USA/Afghanistan — Opposing Force Puts Deploying Troops to Test

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.

Joint Readiness Training Center's 1st Battalion, 509th Infantry
Army Spc. Kevin Pem­ber­ton, a mem­ber of the Joint Readi­ness Train­ing Center’s 1st Bat­tal­ion, 509th Infantry “Geron­i­mo” Reg­i­ment, arrives at a May 20 train­ing sce­nario wear­ing a sui­cide vest rigged with five bricks of C4 explo­sives beneath his Afghan robe. As a mem­ber of the center’s oppos­ing force, Pem­ber­ton and his fel­low sol­diers at Fort Polk, La., repli­cate the insur­gent tac­tics deploy­ing troops will encounter in Afghanistan.
DoD pho­to by Don­na Miles
Click to enlarge

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)