I never anticipated finding myself at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan helping local industry. Shortly after our organization pulled out of Iraq with the 2011 drawdown of troops I was asked to assist in Afghanistan. Our organization was already deployed across the country involved in every aspect of the economy. Lessons we learned in Iraq on stabilizing the economy were being applied to the still ranging conflict in Afghanistan.
TFBSO, Task Force for Business Stability Operations, part of the US DOD, was tasked with several initiatives to stabilize the economy. The concept contrived originally by Paul Brinkley and General Petraeus was to facilitate foreign direct investment. The goals were job creation and private investment. This would provide alternatives to poppy production and drug trade which propped up the Taliban.
The organization had teams working on identifying and facilitating development of the vast mineral and petroleum resources of the country, support of indigenous industries, banking, communications, and agriculture. The story of the organization is best told by Paul Brinkley himself in the book:
Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan seemed like an unlikely place for any part of this effort. Situated in the middle of the largest poppy growing region in the world it was a Taliban stronghold. Alternative agricultural crops, improved processing, and distribution was key ingredient for counter narcotics. A battalion of US Marines stationed at Camp Leatherneck helped.
Our team in Helmand was located on Camp Leatherneck north of the capital of Lashkar Gah on the ring road between Kandahar and the western provinces of Afghanistan. During the 1960s there was a considerable contingent of Americans in the city in support of the construction of the Kajaki Dam. The area of the city housing the Americans was referred to as Little America.
Along the Helmand River in Lashkar Gah I could still see the ruins of a fort built by Alexander the Great.
Our team at Camp Leatherneck consisted of 5 people. Three of us with industry backgrounds, one admin, and one security/logistics contractor. Our office was a 40-foot trailer located inside the Regional Command SW Headquarters Compound.
Camp Leatherneck was a large base connected to the British airfield, Camp Bastion. Our quarters were 2 miles from the command compound on the opposite sides of the base. Taking the roadways along the outside perimeter of both bases was a distance of at least ten – twelve miles.
Our team was at Camp Leatherneck to support the USMC civil affairs efforts. Each command had money allocated from congress called (CERP), commanders emergency response program.
These funds were designed to support the military’s efforts to win acceptance and cooperation from local citizens. Funds were typically spent on community improvements projects in small increments. These projects might include water wells, irrigation, improvement of roads or bridges, repairs of war damage, or agricultural supplies. Our projects included a produce cleaning and packing house, repairs of a cotton mill, new equipment for a marble factory, and rebuilding a local bazaar destroyed during the fighting. We assisted the engineering, procurement and project management for the more complicated projects.
Traveling with Marines has its advantages and challenges.
Supporting the Marines facilitated our travel and security to project sites through-out the province. It also met that we traveled in the same fashion and same conditions as the Marines. Being with the Marines provided the best possible security. It had been 40 years since I had been a Marine in Viet Nam. I wasn’t nearly as lean or as mean anymore. It took some real work to get in shape enough to just carry the body armor and my own gear on each mission outside the base. None of the Marines were volunteering to carry my bag!
After a year in Viet Nam and two years in Iraq I still wasn’t prepared for the conditions in Afghanistan. Cold and wet in the winter, hot and dusty in the summer, very few improved roads, or sanitation. This was a rural country that still operated much like US wild west in the 1800s. Warlords ruled the regional areas and local communities. Almost no central government influence existed in the south. Seldom if ever did politicians or government representatives venture outside of Kabul to Helmand. It was just too dangerous.
In Iraq, we always made sure new people were escorted into the country to insure their safety and ease their concerns of travel in a combat zone. Since none of our task force other than the four already in Helmand traveled to the base I had to find my own way to Camp Leatherneck. The boss sent me directions. Fly to Kuwait and catch a charter flight I had never heard of that would bring me to Camp Bastion. Our only security person would meet me and bring me to Camp Leatherneck. Sounds easy, right?
I was a civilian employee of the US DOD. Still temporary employee on 60-90 day term but I did have a government ID card. This was the “golden ticket” for simplified passage onto military bases. Since I was flying directly from Kuwait to a military base on a charter flight I didn’t even need a visa for Afghanistan. Besides, there was no customs office in Helmand province. It wasn’t exactly an international destination.
Camp Bastion, the British air base where Prince Henry served, is located on the North side of Camp Leatherneck. Its large modern airfield provided considerable capabilities for the ISAF forces in southern Afghanistan. Our charter jet landed with its load of freight and civilian government employees and contractors parking on the vast concrete apron of the air field. Parked in other locations of the field were British fighter/bombers, Marine Ospreys, C-130s private cargo plans, and helicopters of all descriptions.
A rickety old bus leased by the charter airline worked its way through the crowded flight line to pick us up and take us to the check-in center. The check in center was a large tent with x-ray detectors for baggage and unfriendly group of military personnel suspicious that one of the civilians was bringing in contraband from outside. Personal weapons, computer flash drives, alcohol, and porn were not permitted on the base.
Once they were sure we were who we said we were and had orders to be there, we were released to find our own way. My escort was there to meet me without knowing what I looked like. Later I found out he was told to look for a short grumpy old guy that looked irritated and needed a ride.
I certainly had a sense I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Time to meet the family.
After meeting Bill Duncan and Steve Finkel, my teammates, I found the next day would be a real orientation. We would fly by Marine C-54 helicopter to the British base at Lashkar Gah. There we would drive to a cotton mill and marble factory. The next day fly out to Camp Hansen for a situational brief on the produce packing and storage facility outside Marjah.
The following day we would fly north to Now Zad visiting the USMC forward operating base on an Osprey, returning that day on a Marine Sea Stallion helicopter back to Leatherneck.
The next year and 1/2 at Camp Leatherneck would provided lots of unusual experiences.
Working to improve business in this remote pocket of the world proved challenging and fascinating.
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