FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZEEBRUGGE, Helmand province, Afghanistan — The image of most wars portrayed in the history books is that of battles in which sweaty, dirt-covered men storm beachheads and battlefields, while all that is left to read about are captivating dialogs of victory. Rarely do these books reflect on the human experience of what happens in the depths of counterinsurgency operations, in which these same men fight with their minds, guts and glory. One Baltimore native, however, has experienced this first hand and must now use all three to accomplish his mission once again.
Sgt. Christopher Gonzales, the Kajaki Civil Affairs Team chief, has seen multiple facets of combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom as an infantryman and a Civil Affairs Marine.
Gonzales is the senior enlisted member of the CAT and serves as an advisor for the district governor, while also advising the commanding officer of Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, regarding missions and courses of action, and their affect on the citizens of Kajaki.
“Basically, I serve as a liaison between the command, the people, and the local government in the country in which we are operating,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales added the emphasis of counterinsurgency operations is more about the local citizens and fostering their support, whether through the avenue of combating insurgents or local government-led development projects.
“The things we do are able to benefit the people and, therefore, foster support for our operations,” said the graduate of Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md., where he earned his undergraduate degree. “We help the local government provide essential services. We can [assist] small- and large-scale projects to help economic development and sustainability.”
His group is the first Civil Affairs Team to work in the Kajaki District and arrived in Afghanistan in May to begin setting the foundation for future development. He is using his experience from previous deployments to assess the condition of the district and how to best employ his Marines.
“He has the most combat experience [out of everyone one the team] and understands combat operations,” said Capt. Raphael Clarke, the officer in charge of the CAT. “[His experience] will benefit the team and the battery.”
The Marine Corps reservist has had first-hand experience in the combative side of counterinsurgency operations with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion when he deployed to Iraq in support of Iraqi Freedom I.
“I was with LAR in 2003, so I was there for the initial invasion. Our role there went from straight combat operations to more of a police officer role,” Gonzales said in comparison to what his team’s mission is at Kajaki.
Gonzales said civil affairs in Kajaki has a much different mission than their ground-combat brethren, but they must maintain a parallel relationship. He explained his team must understand combat operations and have a combat mindset while working with 2/12, which is an artillery battalion assuming a provisional infantry role.
“You have to operate within the [infantry] environment. The security of [a commander’s] troops comes first, so you have to be sure when you are approaching him with an idea, you have that in your mind and you understand his role before you start asking for something,” said Gonzales, who’s primary military occupational special is an infantry rifleman. “I have been there and I understand it, but I also understand from the training I’ve received here if we do things differently, it can not only save Marines’ lives, but can win a much bigger support of the populous and provide that win-win situation.”
Gonzales emphasized the sole purpose in civil affairs is to know the people, win their trust and confidence, and advise the commander on how to win the people’s support. He said a commander is able to use specific parts of the battle space to his advantage with the support of the local citizens. He said he believes this can be accomplished in Kajaki with creative thinking.
“We have a big mission in an area that has almost unlimited potential. If we can be creative and influence security with outside-the-box thinking in non-conventional ways, [we can] set up the next team for larger projects,” said Gonzales. “I think we would have made a good impact [if we can do that]. The emphasis [of our efforts] is that we are choosing projects wisely in an area that is ready to support them and sustain it for a long period of time.”
Gonzales will not only be able to use his infantry background in his daily mission, but his civilian job experience also builds on the CAT’s plans for projects and economic stability. He is a management consultant for the U.S. government when he is not on active duty.
“I go into an organization and I try to help them serve their customer, which is usually the public as a whole or a specified target audience,” said Gonzales. “It is actually very similar to here. [We] meet a lot of the same challenges.”
Clarke, a Washington, D.C., native said he believes Gonzales’ experience is a weapon of opportunity when attacking whatever problems may arise. He said Gonzales’ Marine Corps experience and his knowledge as a business professional make him a great asset to the team.
“He’s got lots of experience in negotiations, executing and managing government contracts, which is essentially what civil affairs does in a tactical environment,” said Clarke. “Kajaki is a difficult district to conduct civil affairs. It is going to require a creative and open mind with the ability to be decisive and act upon creative ideas. Gonzales encompasses that capability.”
Gonzales and his team are currently working on a plan to build up Afghan security in the area. His team has only been in Afghanistan for a short time and did not meet with the district governor until recently. They will begin advising him what direction this and other plans will take his district to help him determine the best way ahead for local residents, but this does not mean there will not be road blocks along the way.
He said even in the U.S. government, there are some people who are willing to work extra hours and some people who aren’t, some people who are willing to put in extra effort and some people who aren’t. He explained the same applies for Afghanistan. It will take a collective effort from the local government and the citizens for the district to begin moving in a new direction.
“My role is still to help the people and interact with the people in a positive way, and help them move forward and help the government move forward,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales, who earned a graduate degree from Towson University in Towson, Md., said he looks at the situation in Kajaki with a glass-half-full attitude.
“Even back in the states, if you ask what is your biggest criticism of the government, you’re answer is going to be different from my answer. You can’t put all the power on one person’s opinion,” said Gonzales. “You have to have a variety of opinions, and with that you can form data. Though data is not always perfect, the more you have, the more of an informed decision you can make.”
Gonzales plans to obtain the data they need by creating relationships. The data needed is perspective. His Marines are going to obtain as many viewpoints as possible by speaking with the Marines who patrol the area on a daily basis, the villagers in Kajaki District, and the local government to identify problems and create solutions.
“Civil affairs all about forming relationships and [using] those relationships, so any relationships we form are a good thing,” Gonzales said as he re-affirmed his point. “It gives us a perspective of the area. It gives us a lens to look through. The more lenses we have to look through, the better big picture we get.”
He hopes his team will be able to use all of these views to make an impact through their advisory role with the district governor.
“I hope to see the district governor and the district chief of police become major players in the area, and I hope to see the people looking to [them] for answers,” said Gonzales. “I hope to have a positive affect on his ability to provide for them.”
Gonzales noted they have a difficult mission because his team is starting from ground zero in an area which as been torn apart from three decades of war, but that does not mean he and his Marines are not up to the task.
“I just see a country that has been torn apart from war for 30 years. People who, around 30 or younger, have no idea what peace is and no idea what stability is. They have no visions of what’s to come in a peaceful world because everything they know has been poverty, war or a little bit of both,” said Gonzales about his personal observations. “I think the Afghan people are very resilient and very hospitable. In this area we have the ability to really form a solid foundation with the people and the district government to get those building blocks in place so sustainability isn’t a question here.”
“Editor’s note: The Civil Affairs Team is attached to Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment. The battalion is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division [Forward], which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command [Southwest] and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.”