the largest number since the invasion and toppling of the Taliban government. The bulk are from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, with units from around the world rounding out the force.

Helping lead the 1/5 in Afghanistan is Sgt. Maj. Tom Sowers, McCollough's link to the enlisted men that compose the bulk of the force.

Sowers is also an Iraq combat veteran and echoes his boss when he says the Marines and sailors heading to Afghanistan with the unit are among the best-trained he has ever seen. And many of those troops with recent deployments to Iraq ---- where combat in Anbar has been very limited the last two years ---- are getting what they've said they wanted: a chance to fight.

"This is what they asked for," Sowers said, adding that the troops have been told to expect little in the way of creature comforts, because most won't be stationed on the large U.S. bases they're familiar with in Iraq. "I believe Marines enjoy the Spartan experience, and they're going to get that."

McCollough said he believes the ultimate victory in Afghanistan is entirely dependent on that country's leaders taking full advantage of the mission he and his troops look to accomplish.

"We have to help the Afghan government be able to fulfill a social contract that provides justice to its people and produces a secure environment," McCollough said. "If the government is doing that, we will have been successful."

Over the next few days, family, friends, wives, girlfriends and children will say goodbye to the force as it begins its 7,700-mile journey to Helmand. A few female Marines assigned to the unit as "augmentees" also will be saying their goodbyes. Females are excluded from combat infantry units, but some do accompany the men in supporting roles.

Once there, the troops will be 11.5 hours ahead of their loved ones in California, often with no means of communicating with them.

McCollough is prepared for that, too.

Because troops will be in the field with only occasional rest periods on larger bases with access to e-mail, McCollough plans to carry a pocketful of index cards with him. When he's visiting his men at a forward operating base, he plans to pull Marines and sailors aside and have them write brief notes that he will make sure are mailed.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.