U.S. Marines Fight In Challenging Afghan Terrain

Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss

Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss talks with his troops in May during a training patrol at Camp Lejeune, N.C., before their deployment to Afghanistan. Nicknamed "America's Battalion," the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment is operating in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province to counter Taliban insurgents. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Since early July, the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment have been in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The unit, known as "America's Battalion," has established forward operating bases, working with Afghan security forces and villagers to try to stabilize the area.

Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss is the commanding officer of the battalion, which is based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. His Marines were not involved in Wednesday's U.S. military offensive in Dahaneh, but operate south of that village.

From the Marine headquarters at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Cabaniss spoke to Melissa Block.

What sort of resistance have the Marines where you are been running into lately?

We've had fairly significant resistance from pockets of Taliban fighters. It's hard to say if they're just really well-trained locals or if they're perhaps from somewhere else. But it's not overwhelming. It is counterinsurgency; small groups will come and attack us.

But our main effort still is behind seizing control of the population away from the Taliban and winning the consent of the local population, because by doing so, we're going to have more security than Hesco barriers or body armor will ever give us. Because once we have the people on our side, the Taliban will no longer be able to move in the area.

You mention Hesco barriers. These are sandbags?

No. They are metal on the outside, with a case, and you fill them with rock. The country of Afghanistan is covered with Hesco. It's how we can build when we move into a new area; the engineers are able to move in and build an operating base for the Marines that they can work out of. It's difficult in this environment here, just because we're in the Green Zone [a Taliban-infested area of Helmand province].

The only person, I think, that's got a good appreciation for the Green Zone and has really shown it to the world is [photographer] David Gilkey from NPR. It is just terrain unlike anything else in Afghanistan — very compartmentalized, irrigation canals, green fields, trees, bushes. In many ways, it reminds me of eastern North Carolina. I think it's surprising when you see it. It's probably some of the most challenging terrain that, in my mind, the Marines have fought in since World War II.

You mention David Gilkey. He's the NPR photographer who was with Echo Company there, and when he filed his reports, he talked about running into a whole lot of IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. Are you still finding that, a lot of roadside bombs?

Yes, that's the weapons choice for our enemy. He obviously cannot stand and fight us in a large group because that would be a very quick fight, and it would be over [for the Taliban]. So, his attempt is to limit our movement.

One advantage we have is we planned to move cross-country and stay off the roads. Because in this country, the roads in our area really don't give us an advantage. I think that's a mental image that's hard for people to understand because they associate Afghanistan and Iraq so closely. But in our area, 90 percent-plus of our operations are foot mobile.

What kind of casualties have you seen in your battalion?

It's unfortunate, but we've had our share of casualties. But they've been kind of balanced between IEDs and direct fire.

And how many Marines have you lost?

I've lost 10 Marines so far in the operation.

In a little over a month?

Yes.

I would think that number would be pretty daunting as you look ahead.

No. I think the Marines of my battalion are some of the most adaptive people in the world. It is a challenging environment, but we get better and better every day. Every casualty is hard on us, because it's one of our brothers.

But I think they carry the spirit of those Marines with them and help them complete the mission, because I think that is the way we honor our fallen heroes is to complete the mission: to drive the Taliban out of the area, to help bring tangible progress to the people and to create conditions for the units or agencies that follow us so that they can continue to take progress to the next level.

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