MARJAH, Afghanistan -- A swift and decisive pre-dawn raid on a known Taliban commander's compound snared the Drug Enforcement Administration's and the Afghan government's primary drug and terrorist target in Marjah, May 18.
Four other simultaneous hits in Marjah, the DEA, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment and the Counter Narcotic Police of Afghanistan netted other high-value targets and seized narcotics, weapons and explosives as evidence.
The evidence was substantial against the primary target, and six other men arrested during the raids. Approximately 2,344 kilograms of opium, 16 kilograms of heroin, 27 kilograms of morphine, 5 kilograms of suspected methamphetamine, 3 kilograms of hash, 5 kilograms of poppy seeds, 65 kilograms of marijuana seeds, 502 pounds of homemade explosives, more than two tons of ammonium chloride, other HME making chemicals and weapons and cash were seized as evidence.
For two months, DEA special agents from the Kabul Country Office Strike Force partnered with investigators from the Afghan Ministry of Interior's Counter Narcotic Police Sensitive Investigative Unit to build solid cases against multiple terrorist and drug traffickers in Marjah.
Confidential informants, made several buys under surveillance to secure evidence to arrest and indict the narco-terrorist suspects.
The DEA and their confidential sources were gathering intelligence in Marjah prior to the Feb. 13, Operation Moshtarak push to clear the area of Taliban insurgency by Marines of Regimental Combat Team 7 in the fertile, opium-growing belt of the Helmand River Valley. Leading up to the February clearing mission, DEA informants identified 21 pages worth of IED emplacements, Taliban commanders and their headquarters, and pinpointed other threats that the DEA shared with the Marines and the intelligence community. The information was found to be very helpful in avoiding IEDs, according to a DEA special agent.
"I think it's good. The DEA is getting the intel to prosecute targets on opium producers and distributors. We all know they are linked to the Taliban or are Taliban," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Vallejo, platoon sergeant, 2nd Plt., Alpha Company, 1/6.
"That gives us the foot in the door to prosecute guys in our AO (area of operation) that we really wouldn't know about," added the 28-year-old from Kansas City, Kan.
The Taliban and drug trafficking have long been connected. The Taliban uses the rich and illicit poppy growing fields in Helmand province to fund the insurgency through the profits from the byproduct of poppy opium. Local farmers have long grown the crop because they have been forced to, and because it has proven to be the best way to take care of their family, though be it illegal, explained a DEA agent.
It was Vallejo's company who led the foot patrol, from Patrol Base Littlefoot, under the cover of darkness, to the primary target's compound where informants said they could find the Taliban high-value drug kingpin.
Combined with the Marine patrol were two DEA Special Agents; one was the case leader on the entire case from the DEA's Kabul Country Office Strike Force, and one special agent from the Foreign Advisory Support Team and a team of Afghan Counter Narcotic Police National Interdiction Unit. A Marine dog handler and his patrol drug-detection canine helped complete the search of the compound.
The team of Afghan NIU agents armed with automatic weapons, search-and-arrest warrants led the forced entry in to the compound. The DEA and Marine dog handler and his canine followed directly behind them.
The rest of the Marines from Alpha Company surrounded and secured the outside of the compound, and was ready to provide additional firepower if DEA and NIU required assistance inside.
Soon after the NIU team entered the compound, a bearded man confronted them. He initially resisted the commands to surrender. While the NIU attempted to detain the man, the DEA agents and dog handler and his dog went building to building clearing each room and possible hiding spots for Taliban fighters.
Still unaccounted for was the primary target. Credible sources reported he had spent the night in the compound. With one detainee secured, the NIU and DEA and the Marine canine team continued to search and clear into the main living area of the compound through a second entrance.
Because women and children were present the Afghans took the lead in the main living area. They were quickly whisked into a separate room because of cultural sensitivities and the search continued.
Moments later radio chatter from the 1/6 Marines from first squad, who were securing the perimeter, said they had detained a man who attempted to flee the compound.
The quick action of the Marines had secured the DEA's most wanted man in Marjah. With flexi cuffs on, the man was turned over to the NIU, who brought him back into the compound and continued to search for evidence and drugs.
"They definitely see the value in the rule of law for the country," said one of the DEA F.A.S.T. special agents, who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of undercover work he does.
"The reason I'm doing this, is you know the drug traffickers and the Taliban are both connected. The Taliban are getting their financing from the drugs," said a special investigator with the SIU. "The case worked. We arrested the guys and got the seizure."
"This is all task and purpose," said Sgt. Patrick Main, 1st Squad Leader, 2nd Platoon, 1/6. "If we've got to set a cordon [perimeter] for the DEA, or another squad, or ourselves, it's pretty much the same."
Main underplayed the importance of their part of the mission because his Marines' cordon nabbed the primary target as he attempted to escape.
This was a joint operation with Marine forces, explained the Afghan special investigator through a translator.
"I'm very happy with the cooperation and success. We were six police officers, represented with the Marines. The good part was the Afghans searched the compounds and the Marines set up the cordon around the perimeter. The search and evidence collection was all the Afghans. This is very good for Afghan culture, and because we did the searches the Afghan people respect the Marines a lot, and there were no civilian casualties," said the SIU agent.
"I think any little bit will help. Especially with the drugs because if you take the drugs you take their money," said Main, a 28-year-old, from Eagle River, Wis., before the raid.
"In the off-season when there is no harvest going, they're broke. They don't have the guns to attack you. They are still putting in IEDs, but everything's at a lower level. We just had the harvest and immediately we picked up machine gun fire and more complex ambushes and things like that because they've got the money to fund that type of activity," said Main, a Purple Heart recipient who had been injured, recovered and returned to combat with his men.
For Main, a 10-year infantry veteran, this mission was simple. The complex part was making sure everyone to include the Afghan army, NIU, DEA and his Marines knew what the plan was. That was clearly laid out during the confirmation brief which spelled out all of the detailed routes to and from the objective, and what everyone's roles would be to on the mission.
"The one guy we arrested was a high-level drug trafficker and he is Taliban connected, so I'm pretty happy about that. The other guys was also good, because they were also 'TB' connected and work for drug trafficking networks and organizations," said the Afghan SIU investigator, who also requested to have his name withheld.
With the primary target in cuffs and the team's spirits high on that knowledge, the worst fears of everyone that goes on patrol happened. The Marines that were providing rear-end security were hit by an IED. Main, the battle-hardened veteran, had been within five meters of the blast and was down. One of Main's Marines, just feet away, had sustained severe injuries.
Quickly the corpsman began treating the casualties. A 'medevac' was called and additional security was placed around the injured Marines. Because they were close to the base, the attack was even more surprising and brazen.
The corpsman treated Main's wounds, but the Marine that took the brunt of the IED was seriously injured.
Swooping in at treetop level, the medevac helicopter, with its red cross painted on its side, landed in a wheat field next to the injured Marines. The two were quickly loaded onto the aircraft. As soon as the doors closed the green helicopter jumped from the ground racing toward the next level of care facility. An hour later the bad news was sent down to Alpha Company that the Marine had died.
It was Alpha Company's first loss of life.
"It was out of their hands," said Vallejo, about the corpsmen that treated the dying Marine. "They did all they could do."
Alpha company's hearts were heavy, but the Marines maintained the professionalism and resolve to protect the local population.
"I just know that they are linked," said Vallejo with resolve. "I know for a fact he had something to do with the IED emplacement that happened today.
"Right now it's hard for them. It's hard for all of us. The best thing I can tell them is we are out here and we have a job to do. Mourn the loss but we've got to stay focused at the same time. It's sounds very cliché, and you hate to be the one to say that to them. There's still a mission to be done here and that's the truth of it. Stay focused and provide security so nothing else can happen."
"Once we are on the helos, leaving Marjah, we can mourn him then. But we've got to stay focused. I've never wanted to be the one that tells the guys we lost one of our guys. But we all join, knowing what can happen," Vallejo said somberly.
"The Taliban is going to do what the Taliban is going to do. Today we caught one of them and we also saw up close and personal what they do," Vallejo said firmly. "You will hear about a loss over the net, never has it been us, but today it was."
"This was the first operation that we have done in Helmand province and especially in Marjah district. From our sources, all of the drug traffickers keep moving from Marjah to other places and provinces and trying to go to other countries," said the Afghan drug police officer.
With the drugs and evidence siezed, the men are facing a minimum 10-year prison sentence in the Afghan judicial system.
"We will keep working hard to get rid of the drugs and drug traffickers from Afghanistan," said the Afghan SIU agent.