By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 25, 2009 - Army 1st Lt. Nicholas Camardo is a self-described pain in the backside. An infantry officer with the Illinois Army National Guard, Camardo is in charge of the security force tasked with keeping the provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan's Paktia province safe as it travels around the region meeting with local leaders and helping to rebuild communities.
They are the nice guys, Camardo said. He is not.
"We worry about security and let them worry about winning the hearts and minds," Camardo said of the reconstruction team. "We've got to do our job. We are a pain, but that's what we're here for."
Camardo's rules to the team are fairly simple, though: Keep your protective gear on all the time; don't move until you're cleared; don't meet until it's cleared; and don't talk to anyone who is not cleared.
A full half of the 80-person PRT is made up of security forces. Camardo's unit, Company B, 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry out of Elgin, Ill., is part of a much larger deployment of Illinois National Guard troops. More than 2,700 soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan from the 33rd Brigade Combat Team. Eleven platoons from the state provide security for PRTs here.
The nontraditional mission sometimes is a delicate balance for his troops, Camardo said. On one hand, they are supposed to appear as nonthreatening as possible as they move in and out of villages. On the other hand, they need to project a presence that keeps threats against the team at bay. He compared the image they try to project as that of a porcupine: nonthreatening, but not something you want to mess with.
"It's a very fine line we encounter every time we go out, because we're the guys that roll pretty heavy with weapons," he said.
Camardo admits that, despite his best efforts, it is pretty difficult to not appear threatening, or at least intimidating.
If only two reconstruction team leaders need to go to nearby Gardez City for a meeting, as many as 20 security forces accompany them. They roll down the roads in the massive, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, heavy machine guns poking from the topside turrets. The soldiers are armed to the teeth. Machine guns, shotguns, pistols, knives and several cartridges of ammunition all are part of the uniform.
"Then we open up our vehicles and hand out [humanitarian assistance] and do it with a smile," Camardo said.
The PRT has a mix of military cultures and personalities that can challenge the traditional infantry unit. It is Air Force-led and has a mix of active-duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers, as well as civilians from the departments of State and Agriculture. Civil affairs, engineer and medical teams work to assess the villages and towns within the province's 14 districts to help the local government determine its needs.
Team members carry weapons for personal protection, but the bulk of their work is done over tea, in meetings with local political, tribal and religious leaders.
Before team members leave the protection of the MRAPs, the security forces dismount to sweep the meeting area. They scan rooftops and windows. They check the crowds for anyone acting suspicious. They memorize the roads to know if something is different from one trip to the next.
Security soldiers are in all meetings, and waiting outside the doors, and still others surround the perimeter of the buildings or huts where the meetings are held. They trust no one, take nothing for granted and are suspicious of everything, platoon leaders said.
The team members "are really nice people, but we can't be nice. Our job is by-the-book," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Schultz, the security force platoon sergeant. "Our job is to bring everybody home safe."
This remote part of eastern Afghanistan is a transit and staging area for enemy fighters. Some parts of the province still are very dangerous. Every day the team is outside of the base, its members face the threat of roadside bombs, car bombs, suicide bombs and drive-by shootings.
PRT officials also said that, at some of the "shuras," or meetings, in the rural villages, they know that sometimes they are talking to members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups who also are tribal leaders.
Air Force Capt. Don Moss, Paktia PRT intelligence officer, said threats vary, depending on whether the team is moving in one of the more urban areas, such as the provincial capital of Gardez City, or in the outlying rural districts.
"The problem with an urban environment is you run into multiple threats from every aspect which are hard to identify in such a fluid environment," Moss said. "You have so many vehicles, people, everything going on. In a city, it makes it almost impossible to track everything that's going on."
Few roads also mean limited options for escape routes, Moss said.
In is sometimes easier to spot threats in rural areas, Moss said. But the mountainous terrain is the stomping grounds of the enemy fighters, giving them a home-field advantage. Also, because the security team travels the roads less often, it is harder to spot anything out of the ordinary.
This is especially true in the Zormat district, the most dangerous in the province. Last year, two PRT members died in a roadside bombing there.
"We don't have PRT painted on our convoy. There's nothing identifying us from another convoy," Moss said.
Moss predicts an active spring and summer for the province. Projects in Zormat have been on hold because of the dangers there, but this team plans to re-engage local leaders and to try to launch rebuilding efforts. This is complicated further by the many, varying tribes claiming the area. There is no central tribal leadership for PRT officials to work with, and the area is a main traffic point for insurgents crossing the Pakistan border into Afghanistan.
"As the intel guy, it scares the hell out of me to send massive efforts down to Zormat," Moss said. "At the same time, if you're going to quell an insurgency, you're not going to quell it on the sidelines."
Because of a relatively mild winter, Moss said, he already is seeing reports of bombings within the province and expects them to become a daily event come spring.
Arriving at a location can be chaotic for security forces, and a task to maintain focus and control. Kids rush the convoys looking for handouts of blankets, food and clothes. Even the Afghan forces approach the security forces looking for field rations and other goodies.
The security forces typically work 12- to 14-hour days, six days a week. A four-hour mission in the city can take a day of planning, and longer missions can take several days.
The team has run more than 200 missions outside the wire since deploying here in November, and the tempo is expected to accelerate as the winter weather clears.
The long days and long missions wear on the platoon, its leaders said.
"It's a lot of stress on the young guys. As soon as we roll out of the wire, we've got to worry about someone trying to kill us," Camardo said.
And, while the group had not yet been hit, their leaders say it is inevitable. That is enough to keep the guys on their toes.
"The constant reminder of it keeps them focused," Camardo said.
Despite the risks, most of the soldiers say they understand and appreciate the mission here. And they don't mind the more defensive posture, opposite that of their traditional role of busting down doors and searching for bad guys.
Here, they see the poverty, the lack of schools, medical clinics and other infrastructure, and they appreciate the efforts of the other team members to bring hope to the suffering population.
"I can justify in my head this mission," Camardo said. "It's not infantry stuff, but we are making a difference. And the only way we're going to get out of Afghanistan, in my opinion, is by helping the people help themselves."