By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
April 23, 2009 - Nothing illustrates the difficulties of combat in Afghanistan's Regional Command East like this base on the Gardez-Khowst road. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the base yesterday to hear from the soldiers on the ground what life is like in Afghanistan. He flew from Kabul to Forward Operating Base Airborne, and then to this combat outpost.
Mullen met with leaders and servicemembers who explained their duties and talked about the challenges they face. The area is "geographically challenging," said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander for operations of Combined Joint Task Force 101. The camp guards what will become a macadamized road. The right of way is marked, and construction equipment soon will move in. The outpost is more than 8,000 feet above sea level, and lowlanders can feel the lack of oxygen.
Mountains surround the camp, and the soldiers of the reconnaissance troop of the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team work with Afghan soldiers to ensure the safety of local people who are building the road.
Roads are important in Afghanistan – and almost nonexistent. One soldier spoke of driving along what he thought was a road, but it turned out to be a dry streambed.
Because roads represent the good intentions of government, they have become a way for federal and provincial officials to show they are trying to improve the lives of average Afghans. But roads also become targets that the Taliban and other enemy groups attack, Milley said.
Without roads, goods cannot get to market, medical care is limited, and tribes and families become isolated. U.S. and Afghan soldiers provide security so progress can continue. The Taliban and their allies kill innocent people and intimidate road crews as a last-gasp measure to show the government is ineffective, Milley said. "They will not be successful," he added.
Follow-through is almost a mantra to the general, who said finishing the road will demonstrate the government's commitment to the tribes and families. American and Afghan troops being in the area also represent commitment and follow-through to the people, he noted.
Regional Command East has twice the number of combat brigades that it had this time last year. All are in tough battle spaces, Milley said. In the north, the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team operates in the Hindu Kush mountains, which top 16,000 feet in some places.
"It is some of the toughest infantry fighting country in the world, and those soldiers are doing a great job in a very tough fight," Milley said.
An enhanced brigade out of Fort Polk, La., operates with a French battalion in Parawan province; and a Polish brigade operates in Ghazni province.
The 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team is the newest brigade in the area, brings about 3,500 additional soldiers into the region south of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Operating in the southern portion of Regional Command East is the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team out of Alaska. In addition, Regional Command East has an aviation brigade, engineers and logisticians, as well as the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and medical facilities needed to maintain the force in the field.
Essentially, five brigades are responsible for security in an area about the size of North and South Carolina, Milley said. The enemy is as varied as the topography.
Terror groups in the region are fractious, with no single unifying philosophy or goal, the general said. "They are murderous groups who want nothing but power for themselves," he said. "They have no vision for the future, and the Afghan people understand this. Still, they intimidate the population and think nothing of killing innocent men, women and children to further their sick ambitions."
Westerners talk about the Taliban, but the enemies are varied, though their tactics are similar. The Hakkani network, an extremist group led by Hekmatyar Gulbaddin, Taliban groups dedicated to the overthrow of the Pakistani government, and local groups that simply want power all are part of the mix. "They distrust each other, but can sometimes come together with commonality of purpose," Milley said.
The general said he does not like to attach a number to the enemy presence, but when pressed, he said the various groups have between 7,000 and 11,000 combatants. But then, he added, the discussion becomes "Who is a combatant? Is an Afghan who joins a raid to feed his family because there is no work in his village a combatant or just someone being used?"
Separating the enemy from the people is the key to winning in Afghanistan, Milley said, and the enemy has four options. "They can fight and die, they can surrender, they can throw their weapons away and run or they can reconcile," he said.
The American effort in the nation is built around classic counterinsurgency strategy. U.S. forces aim to provide security for the people. Once they establish security, they need to hold the area to prevent the enemy from moving back in. There must be development to provide jobs and opportunities for the people.
Building governance at local, provincial and federal levels is vital. "The people must see the government as a benefit to them," Milley said. "They must turn to the government for help, rather than the enemy."
But the most important portion of the counterinsurgency strategy is training Afghans to take on the security challenge. "The best counterinsurgency fighter is an indigenous fighter," Milley said. "If a stranger comes into a village, a local Afghan will notice in ways that we can't. They'll know if the man is trouble or not. Security forces must be the face of the government. If so, people will turn to them."
The Afghan National Army is the most respected institution in the country, Milley said. "The Afghan soldiers can whip the enemy's butt every time," he said. But there are not enough of them, with 82,000 in the service.
"The Afghan army must be a bigger factor," the general said. In Regional Command East, two Afghan army corps work with Combined Joint Task Force 101. More kandaks – Afghan battalions – are scheduled to join the fight in the region.
Ultimately, part of the solution in the country is a professional police force. Training the Afghan police has been a problem, but it is proceeding, Milley said. Police live among the people, he explained, and are best suited to understand local concerns and -- more importantly -- to know those in the area who cause trouble.
Afghanistan's border with Pakistan runs 450 miles down the eastern portion of Regional Command East's area. It has a mountainous terrain, and the people of the border area have tribal and family ties on both sides. At least 2,000 footpaths run across the border in the Regional Command East area alone, Milley said, and another 200 paths can handle at least burros.
The Afghan Border Police have been receiving training and equipment. They are becoming more effective, the general said, but more needs to happen.
On the Pakistan side of the border, the Frontier Corps has made strides in combating Taliban fighters who use the region as a safe haven. "What has to happen now is coordinating our operations," Milley said. U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials sit down regularly to talk about common challenges. At the tactical level, U.S., Afghan and Pakistani units are allowed to contact each other, and they do, the general said.
But Pakistan remains a problem. Taliban fighters continue to take refuge in the country, and while the Frontier Corps is effective in Baijur, they are not operating in other areas. "This is going to require a concerted effort," Milley said.
Combined Joint Task Force 101 will turn over command of the region to a headquarters built around the 82nd Airborne Division later this summer.