PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The two tan-painted U.S. Army CH-47F Chinook helicopters broke away from each other at the last moment and headed for neighboring mountaintops in this rugged province bordering Pakistan. They flared as they landed and dropped their ramps. From each raced a platoon of heavily-armed paratroopers from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, plus a squad of Afghan National Army soldiers.
The combined U.S.-Afghan air assault on April 4 was an opening move for the NATO International Security Assistance Force’s spring counter-offensive, meant to blunt the seasonal surge of Taliban and other extremist forces from their winter bases in Pakistan.
The mission was also an early trial run for a brand-new ANA battalion that had completed basic training in Kabul only weeks before. The Afghan soldiers were “very green … a little scared,” according to Captain Chris Tanner, Fox Company commander. Tanner said he hoped the air assault mission would help Fox Company identify the “studs” among the new ANA troopers, so these more-capable soldiers could be given leadership duties.
ISAF border operations have actually intensified since U.S. President Barack Obama announced in 2009 he was sending 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan. But the long-term strategy remains a complete handover of Afghanistan security to Afghan forces. In Paktika, one of the country’s most violent provinces, that handover depends on some very inexperienced Afghan troops quickly gaining the competence and confidence necessary to fully replace units such as Fox Company.
Colonel Sean Jenkins, Fox Company’s brigade commander, insisted the Afghan National Security Forces in Paktika — including an army brigade, three border-patrol battalions and several hundred national and local police — are “good and getting better.”
But 1st Lt. Sean McCune, from Fox Company, was more sanguine about his attached ANA. On a series of missions in April to search khalats — walled residential compounds — in the towns of Margah and Baqer Kheyl, McCune’s 2nd Platoon pushed its accompanying ANA squad to the front. The aim was twofold: to force the ANA to take the initiative entering, clearing and searching the khalats, and to put an Afghan face on the operation for the Afghans whose homes were being violated.
The ANA required a lot of coaxing. They hesitated outside the khalats’ gates; once inside, they neglected to post guards on the compound walls. After the combined U.S.-Afghan patrol came under attack by Taliban fighters on April 8, McCune lost patience with his Afghan troopers. “Forget the ANA,” he told Sergeant Kevin Mahon. He wanted the Americans to take the lead on the next search. That would mean a faster, smoother operation with a better chance of catching Taliban sympathizers before they could hide their weapons.
“They don’t know some basic things,” McCune said later, citing “operational security” as another example. “They don’t know they can’t just walk around talking on their cell phones,” he said. “They don’t know they can’t go down to the bazaar and tell everyone what we’re doing.” McCune also said the ANA habitually abandoned their posts in the guard towers protecting Fox Company’s outpost.
On a foggy April 11 morning, McCune planned some remedial training for his Afghan soldiers. He also asked his commander to speak to the Afghan commander about the Afghan troops’ behavior. McCune agreed the training task wasn’t glamorous. “But it’s very important,” he said.
“It is going to be a very capable army,” Jenkins said of the ANSF, carefully using the future tense. He listed recent accomplishments of Afghan forces in Paktika. One ANA battalion discovered a cache of insurgent weaponry all on its own. An ANA battalion equipped with D-30 artillery was completing its training and would be ready for operations by June. The national police were being reinforced with 400 neighborhood cops from the new Afghan Local Police program, plus additional militia-style fighters from the so-called “Community-Based Security” initiative.
For ISAF, success in Paktika means answering one, two-part question, Jenkins said. “When we leave here, have we improved the ANSF? Have we improved [the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan]?” A better question might be: has ISAF improved the local ANSF to the point where it can fully take over from NATO troops in patrolling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border?
If Fox Company and the other ISAF units in Paktika left tomorrow, the answer would be, “No.” McCune said his immediate goal was to find the best dozen or so soldiers in Fox Company’s attached ANA unit and form what he called a “super-squad” composed of those previously-mentioned “studs” — and capable of accompanying the Americans on patrol without slowing them down. The rest of the Afghan troop would be assigned guard duty, McCune said.