By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
March 31, 2009 - Next to a small village in Afghanistan's fertile Jalrez Valley, a platoon of U.S. soldiers busy themselves fortifying a fighting position, stringing concertina wire, aiming mortars, and filling lots and lots of sand bags. "Apache," a U.S. military combat outpost, is housed in an abandoned former district agricultural building. It is flanked by a school and medical clinic on its east. Villagers tend to an orchard that runs along its west side, and to the north a handful of farmers care for cattle and crops.
It seems an unlikely spot for coalition forces to go toe-to-toe with the Taliban and other enemy fighters who use this valley for staging attacks in nearby areas, such as the capital city of Kabul. But the outpost is the front line in a fight against an enemy that hides among the local population in the villages and in the mountains.
Pushing troops out of larger forward operating bases and into community-based combat outposts was successful in Iraq for holding areas cleared of enemy forces. It is this same strategy that military officials in Afghanistan's Wardak province hope will quash enemy activity in one of the country's most dangerous valleys.
"Our presence alone is the security," said Army Capt. Matthew Thom, commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. "I believe that since we're here ... our permanent presence is going to prevent that kinetic activity."
The 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team has more than tripled the firepower here since taking over operations in Wardak and Logar provinces last month. It has doubled the number of combat outposts to six in Wardak.
Before, only a company patrolled an area where two battalion-sized task forces now operate. Everything about the troop's presence here projects power, and that is exactly the message military officials want to send to the enemy fighters expected to return to the area as the weather warms.
"I am fully confident that they would be foolish to attack us," Thom said. "Nobody wants that, but I feel that we are postured according to the threat level very well. I believe that our posture alone is going to prevent that from happening."
Thom's troops landed, literally, in the valley about a month ago, in an air assault mission that many of the soldiers described as the most difficult of their careers. In the bitter-cold, early morning hours, the infantry troops launched with full combat packs from hovering helicopters into waist-deep snow and began a five-mile trek to what is now their outpost.
The mud building that would become their home was abandoned and cold. There was no electricity or water. Like most outposts here, conditions are, to say the least, austere, especially at the start. The troops themselves build up the outposts, securing them first, and then adding comforts such as heat.
There is no running water and no cold storage, which means no cooked meals and no showers. Troops suffice with heated, packaged Army meals and keep clean with "lots and lots of baby wipes."
But, for the most part, the infantry soldiers are happy. It's not a bad life as far as infantry goes, they said. There is a roof over their heads, and they are not sleeping on the ground. Mail is delivered fairly regularly, and soldiers rely on comfort items sent from home. Conditions are better now that during the unit's first deployment to Afghanistan a few years ago, the unit's veterans said. One platoon sergeant went four months without a shower then, he said.
"Life is good," Thom said. "This is definitely not Bagram [Airfield], but I really don't want it to be that. We have what we need to do our jobs, and too much more becomes a distraction. We stay really busy."
Security is provided from three outposts along the Jalrez Valley, which stretches west about 15 miles from the provincial capital of Maydan Shahr. About 70 small villages are scattered through the valley, with multiple tribes in each.
Thom divides the responsibility for the villages between platoons, and military leaders spend their days patrolling, meeting with tribal leaders and assessing villages' needs.
The U.S. troops bring with them much-needed funds for construction and renovations. But still, some in the area are wary that the troop's presence will draw more fighting to the valley, and that their families and livelihoods could be caught in the crossfire.
"When we come here, we kind of bring a sense of war with [us]," Thom acknowledged. "There is some skepticism, but I believe the better part of the population is happy we're here."
The commander's fight in the valley demonstrates the evolution of the traditional infantry role. Once focused primarily on operations surrounding killing or capturing the enemy, now Thom and his troops find themselves at the tip of the spear in what he called a true counterinsurgency fight. The soldiers spend less of their time looking for the enemy and more time befriending the local people in an effort to drive a wedge between those who support an insurgency and those who don't.
"Now we have to be dual-hatted. We have to have that ability to conduct kinetic operations and counterinsurgency operations, and that's what we do," Thom said. "We knew coming into this country there was a kinetic threat, but we were going to beat the kinetic threat with the counterinsurgency fight."
Patrols are focused around assessing villages and meeting local leaders. Military officers mentor district government leaders and help them strengthen their local support. And millions of dollars in Commanders' Emergency Response Program funds are funneled into local projects such as repairing wells, refurbishing schools and building roads.
And for their efforts, the troops hope the local people will point out anyone in their villages who would threaten the security in the area.
But Army 1st Lt. Mark Hogan, a Company A platoon leader, said the soldiers don't dangle dollars for projects over the heads of the tribal leaders in exchange for intelligence.
"I can help them, and if they become our friends, they want to give us information. It helps us help them," Hogan said. "The concern is their security. My guys are going to be able to secure themselves. Them giving us information is for their own safety."
Hogan said that if local residents deliver up the names and locations of enemy fighters operating in the area, U.S. and Afghan forces can be more strategic about removing them from the local population. One military officer referred to the precise operations as "surgical."
Hogan said this allows his forces to strike first, using less firepower and with safety measures in place to protect civilians.
The platoon leader acknowledges that is the delicate balance he must strike operating within a civilian population. One wrong move, or misplaced mortar, and Hogan jeopardizes alienating the population he is trying win over and knocking the legs out from under coalition counterinsurgency efforts.
The U.S. forces operating before in this valley offered a blunt assessment of the threat for Hogan and his forces.
"You don't come into the valley without fighting your way out," he said.
But the troops have been there a month now, and so far there have been no attacks. Hogan and the soldiers in his command are hopeful that the increased troop strength may have staved off some attacks. And they are pushing hard to establish roots in the communities so that when the enemy fighters return, they find themselves without the support they enjoyed in previous years.
Still, only time will tell -- as the days warm and snow melts on the surrounding hills, and enemy fighters begin to move through the passes -- whether Hogan can place stock in the fruits of this different fight.
The young infantry officer, who seven years ago would have been spending his days here engaged much differently, is now not itching for that kind of a fight.
"If we can come here and improve this valley and walk away without firing a shot, the closer the war is to being over," Hogan said.