COMBAT OUTPOST PAYNE, Afghanistan – And just like that, we’ve reached the Marine Corps’ southern frontier in Helmand province.
Photographer Colin Kelly and I traveled by MV-22 Osprey today to this desert outpost in Khanashin district, where most people live in a collection of rural villages along a bend in the Helmand River. It was first flooded with Marine forces in July 2009 during Operation Khanjar, or Strike the Sword, becoming part of the biggest aerial assault since the Vietnam War.
COP Payne was established afterward and served as the battalion headquarters for the last few years for light armored reconnaissance units that deployed in succession to the region. They patrolled nearby open deserts in eight-wheel Light Armored Vehicles, cracking down on Taliban movement from Pakistan, which is about 60 miles south.
Like many other nearby districts, the drawdown in U.S. forces in Afghanistan has significantly altered the Marine footprint in Khanashin.
In August, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion was replaced by Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, said Capt. Paul Mann, its company commander. The unit provides assistance as needed to Afghan Border Police units and the Marine advisers working with them.
“The days of Marines doing a lot of independent operations down here are past,” Mann said.
Considering the remote nature of Payne, its facilities are impressive. A chow hall manned by contractors serves three hot meals per day. There’s also a gym spanning several air-conditioned tents, a facility with telephone and Internet access, and a “TV tent” with a pool table.
Payne’s home on the edge of a sprawling desert creates some interesting dynamics, however. The base is home to several poisonous snakes, including a five-foot cobra that is seen periodically by Marines, Mann said. Jackals also wander through from the desert, prompting an effort to trap them humanely in traps.
We’ll be spending several days with Weapons Company, getting the lay of the land and the security force assistance mission as we go. No word on whether any cobras will be involved.