War on Terrorism

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Iowa National Guardmembers help protect Afghanistan border

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - The scene at Torkham Gate in eastern Afghanistan the morning of March 7 was comparable to that of a city at rush hour in the United States.

Dozens of small cars were intermixed in a long line of heavily-decorated, colorful jingle trucks that stretched about a mile from the zero line (border between Afghanistan and Pakistan).

In the middle of the traffic, a few Soldiers from the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls, were there. The Soldiers, from Company B, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, were helping keep order at the gate by assisting the Afghan Border Police, Afghan Customs Police and the National Directorate of Safety.

Though the infantry Soldiers may not be participating in the ground-pounding, door-kicking missions they had envisioned for the deployment, they appreciate the mission.

"I enjoy working with the Afghan forces," said Army Sgt. Casey Ketelson, an infantry team leader.

He said by working closely with NDS, the Afghan intelligence force, Soldiers can use the information they collect to catch insurgent traffickers and other wanted persons should they try to sneak through. The Afghan agencies help the Soldiers identify certain types of vehicles and people who could be harboring illegal or dangerous items.

About 10,000 people and between 1,000 to 2,000 vehicles cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan daily at Torkham Gate. Everything from trucks loaded with hundreds of chickens, to people carrying dead relatives who wanted to be buried on the other side of the border, travel through the gate.

The Soldiers help manage the traffic by assisting in various capacities at the gate from security over watch to biometrics collection to vehicle security.

Soldiers help their Afghan counterparts direct vehicles through the checkpoint and randomly select vehicles to be searched to ensure they are not carrying contraband or other dangerous materials into the country.

In addition to watching vehicles, Soldiers watch the pedestrians and ensure they don't interfere with traffic by walking into it.

"We try to get pedestrians out of the vehicle routes, or else they plug up traffic and we can't get much accomplished," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Boge, an infantry squad leader and the day's sergeant of the guard.

Soldiers working with ABP also monitor the pedestrian walkway, from both overhead observation posts afoot.

Army Spc. Chris Linssen, an infantryman, said Soldiers provided extra security by having an overhead vantage point.

"We'll watch the [pedestrians] coming in for anything that stands out or doesn't look right," Linssen said.

In addition to physical security, Soldiers collect biometric information on people transiting the border.

"This is the only job I've ever done here," Army Spc. Nathan Valentine, the company's resident expert on collecting biometric information . "Other platoons may enter a higher number of people into the system, but we're more selective about the types of people we enter."

He said the Soldiers work closely with their Afghan counterparts when choosing individuals to enter into the system.

To aid in security, the Afghan government is implementing a national identification card and fingerprinting system, which is also being conducted at the gate.

Some Soldiers said their biggest obstacle is dealing with the monotony of the job. After a week at the gate they switch to another duty for a week, such as forward operating base defense.

"We try to rotate the Soldiers out between stations to keep them fresh," Ketelson said.

Linssen said people from many countries, not just Afghanistan and Pakistan, cross the gate with a variety of items. He said the line begins forming before the gate is open.

"At there will be people crowding on the Pakistan side of the border like they're waiting in line at Walmart on Black Friday," Linssen said.

Soldiers have found items on people entering the gate such as hashish, also known as hash, improperly packaged food goods or items that people haven't paid taxes on. When items like those are found, the ACP seizes them.

Soldiers are aware they are not able to catch everything that comes through the gate. After all, the gate is not the only way to enter the country, but is the most convenient. However, some Soldiers said they do know every piece of contraband or person they do get could potentially mean a life saved somewhere in the country.

Besides the reward of helping to secure the gate, the Soldiers said there are other perks to working at Torkham Gate. For Army Spc. Michael Stuart, an infantryman, it is getting to sample some of the Afghan food sold by the many vendors in the area.

"This is definitely a perk," said Stuart as he loaded his lunch plate with some lamb, rice and a piece of pan bread. "The food is great here."

No comments: