FORT POLK, La., May 27, 2010 — For the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, Army Spc. Kevin Pemberton is the bane of their existence.
He’s the face of the insurgency they will face when they deploy to Afghanistan this summer – an ever-adapting enemy that seemingly will stop at nothing to kill coalition and Afghan troops, instill fear in the population and, ultimately, derail Afghan progress.
Pemberton has spent the past 15 months as a member of the Joint Readiness Training Center’s permanent opposing force here. The 1st Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, lurks in the shadows throughout every training rotation.
Its members, referred to as “Geronimo” or simply “G-Men,” plant mock improvised explosive devices throughout the miles of dusty roadways that cut through the center’s pine forests. They rig vehicles with explosives designed to create mayhem. They set up ambushes and launch small-arms and rocket-propelled-grenade attacks against coalition and Afghan forces. And they blend inconspicuously among the Afghan population the security forces are working to protect, portrayed by role players dressed in authentic Afghan clothing.
Pemberton, in his mid-20s, grew a heavy beard and mustache to keep rotational training units like the 4th BCT “Currahee” from easily identifying him as a soldier. He dresses in a traditional dishdasha robe and turban.
The only thing that differentiates his appearance from the typical Afghan is the reddish cast to his hair and the laser gear he and the other players in the maneuver box wear to add realism to the training by detecting when the wearer has been wounded or killed.
Like most of the Geronimo force, Pemberton has been deployed to Afghanistan and has witnessed insurgent tactics up close and personal. He incorporates his own experiences from the 15 months he spent in northern Afghanistan’s Kunar province with regular updates his battalion gets to keep the opposing force current in ever-evolving insurgent tactics. He also keeps close tabs with his buddies in the combat theater, to hear directly from them what the enemy is up to.
“We know what they are doing over there,” he said, citing his most recent report from the theater, of a female insurgent who launched an RPG from a motorcycle in Wardak province. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to start attacking from motorcycles here,” he said. “But our goal is to replicate what is happening there the best we can, and to make it as realistic and challenging as possible for the [rotational training units].
Pemberton enjoys the authority driven down to more junior levels within the opposing force here. There’s less free play now than during past training rotations that focused on the Iraq theater, but he takes pride in personalizing his role in the bigger ambushes and more complex operations the opposing force now conducts. “I try to take what’s going on in Afghanistan and put a little of my own signature on it,” he said.
Last week, Pemberton played the role of a suicide bomber intent on disrupting the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a municipal building in the fictional Afghan village of Sangari. He arrived at the village – one of 22 mock Afghan villages dotting the training center’s 200,000 acres – hours before the ceremony, slipping in before the 4th Brigade Combat Team and its Afghan counterparts had set up a security perimeter.
Beneath his flowing robe, he concealed a suicide vest rigged with five bricks of C4 explosives. Tucked in his pocket, along with the detonator, was an Afghan citizenship card identifying him as Zabidullah Nafi’e Hamet Mahsud.
“My name changes every day,” Pemberton said. “Sometimes I have to look at the card to remember who I am.”
Pemberton moved comfortably around Sangari, mingling among the villagers. If questioned by security forces, he was ready to pass himself off as a wheat farmer, traveling with his wife. He’d come to Sangari alone, but felt sure he could pull a woman from the village if necessary to support his ruse.
“Once, I was interrogated for an hour and a half, and I was able to spin out one lie after another,” he said. Ultimately, the unit that had detained him released him for insufficient evidence. But during last week’s mission, Pemberton had no intention of being detained. His plan was to wait until the ribbon-cutting ceremony concluded and the crowd started to disperse, then to detonate.
If necessary, he’d detonate sooner. But by waiting as long as possible to detonate would reduce civilian casualties, he explained, and more importantly, serve as the ultimate counterpoint to any message of assurance offered during the ceremony.
In the lead-up to the ceremony, he joined the crowd that gathered in front of the municipal building. He positioned himself along the security line, directly behind Darrell Thrasher, a role player depicting an Afghan police officer.
Pemberton successfully carried out his plan, storming the municipal center after the ribbon-cutting. The detonation occurred as Afghan soldiers and police attempted to stop his charge, with an air cluster generating smoke and noise.
Chaos erupted among the crowd, as screaming men and women fled the area. Left lying behind, along with Pemberton, were 12 casualties – six Afghan soldiers, four Afghan police officers and two civilians.
The 4th Brigade “Currahees” scrambled into position as simulated rockets crashed down in the distance and insurgent forces engaged U.S. and Afghan forces manning the control points ringing the village.
Pemberton’s prediction made before the incident had proven accurate. “This town is green right now,” he said, meaning it supports the Afghan national government rather than the insurgency. “But it will go red” – shifting its loyalty to the Taliban — because its people had lost faith in the security provided by the Afghan forces, he said. Such a training scenario “happens every rotation here,” Pemberton said.
Pemberton and his fellow G-Men are committed to helping rotational training units prevent that from happening when they arrive in Afghanistan. “I am not here to win,” he said. “I am here as a training utensil for these guys.”
After more than a year with the opposing force, Pemberton said he has seen the full scope of tactics, with units demonstrating the full spectrum of capabilities. “In any big training environment like this, you get the good and the bad,” he said. “You see really good and really bad examples.”
Often, he said, it comes down to remembering the basics: conducting pre-combat inspections, ensuring troops have sufficient water and ammunition and that their weapons are loaded, correctly securing sectors of fire, and setting up tactical checkpoints and searching prisoners of war.
“It comes down to first-line supervisors,” he said. “By the end of their time here, they get the picture.”
The experience here will pay off when the opposing force troops return to regular Army units and ultimately deploy, he said.
“Tactically, if you have half a brain while [participating in the opposing force], you will learn something here,” Pemberton said. “You just can’t do this and not take something valuable away from it.”
(This is the fourth article in a series about how the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., is preparing the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team for its upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)