By Army Spc. Elisebet Freeburg
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 7, 2009 - Soldiers of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, at Forward Operating Base Baylough have one mission: to disrupt the enemy. Baylough lies 7,500 feet above sea level in a valley below the Hindu Kush Mountains in the Deh Chopan district of Afghanistan's Zabul province. The soldiers conduct most patrols on foot due to the rocky terrain.
Although they conduct offensive operations based on intelligence reports, soldiers accomplish most of their counterinsurgency mission daily by engaging key local leaders. The soldiers rotate, so each squad patrols every three days.
"We're trying to build trust with [local leaders]," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Carney, a platoon sergeant from Norwood, Mass. "Give us information where the bad guys are, and we'll go fix them for you so they won't be a problem."
Patrol leaders speak with village elders, seeking information about insurgents hiding in surrounding mountains or recent insurgent activity. With Afghanistan's presidential election scheduled for Aug. 20, soldiers commonly ask villagers if they plan on voting, or if they are registered to vote.
"The Taliban [are] as much as a danger to them as they are to us," said Army Pfc. Wesley R. Gatewood, an infantryman from Oak Hills, Calif.
Local leaders often tell soldiers what their village needs, and the troops assist when possible. The regiment's soldiers have built bridges and are planning a community center and a school. They also assist with health care. A medic accompanies each patrol and evaluates and treats the ill or injured.
The soldiers also update their biometric database by collecting fingerprint and retinal scans using handheld interagency identity detection equipment.
During their patrols, the soldiers keep security at the forefront. "We look for something that doesn't look right," said Army Sgt. Christian Cisenero, a team leader from San Diego. "If they are nervous, trying to walk away from us, or trying not to make eye contact, usually that is a big clue."
Soldiers on a July 26 patrol collected fragments from a suspected insurgent-fired rocket. Soldiers send evidence they find on patrols to a counter-improvised explosive device team here for analysis.
Foreign insurgent fighters from China, Chechnya and Uzbekistan travel on horseback through the Hindu Kush Mountains, said Army Staff Sgt. Azhar M. Sher, a squad leader from Baltimore. Soldiers investigate horses and riders they encounter while on patrol, and also examine motorcycles, which insurgents commonly use for travel.
"Nine out of 10 times, our gut feeling is right," Sher said. "We've been to these towns so many times we are able to tell when someone or something isn't right."
To establish trust and communication with Afghans, Afghan soldiers and police officers often patrol with U.S. soldiers. Although Afghan soldiers are relatively new to the area, the police officers have been present for five years and are knowledgeable about the area and operations, Carney said.
"[Afghan soldiers and police officers] will do any mission we ask them to do," Carney said. "And we will do it side by side."
Patrols can be dangerous, with soldiers susceptible to injuries from the rough terrain or heat, as well as to enemy attacks from ambushes, snipers and homemade bombs. Medics are trained to assess and assist casualties, and to call for medical evacuation if necessary.
Patrols can extend for more than four miles, and each soldier carries about 60 pounds of equipment through orchards, fields, mountainous terrain and waterways. Soldiers pack enough gear and supplies to last 48 hours in case they are delayed by enemy contact. If soldiers encounter a bomb while on patrol, they must wait until an explosive ordnance disposal team arrives to safely destroy or disable the device. As a result, patrols may take as anywhere from three hours to two days, Gatewood noted. But the benefits outweigh the potential risks, he said.
"I think [patrols] help Operation Enduring Freedom, because it's all about stabilization for Afghanistan, and that's what we try to bring," he said.
(Army Spc. Elisebet Freeburg serves in the Joint Sustainment Command Afghanistan public affairs office.)