Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Brigade Commanders Provide North Afghanistan Update

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2011 – The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force’s “combined team north” has in the last 11 months transformed conditions for the Afghan people living in the northern part of the country along the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan borders, two U.S. brigade commanders said today.

Army Col. Willard Burleson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, and Army Col. Daniel Williams, commander of the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, briefed Pentagon reporters via video uplink from Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, on current operations in Regional Command North.

“Over this past year, soldiers of this brigade, along with 16 other contributing nations … have expanded the capabilities and improved Afghan security forces through shoulder-to-shoulder partnering, operations and training,” Burleson said. “These efforts have provided increased security in a number of formerly contested areas.”

Burleson said the team’s efforts in training and operating with Afghan forces, capturing and killing insurgents, clearing mines and bombs from roads and completing humanitarian relief projects have given Afghan citizens in the region opportunities and support they had been lacking for years -- from better access to cities and government services to improved schools and new street lights.

The team has established more than 16 joint combat outposts where ISAF and Afghan forces live and work together “on a continuous basis,” he said.

Burleson credited both special operations and aviation forces for much of the region’s turnaround. U.S. special operations troops are “developing and training Afghan local police to reinforce these security gains,” he said.

The aviation brigade saves lives with its medical evacuation flights, transports infantry troops to previously inaccessible areas to fight insurgents and backs those fights with withering firepower, Burleson said.

Elements of the 1st Brigade Combat Team also work with the Afghan Border Police along the Uzbekistan border, he said, noting the Afghans have “greatly improved their ability to not only secure their border but also to establish … an effective border-crossing point along the strategic northern trade route.”

The gains have come at a high cost, Burleson acknowledged: 12 men from his brigade have been killed, and many more have been wounded during the deployment.

“I think what it shows you is the undying commitment that these American soldiers have, while they do operations side by side here with their [Afghan counterparts],” the colonel said.

The Afghans sacrifice as well, he noted.

“The blood of Afghan soldiers and police -- as well as that of German, American, Swedish [and] Norwegian [service members] up here -- is mixed,” he said. “Because these guys fight side by side, and they’re committed to each other.”

Work remains to be done solidifying improvements in the region, Burleson cautioned.

“However, I’m convinced that our Afghan partners, with ISAF assistance, are up to the task,” he said. “Clear progress has been made in security, … [but] momentum must be maintained so that the insurgency isn’t able to find its way back into these cleared areas.”

Williams then briefed reporters on his brigade’s “game-changing” role as the first combat aviation brigade dedicated to the regional commands in the north and west.

Since the brigade deployed from Fort Hood, Texas, in June, it has “indeed made a tremendous difference to the ground commanders, allies, Special Forces and most importantly, to the Afghans and their nation,” Williams said.

The brigade includes two battalions of Apache helicopters, a general support battalion, an assault battalion, an aviation maintenance battalion and an attached National Guard medevac company, he said.

“Our pilots and our soldiers have aggressively [brought] our capabilities to isolated areas and areas of extreme terrain, which previously were controlled by insurgents and simply not reachable,” Williams told reporters.

The brigade’s mission tally includes nearly 40,000 hours of direct combat support to ground forces, 500 medevac flights, and 61,000 passenger movements, including combat troops, he said.

“As U.S. infantry and German forces in the north, and attacking forces in the west, gained ground throughout [the] region this past year, 4th CAB helicopters protected the outposts, resupplied the outposts, and conducted combat operations in support of our ground brothers,” Williams said.

The aviation brigade also has supported Special Forces with daily and nightly “kinetic strikes,” he said, adding that many of those missions also included Afghan forces.

The brigade routinely flies alongside the Afghan air force’s Russian-made MI-17 and MI-35 helicopters, Williams said. “We assist in the training of their crew chiefs, maintenance and medical training,” he added.

The aviation brigade has supported Afghan development, Williams said, “by flying key Afghan government officials throughout [Regional Command North] to conduct on-site visits of minerals, mines and oil reserves, in order to quickly follow gains in security with gains in economic growth.”

The brigade’s helicopters have also served humanitarian needs, airlifting critical supplies to dozens of locations cut off by flood waters and flying tons of firewood and other supplies to mountain villages this winter, he said.

Many of the brigade’s women soldiers “have volunteered to participate in female engagement training with local female leaders and officials,” he added.

“We have enabled the ground commanders of … U.S., allied and Afghan units to conduct combat operations, training, and governance,” Williams said. “We have seen great strides … made this year, and have participated in the long summer, and now winter, offensive.”

The brigade stands ready to “meet the challenges of the spring that we know will come, and we’ll be part of the daily improving Afghan situation,” he said.

Both commanders thanked the American people for all they do for soldiers.

“The support that I’ve seen here, during this deployment, is probably the greatest that I’ve seen in my 22 years in the Army,” Burleson said. “I’d love to thank the local communities, business leaders and individual citizens who offer such great support for our men and women that are over here.”

Williams echoed Burleson’s comments. “I’d like to thank the American people as we approach a decade of war,” he said. “You’re looking at two war veterans, and we command war veterans, and it’s not without your support.”

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