By Army Sgt. Stephen Decatur
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 3, 2009 - Afghan soldiers in armored Humvees led a combined convoy of Afghans and Americans down Highway 1. As dawn broke, they passed an Afghan National Police checkpoint and dismounted by an Afghan army combat outpost. Their objective was Shah Hasan Kheyl, a village about a half mile off the road. Starting in August, small, embedded training teams dispersed throughout Afghanistan started getting replaced with combat units from the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team to serve as combat advisors. The battalion-sized operation involved several companies of the Afghan National Army, their combat advisors, the Afghan National Police, and a company from the 2nd Infantry Division's 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
It was the first large-scale mission conducted by the Afghan soldiers in conjunction with their new combat advisors, and was aimed at increasing Afghan army presence in the village and surrounding communities in Zabul province.
As the soldiers made the uphill journey to the village, they spread out across multiple avenues of approach up terraces and into orchards. Green grass and trees by the Tarnak River made the area look like a completely different country from the broad desert they just came from.
People waking up for their morning chores stopped and watched the group coming. Inside the village, Afghan soldiers knocked on doors, searched houses and interviewed the inhabitants.
U.S. combat advisors watched and observed their techniques. The people told the Afghan soldiers that the Taliban come in the evening and take their food and water. One boy came to a U.S paratrooper and told him in English that the Taliban beat him for going to school.
After searching outside the village, the paratroopers found fresh camp sites in nearby orchards.
The district chief arrived in the middle of the operation driving a sedan and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle. Shortly afterward, he and the executive officer for the Afghan 3rd Kandak, Maj. Mohammed Ahmin, gathered all the military-aged men in the village to hold a shura, or traditional meeting.
"This is a major opportunity for the [Afghan army] to get and prove what they can do," said Army Capt. Jacob White, commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th BCT. "It's also a chance to see where we're at and assess what we can improve."
Prior to the operation, the paratroopers were conducting patrols day and night with the Afghan soldiers in the district, and trained with them on tasks ranging from weapons skills to first aid and equipment maintenance. Part of the reason for conducting combined operations is to instill confidence in Afghan soldiers, said Army Lt. Col. David Oclander, commander of the regiment.
While on patrol with Americans, the Afghans have access to medical evacuation helicopters and heavier fire support.
Najibullah, a 3rd Kandak soldier who has been at his unit for about a year, said he has participated in numerous patrols and missions alongside Americans.
"I've done more than 100," he said. "Who can count? If they're with us, we can get a medevac. If not, there's no medevac. I feel safer because they're with us."
Daily marksmanship practice also is one of Oclander's priorities for the ANA, he said.
"When they hit what they aim at, it'll send a message that they are capable of fighting on their own. It'll also send a message to the Taliban that not only can they not stand up to the Americans, they can't stand up to the [Afghan army], either," he said.
One of the biggest confidence boosting measures taken in the past year was to equip Afghan soldiers with armored Humvees and weapons like the M16 rifle and M249 squad automatic weapon. Having the same equipment not only makes the Afghans easier to train, it also brings them closer to their American allies by leveling the playing field, Oclander said.
Transitioning from the routine mission of controlling battle space and pursuing the Taliban to training and assisting the Afghan security forces was not a difficult switch, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lindsay, a platoon sergeant with A Company.
"This mission isn't any different from what we do every day," Lindsay said. "A squad leader's job is to teach soldiers. A platoon sergeant's job is to teach squad leaders."
The only difference, Lindsay said, is that not only is he responsible for a 30-man platoon, he also is responsible for advising a 200-man company. But one thing Lindsay doesn't have to teach his Afghan counterparts is how to fight, he said.
"They're very proficient at their weapons and at their combat skills," Lindsay, said. "They're good warriors and fighters. A guy that comes in the army here and shows up at his unit is already at war. We talk about multiple deployments; there are soldiers who have been in this province for six years"
"They're fairly proficient as it is." White said. "Right now we're working more on planning and logistics."
Many of the issues facing the Afghan troops are supply-related, Oclander said. Lack of winter clothing and other necessities is extremely detrimental to the well-being and morale of many Afghan units, he said.
"Their greatest challenge is logistics," he said. "If they don't have the supplies they need, they'll lose the confidence to sustain the fight and take the fight to the enemy."
The combat advisors often must take a hands-off approach to resolving problems such as supply, because their ultimate goal is to make the Afghan army capable of accomplishing the mission on its own.
"Before, if something was wrong, it often got fixed for them," Lindsay said. "We want them to fix it themselves."
White, who also served as a combat advisor for the Iraqi army, said he sees a lot of potential in the Afghan soldiers.
"These guys are head and shoulders above the Iraqi army when I worked with them," White said. "We've got the opportunity to sow the seeds for future success here. We can go out and play and kill the Taliban, but if we don't build the local security forces, they'll just get replaced."
"It's rewarding seeing the Afghans learning," Lindsay said. "They want to go out and do better. They want to help their country. Ultimately, I hope the reward is that in three or four years we will not have to be here, or that my 12-year-old son won't have to come here 10 years from now."
(Army Sgt. Stephen Decatur serves with the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)