101st Troopers Help Safeguard Paktika Province

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan, April 29, 2011 — The U.S. Army brigade respon­si­ble for secu­ri­ty oper­a­tions in Pak­ti­ka province, Afghanistan, was faced on arrival with an ene­my that felt at home, the unit’s oper­a­tions offi­cer said.
Before the 4th Brigade Com­bat Team, 101st Air­borne Divi­sion arrived here last sum­mer as part of the troop surge, there had been few coali­tion forces in Pak­ti­ka province, said Army Maj. Rob Born.

Forward Operating Base Sharana
Army Maj. Rob Born, oper­a­tions offi­cer for 4th Brigade Com­bat Team, 101st Air­borne Divi­sion, dis­cuss­es brigade oper­a­tions in Pak­ti­ka province, Afghanistan, from his office at brigade head­quar­ters at For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Sha­rana.
DOD pho­to by Karen Par­rish
Click to enlarge

“This is the most com­bat pow­er that’s been in the province prob­a­bly since the Sovi­ets were here,” Born said. “And as a result, I think the insur­gents and the Tal­iban and the Haqqani net­work took it for grant­ed.”

Before the arrival of U.S. troops, he said, those insur­gent groups could eas­i­ly move large num­bers of men, weapons and equip­ment through Pak­ti­ka province. Ene­my forces had built up a com­mand-and-con­trol pres­ence that estab­lished “sub-com­man­ders” in areas through­out Pak­ti­ka who act­ed some­what like mafia dons or war­lords, the major said.

Pak­ti­ka province, Born said, is rough­ly the size of the state of Con­necti­cut and shares more than 200 miles of bor­der with Pak­istan. Pak­ti­ka province, he added, is a major tran­si­tion zone for ene­my forces tran­sit­ing from Pak­istan into oth­er parts of Afghanistan, along High­way 1 from Kab­ul down to Kan­da­har. Yet, there also are local insur­gent threats, Born said.

“We talk about the threat being from Pak­istan, but it’s not exclu­sive­ly from Pak­istan,” he said. “You have these sub-com­man­ders that reside in Pak­ti­ka province, and they are respon­si­ble … for every­thing [insur­gency-relat­ed] that hap­pens in their area.”

The insur­gents con­duct direct attacks, indi­rect attacks with rock­ets and mor­tars, road­side bombs, and intim­i­da­tion and extor­tion of the locals, Born said. “They are full-spec­trum oper­a­tors,” he said of the insur­gents. “So … the threat is fight­ers com­ing in from Pak­istan, as well as those sub-com­man­ders who are respon­si­ble for mov­ing them around.”

The insur­gent forces can be extreme­ly lethal, Born said, such as last week when the brigade went after ene­my com­bat­ants who demon­strat­ed they were will­ing to put up a fierce fight rather than being cap­tured.

Pak­ti­ka province fea­tures moun­tain­ous ter­rain along the bor­der with Pak­istan, said Born, not­ing the province also con­tains sev­er­al riv­er val­leys that because of defor­esta­tion are vul­ner­a­ble to sea­son­al flood­ing.

Born said the ter­rain is a chal­lenge, both from a com­mand-and-con­trol per­spec­tive and a logis­tics per­spec­tive. He not­ed the most effi­cient way to sup­ply the brigade’s units is by air.

“Also, the ter­rain phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rates the local peo­ple from gov­er­nance,” he said. “The road struc­ture and the infra­struc­ture are just not very devel­oped. As a result, locals will take the path of least resis­tance -– and in many cas­es, in the east­ern part of the province, that is toward Pak­istan.”

Part of the brigade’s role in NATO’s strat­e­gy for Afghanistan is to encour­age east­ern Pak­ti­ka res­i­dents to look to the Kab­ul gov­ern­ment for their gov­er­nance, eco­nom­ic and life sup­port needs, Born said.

“One of our key devel­op­men­tal projects is the roads,” he said. “The roads are crit­i­cal. You know they’re crit­i­cal because the ene­my will fight us for the roads, par­tic­u­lar­ly the key inter­sec­tions near pop­u­lat­ed areas. They need the roads as much as we do.”

Con­trol of the roads gives ene­my forces access to trans­porta­tion, resup­ply, recruit­ing and oppor­tu­ni­ties for extor­tion, Born said. “One of the things we have found after being here for nine months,” he said, “is we have a shared under­stand­ing with the ene­my of what’s impor­tant, and that helps us tar­get them.” Anoth­er chal­lenge, Born said, is the Afghan pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in east­ern Pak­ti­ka where trib­al affil­i­a­tions are very strong and the reach of gov­ern­ment is weak after 30 years of civ­il war.

“Peo­ple want sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty,” he explained. “When the trib­al sys­tem pro­vides that, you will grav­i­tate toward it … ver­sus a gov­ern­ment that has been some­what effec­tive, or inef­fec­tive, over the last 30 years.”

Born’s brigade is work­ing with local Afghans to try to incor­po­rate the pos­i­tive aspects of the trib­al sys­tem, such as the vil­lage shuras or coun­cils, into local gov­ern­ment oper­a­tions.

“That’s an ini­tia­tive we’re start­ing to see some suc­cess with,” he said. The brigade is strongest in its key ter­rain dis­tricts, Born said. One such dis­trict sur­rounds FOB Sha­rana, where the brigade is head­quar­tered: the Sha­ran dis­trict, the provin­cial cap­i­tal, a main pop­u­la­tion cen­ter, and a strong eco­nom­ic base with sev­er­al devel­op­ment projects under­way.

Anoth­er key area is the Orgun dis­trict, Born said, sec­ond to Sha­ran in pop­u­la­tion and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. “You have a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Tajik trib­al net­work, and they are tra­di­tion­al­ly mer­chants and traders,” he said. “They want a thriv­ing econ­o­my, and they do a good job of ensur­ing it by work­ing with the gov­ern­ment and [Afghan secu­ri­ty forces] to iden­ti­fy threats and share infor­ma­tion that real­ly helps us keep it secure.”

The least secure regions in the province include the south­west­ern Kusha­mond dis­trict, which Born said is influ­enced by ene­my forces that oper­ate “between the seams” of two brigade com­bat teams’ areas of respon­si­bil­i­ty.

In east­ern Pak­ti­ka, Born explained, the least secure areas include the Bermel dis­trict along the Pak­istan bor­der, where “lots of indi­rect fire, lots of rock­et teams come across.” The Gayan dis­trict, also in east­ern Pak­ti­ka, is anoth­er area of insta­bil­i­ty, Born said, not­ing there is a three-way bound­ary where Gayan dis­trict, Pak­istan and Spera dis­trict in Khost Province inter­sect.

“This has been an area with a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of lethal engage­ments and fire­fights,” he said.

Insta­bil­i­ty in these areas large­ly comes from insur­gents wish­ing to pro­tect routes from Pak­istan or gain access to roads in Afghanistan, he said. Mea­sures of the 4th Brigade’s effec­tive­ness dur­ing its cur­rent deploy­ment in Pak­ti­ka province are encour­ag­ing, Born said. His troops, he said, have elim­i­nat­ed many insur­gent sanc­tu­ar­ies. And though “sig­nif­i­cant” ene­my actions have occurred, he added, they’ve most­ly been focused near the bor­der with Pak­istan.

“It’s an extreme­ly lethal fight; it’s a high-risk and high-threat fight,” Born said, “but when we are mak­ing con­tact with the ene­my near the bor­der … they are hav­ing to com­mit a lot of resources to fight­ing us on the bor­der, and those resources can’t get fur­ther in.”

Born said his unit has increased inter­dic­tion oper­a­tions involv­ing the delay, dis­rup­tion or destruc­tion of ene­my forces and sup­plies locat­ed near the bor­der.

Anoth­er key task is pro­tect­ing the pop­u­la­tion, Born said, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the province’s key dis­tricts. Over­all attacks against the Afghan pop­u­la­tion are down, he said. Born high­light­ed the suc­cess of a pro­gram, which in coor­di­na­tion with dis­trict, provin­cial and cen­tral Afghan gov­ern­ments, trains and accred­its local vil­lagers to defend their home­towns.

“The num­ber of Afghan local police loca­tions [in Pak­ti­ka province] right now is at four, and it’s increas­ing,” he said. The program’s suc­cess, he said, indi­cates that local Afghans want to pro­tect them­selves and keep the insur­gents out, and that they’re con­fi­dent that U.S. and Afghan forces will come to their aid, if need­ed.

The brigade’s objec­tives for the remain­ing few months of its deploy­ment include con­tin­u­ing to train Afghan part­ner forces in route clear­ance tech­niques, effec­tive use of artillery, and sus­tain­ment tasks such as weapons and equip­ment main­te­nance, Born said.

Anoth­er objec­tive is to elim­i­nate more ene­my sanc­tu­ar­ies near the bor­der, Born said.

“There are some focused bor­der inter­dic­tion oper­a­tions that we want to do,” he said. “We also want to con­tin­ue to pro­tect the pop­u­la­tion, and retain some key ter­rain areas by push­ing [Afghan forces] into some areas where they haven’t had a per­sis­tent pres­ence.”

Mean­while, Born said his brigade is “very close to neu­tral­iz­ing a key insur­gent net­work” that oper­ates in his area.

“I’d say there are three or four more bad guys,” he said, “that if we can get [them], they are real­ly going to have a tough time achiev­ing their past lev­els of com­pe­tence and capa­bil­i­ty.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low GlobalDefence.net on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter