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    The long road: Uruzgan on the path to stability

    The long road: Uruzgan on the path to stability

    Photo By OR-5 Mark Doran | Chief Warrant Officer 4 Caleb Long points to Staff Sgt. Hobbs's name on the memorial...... read more read more

    TIRINKOT, AFGHANISTAN

    08.12.2013

    Story by Sgt. Jessi McCormick 

    102d Public Affairs Detachment

    The cusp of independence

    TIRINKOT, Afghanistan - Nestled in a valley of the northwest corner of Uruzgan a newly established Afghan National Police checkpoint provides the first line of defense to a district with a troubled history as a Taliban safe haven.

    Shahid-e Hassas is one of the last districts in Uruzgan to be stabilized, but this checkpoint, manned by Afghan police is pushing the insurgency further into the rugged mountains, away from the population. Australian army Col. Simon Stuart, the commander of coalition forces in the province, says the remote district is showing the same early signs of stability that other more populous and now secure regions displayed two years ago.

    “This is a very good development,” Col. Stuart said. “There is a level of control in that part of Shahid-e Hassas where last year there was no government presence at all. Afghan police fought for these positions on the back of our own efforts last fighting season and now they are using the check points to disrupt the insurgents’ ability to reach the district centre.”

    “This is how Chora and Mirabad were secured a couple of years ago,” Col. Stuart said, referring to two central districts in Uruzgan considered local success stories.

    Col. Stuart is in his final days of commanding Combined Team Uruzgan. In his farewells to local leaders, the progress in Shahid-e Hassas has been discussed as an indicator of how far the province has come in the year since he assumed command.

    Shahid-e Hassas’ notoriety stems from its links to the insurgency in northern Helmand. Its valleys and mountains have long been a Taliban passageway in and out of Helmand’s restive Baghran district. By controlling Shahid-e Hassas, the Afghan National Security Forces effectively plug one of the main sources of instability in Uruzgan.

    Effective operations in Uruzgan’s trouble spots are a feature of the ANSF’s first summer fighting season without direct coalition support. The coalition now advises the Afghan leadership and is no longer required to plan or participate in security operations.

    The transition has, as expected, been tough on the Afghan forces. Causality rates are up as they take the fight to the insurgency and the weaning from coalition air support continues to test more complex Afghan war fighting capabilities.

    Col. Stuart says sustainable independence for the ANSF requires an Afghan-first solution.

    “We are committed to strengthening these processes because when they work, confidence is instilled in the Afghan system, which sets them up for success when we leave.”

    Back into Tarin Kot

    An independent and capable Afghan security force is the culmination of ISAF’s mission in Uruzgan.

    Chief Warrant Officer 4 Caleb Long, a 55-year-old three-time veteran of Afghanistan, has returned to Uruzgan province with the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, nine years after first landing there in March 2004. Back then, the Afghan National Army was in its infancy, having only been raised the year before. It took several more years for an Afghan brigade to be deployed to Uruzgan.

    “The unit I was assigned to at the time was F. Battery, 144 Field Artillery Target Acquisition,” Chief Long said. “My section was attached to 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit [MEU] in a counter mortar role.”

    Uruzgan province, the birth place of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the launch pad of Hamid Karzai’s uprising against the Taliban in late 2001, had a coalition presence before the 22nd MEU arrived, but it was mostly special forces who left a light footprint.

    “When I arrived in Tarin Kot there was a bunch of marines living in holes dug into the ground about a hundred yards from where we are now, and a whole lot of triple-strand concertina wire surrounding them. And that was it,” Chief Long said.

    The Marines’ mission in 2004 was to clear the remnants of Taliban from the province so Afghan society could be re-established and the economy could grow again. “1-5 Infantry Battalion did most of the heavy lifting,” Chief Long said. “Their commander was a second generation Pakistani who spoke fluent Pashtu. Last name Khan. Call sign Genghis 6.”

    “He cleared this whole area down to Daychopan, back to Deh Rawud, Shahid-e Hassas, and across to Khas Uruzgan. Then they built two forward operating bases – FOB Anaconda in Khas Uruzgan and FOB Cobra in Shahid-e Hassas – for special forces to operate from.”

    Sitting at Poppies, the well-appointed Australian recreation center on the base in Tarin Kot, Chief Long recalls memories of soldiers and Marines lining up to take their weekly shower with a bucket of water from the local river and of giant Afghan hounds stalking troops by night. He remembers an austere life, far different from what he enjoys in Tarin Kot today.

    “By Christmas we had tents up for people to live in,” Chief Long said. “I remember standing outside of my tent on Christmas night, nine months after we got here and thinking that this is probably not far off what the first Christmas looked like. There was not a single light in town. Just black.”

    What Chief Long could not know when he left Uruzgan in April 2005 was that the situation in Afghanistan was about to slide backwards and the development plans for the province would be contested by an emboldened Taliban gaining ground across the country.

    “When we left it was very quiet, although there were signs of what was to come.”

    Reclaiming lost ground

    By the time Chief Long returned to Afghanistan for his second tour in January 2007, the insurgency had gained momentum and fighting had broken out across the south and east of the country.

    “I came back to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne,” Chief Long said. “We were based in Khost this time. A day after I arrived we engaged close to 100 Haqqani fighters coming across the Pakistan border just to our south. From then on there was fighting every day for the rest of the year.”

    A similar thing was happening in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where several districts descended into lawless chaos. The insurgency swelled as sympathizers who had returned to rural life in 2002 reactivated their dormant networks, isolating many villages from their lifelines in the larger towns.

    Uruzgan too was no longer the quiet place Chief Long had left. By now, Dutch, American and an increasing number of Australian soldiers were working a plan to pacify the mountainous areas that served as facilitation routes for the intense fighting in the neighboring provinces.

    The plan was to steadily expand ISAF’s influence in Uruzgan by establishing a network of forward operating bases and combat outposts throughout the far reaches of the province. Over the next few years – the toughest in the Afghan campaign – ISAF and partnered Afghan forces fought from these bases to secure ground and encourage governance and development.

    The Mirabad Valley, a populous region only ten kilometers from Uruzgan’s center of Tarin Kot, is emblematic of the results yielded by the renewed push. Despite its proximity to Tarin Kot and the adjacent main ISAF base, when Australian forces first established a permanent presence deep in the valley in 2009, it was a hostile zone that offered few signs of support from the local community.

    “They were skeptical of us at best,” said Maj. Shane Nicoll, an Australian involved in the Mirabad push. “We had been there a number of times during the previous years, and in late 2008 we built a base at the start of the valley to conduct clearance operations from, but whenever we left the insurgents would move back in.”

    Like Shahid-e Hassas, the Mirabad Valley was considered a strategic node for the insurgency. Weapons, money and new bomb making technology from Kandahar-based insurgent networks were trafficked north into Uruzgan through an area on the eastern edge of the valley known as Charmeston Three Ways.

    “We needed to shut this facilitation route down,” Maj. Nicoll said.

    The Mirabad operation reflected the counterinsurgency strategy taking effect across the country during the latter part of 2009. The strategy required troops to develop relationships with the population, and to do it side by side with the Afghan National Security Forces.

    “It became clear to us that unless we had that enduring presence, we wouldn’t be able separate the insurgents from the population,” Maj. Nicoll said. “So a platoon rented a house in a local village to live in and to fight from. This was a key moment in our mission as it disrupted the insurgents’ ability to move through the Mirabad green zone and it sent a clear message to the community that we were there to stay.”

    “After that our engagement with the village elders started to take a positive turn.”

    The notoriously fractious society of Uruzgan demanded a deep understanding of how it functioned to ensure the soldiers’ engagements remained on track and not at cross purposes. Fred Smith, an Australian diplomat schooled in such tribal politics, played a key role in managing these relationships.

    “Tribal leaders are important because they are the people who really influence the population at the village level,” Smith said from his armored shipping container that serves as his bedroom on the Tarin Kot base. “If you don’t have their support, the insurgents are free to roam, and we’ve lost the fight.”

    “Our first engagements were furtive. They did not know whether to trust us. They were taking a risk just to engage with us.”

    “We offered them something in the way of development, which the Taliban cannot provide. The Taliban can intimidate them but they cannot offer them anything positive,” Smith said.

    The nature of ISAF’s relationship with the Mirabad elders was more covert prior to the military’s expansion into the valley.

    “These tribal leaders would come into the base in Tarin Kot under the cover of darkness because it was too dangerous during the day to talk to the provincial reconstruction team,” Smith said. “We would provide some funds for a small project like a well, but other than the photos they would later show us, we could not really judge what impact we were having. What these initial engagements did offer was a link, however tenuous, into the Mirabad leadership when we really needed it.”

    Mirabad was not an immediate success. As the struggle for the valley ebbed and flowed over the next year the Australians and their Afghan partners from 4th Brigade 205 Hero Corps saw a lot of combat.

    “The insurgents did not want to give that area up,” Maj. Nicoll said. “The platoon house in the village was being shot at with small arms and rockets nearly every day.”

    But persistence in the strategy worked. By the end of 2011 Mirabad was considered stable, and a year later the last coalition forces retired from the valley completely. Today it is secured by a series of police checkpoints and a battalion of the 4th Brigade that learned to fight in the same valley with their Australian partners.

    A stake in the ground

    Smith, who has returned to Uruzgan to help with the last phase of the mission, recently rekindled relations with some of the Mirabad elders he first met in 2009.

    “It is Ramadan, so we had a dinner to break the fast,” he said. “They were all very happy. They said there was a time three or four years ago when they could only dream of having the services they have now, so that was a very nice thing to hear.”

    Smith spends much of his time these days meeting with local government officials to encourage inclusive policies and accountable practices.

    “In 2001 the provincial government barely existed,” he said. “There are now about 24 directorates of national government each with staffs between ten and 40, meeting every week in administrative building. It looks just like a provincial government; and it is.”

    Yet despite these improvements, Smith notices a cautious undertone in many of the tribal leaders he speaks to.

    “Some wish more had been achieved, some don’t want us to go, and some are more certain than others that it will all hold together in the future,” he said.

    “This is quite natural,” Col. Stuart says, reflecting on the tribal leaders’ concerns. “We are their safety line, and the thought of letting go probably sets their nerves running. But they are ready, and we can’t be here forever.”

    It is the day before Col. Stuart hands over responsibility of the ISAF mission in the province. He is considering the parting message he will deliver to the combined team of Australian and U.S. troops and civilians who will see the mission out.

    “I want everyone who has contributed to the mission here in Uruzgan to know they have made a real difference; to know the people here are grateful; and to know the Afghans have what it takes to continue the job.” Col. Stuart says. “But it is also important to know we are not there yet. Our job will not be finished until the last soldier leaves this province.”

    Asked about the future, Col. Stuart points to a province on the cusp of independence, but of one also steeped in Afghanistan’s bewildering complexity.

    “Compared to what was, the people here are able to get on with their lives secured by an independent Afghan Army and Police, connected to Kabul by a functioning provincial government, and increasingly able to access essential services such as health and education,” Col. Stuart says.

    “They will face more challenges in the future, but this time it will be with enough collective strength to overcome them.”

    Walking down from Poppies to the base memorial, Chief Long points at the third name on a list of over one hundred servicemen who have been killed in action in the province. The memorial, true to its rugged surrounds, consists of three concrete blast walls pushed together, with names etched into their sides.

    “Staff Sgt. Hobbs was killed in an IED strike in the Tangi Valley during my time here in 2004,” Chief Long says. “I have had his memorial bracelet with me ever since then. I have it here with me now, and when I return home, when we hand this base over to the Afghans, I will take it to his folks back home and say we finished the job.”

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 08.12.2013
    Date Posted: 08.14.2013 02:08
    Story ID: 111916
    Location: TIRINKOT, AF 
    Hometown: MEMPHIS, TN, US
    Hometown: VICTORVILLE, CA, US

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