The meeting was ordinary but the conversation unusual.
Seated on opposite sides of a stuffy room inside an Afghan elder’s dirt-walled compound, a pair of Marines and their interpreter relax among friends, sprawling out on decorative black pillows and conversing with their hosts.
Warm daylight flows through hazy glass windows covered by flowing, burnt orange curtains, revealing a cloud of cigarette smoke swirling above the elders. Steaming cups of chai tea and plates of raisins, dried corn kernels and toffee lay between them on an ornately patterned crimson rug.
Slowly and deliberately, 1st Lt. Luke Forelle addresses the elders in Pashto, their native tongue. They listen intently as he speaks about Afghan history and the progression of local security, aided only occasionally by his interpreter.
The short, stocky Marine receives their feedback and offers a response in Pashto. The elders acknowledge his point, but warm chuckles reveal they found his pronunciation creative. Though Forelle isn’t fluent in Pashto, the elders understand their friend. He’s engaged and intrigued them.
After several years of shuffling between odd jobs and university studies, the 28-year-old New York City native set his sights on military service as he neared graduation from Columbia University in 2009. A year later, as combat operations in Iraq were winding down, Forelle earned his commission as a Marine officer. But with Iraq deployments nearing an end, it became more likely he’d deploy to Afghanistan.
Forelle cultivated his interest in the country while training to become an infantry platoon commander. He followed current events in Afghanistan closely and began learning Pashto from a Pakistani friend living in New York. He read books about Afghanistan’s history following the mid-1970s Soviet invasion, and others outlining counterinsurgency operations on its soil.
“I thought it’d be necessary to have a basic understanding of Pashto and Afghanistan’s cultural nuances, especially in my role as a platoon commander,” Forelle said. “I wanted to be the duty expert on my area of operations … to be able to impart this knowledge to my Marines and set the tone for our mission in Safar.”
As Forelle delved deeper into Afghanistan’s history and language, his interest was piqued. Studies he previously saw as professional necessity morphed into personal fascination.
After being stationed in Hawaii and completing seven months of pre-deployment training, Forelle finally received the opportunity to employ what he’d learned.
In October 2011, he deployed to Helmand province’s Garmsir district in command of 40 infantry Marines from 3rd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. They replaced Charlie Company, 1st Bn., 3rd Marines, in Garmsir’s Safar region.
The region is a key area in a stable district nearing transition from coalition to Afghan National Security Forces. Though plagued by insurgent activity only two years ago, Safar has become Garmsir’s busiest, fastest-growing commercial hub.
Based out of Combat Outpost Rankel, Forelle and his men immediately began contributing to the growth of Safar’s security, governance and Afghan forces.
Forelle started forging relationships with local elders, who quickly embraced him as “Commander Luke,” the new Marine leader who spoke their language and was knowledgeable about their culture. They came to remember him as the Marine who once arrived at a shura on COP Rankel wearing traditional Afghan clothing.
“We’re between the build and transition phases in Afghanistan, and part of rebuilding the country is being able to connect with its people,” said Capt. Bobby Lee, the India Company commanding officer and a native of Corpus Christi, Texas. “Speaking Pashto is just one way — Lt. Forelle’s approach — to engage them.”
Sergeant Brandon Bardos, a squad leader under Forelle’s command, said his platoon commander’s passionate effort to reach out to the Safar elders quickly eased the challenge of integrating new Marine leadership into the region.
“Lieutenant Forelle immediately built rapport with the elders because they could relate,” said Bardos, a 26-year-old native of Haiku, Hawaii. “He had the drive to understand Safar, but more importantly, the personality of its people. He was sensitive to their religion and culture, and went out of his way to identify with them. The elders felt a sense of security and greeted him with open arms.”
As their relationship deepened, so did the trust of the Safar elders in Forelle and his men. Bardos said the elders passed Forelle information on three separate occasions that led to either the location of improvised explosive devices, drugs and IED-making materials, or the detainment of enemy fighters.
Likewise, Forelle’s cultural awareness and language skills had an “immense impact” on relationship building with ANSF during a critical time in their development, Bardos said.
While the previous unit’s mission had been to partner with ANSF, India Company’s mission was to help the Afghan forces secure Safar on their own. The transition from partnered to autonomous operations was challenging for Afghan forces used to the full support of their Marine partners.
“When we arrived in Safar, the ANSF were willing and able to operate without our assistance,” Forelle said. “They just had to be weaned off our support and shown that security in Safar would increase as its Afghan forces improved.”
In January, Marines based in Garmsir shifted into a position of overwatch as the transition of lead security responsibility from coalition forces to ANSF approached.
Afghan forces in the region strengthened their foothold and security continued to increase. The local economy flourished, evidenced in Safar Bazaar’s growth from approximately 200 to 400 shops over a six-month period. Governance expanded and Safar saw greater representation in April’s district community council elections, as the number of designated seats for the area jumped from one in 2011 to four in 2012.
Progress was being made. Forelle said the local people saw the Afghan government “was going to be the real answer” for their problems. Instead of taking their problems to Marines, they began taking them to local leaders. While their system wasn’t perfect, Forelle said, the people of Safar were “lobbying through the right channels.”
“Over the course of the deployment, we witnessed a huge change in attitude on the local people’s part as to who they saw as an authority,” Forelle said. “They’ve done a complete 180-degree turn since we arrived.”
Despite his unique contribution, the Pashto-speaking platoon commander is simply one of many catalysts that have contributed to security and growth in the former insurgent hotbed.
Forelle is among thousands who have sweat, bled or made the ultimate sacrifice to bring freedom and security here. His efforts are a notation in a history book filled with sacrifice and progress, but they will remain as memories among the people he worked to affect long after he’s left Safar.
“The Afghan culture is one where people pass on history by word of mouth,” Lee said. “In 20 or 30 years, the people of Safar will still remember “Commander Luke.” They’ll recount stories of him over and over again, like his ability to speak Pashto or the time he wore Afghan clothes to a shura. He’s helped carry on a history of good memories surrounding the time Marines spent here.”