News: Progress in the Pech River Valley
Story by Capt. Jonathan Springer
Many Soldiers within the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment – over 800 strong and a part of the “Bastogne” Brigade, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division – are finding out that this part of Afghanistan is different than other and much more convoluted than Iraq ever was.
The 1-327th, or Task Force Bulldog as they are known, operates in a very complex environment. The Pech River Valley, the Bulldogs current area of operations, is a very rural area in the remote Kunar province of northeastern Afghanistan where the insurgent base remains strong despite the efforts of the Afghan national security forces and coalition forces.
The “Pech” is comprised of about 100,000 people spread across three districts; Chapadara, Manogai, and Watapur. Daily life for the locals revolves around farming, raising livestock, and fighting to stay alive.
“Our daily focus is on combat operations that aim to increase an ever-elusive ‘security’ for the population that farms and lives in this rural area. This means, in basic terms, that we fight – everyday,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Joseph A. Ryan, battalion commander for the 1-327th IR from Fort Campbell, Ky.
Ryan, who has seen this part of Afghanistan many times before, mainly with the 75th Ranger Regiment, seems to have a keen understanding of how the Pech River Valley works.
“It’s my unscientific estimate that a good 90-95 percent of the population in the Pech River Valley is ‘indifferent’ at best to their government’s efforts and the coalition’s efforts to secure peace in the valley,” said Ryan. “Now, this is not entirely unexpected, nor is it a bad thing. These are the survivalists; people who’ve grown up in a war-torn country for their entire lives. They know nothing but war.”
He continued, “The remaining 5-10 percent of the population falls into one of three categories. One group plays both sides; I call them the ‘entrepreneurs.’ They are willing to take what they deem is acceptable risk to make money or gain influence by engaging the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the coalition on one hand, and the enemy on the other. As you might imagine, this can be a lucrative, or a dangerous, undertaking.”
Another group, Ryan said, is very similar to the first, but different in the fact that it has chosen a side to support. Some will aid coalition forces by passing intelligence to Soldiers, or by actively supporting GIRoA’s efforts to gain a foothold in the area, while others will support the enemy and their efforts. He said the trick is finding out who is who.
“The final group, in my opinion, is comprised of those hard-line insurgents who believe in their jihad and see the implementation of a democratic GIRoA with support from the United States as a fate worse than death. These are the same people who provided sanctuary to al-Qaida and those who facilitated the World Trade Center attacks in 2001,” said Ryan.
For Task Force Bulldog, the majority of each day is spent engaging with the population, spending time actively learning about the local villagers’ concerns with security in the Pech River Valley. Another focus area during engagement with the population is development, and trying to determine priorities for various projects that will help stimulate the local economy.
Throughout the months of June and early on into July, Task Force Bulldog has focused a vast majority of their time and effort on an operation aimed at improving the lives of farmers by providing an alternative means of growing crops in the valley.
This operation, dubbed “Operation Crop Diversification”, is one that has been met with wary but open arms by many in the Pech. The concept is a simple one: give local farmers the opportunity to grow a variety of crops other than corn, through the help of GIRoA, in order to develop an agri-business in the province and, as a side but important benefit, limiting attacks on civilians, ANSF, and coalition forces.
“We already know that [insurgent] forces use corn fields to cover and conceal their movement to ambush sites used against U.S. and ANSF forces,” said U.S. Army Capt. Jonathan Peterson, company commander for Charlie Company, 1-327th IR from Ft. Campbell, Ky. “Unfortunately, when one of these ambushes takes place, it puts innocent people's lives in danger, and we are trying to stop that with this operation.”
Operation Crop Diversification’s primary focus is giving farmers the opportunity to grow various crops, which can lead to economic development in the area; something that the Pech River Valley and many parts of the country, can benefit from.
“Growing different crops can have a stimulating effect on the economy,” added Peterson. “Villages are volunteering to be a part of the program because they understand it is a good thing for the Pech River Valley, but some villages remain hesitant to participate because growing and harvesting corn is a major staple of their way of life here.”
As with all things in a counterinsurgency, there is risk involved. However, the operation will remain a top priority for the battalion and GIRoA for many months, and it will continue past harvest season and into the winter. Peterson is confident that this GIRoA-led operation will be a success, and remains hopeful that it will continue to future growing seasons.
Pushing through the sadness
Though the battalion has seen much success with ‘Operation Crop Diversification’ and other efforts within the Pech, the Bulldogs have also experienced sadness and setbacks, most recently, towards the latter part of June.
During a routine patrol that was escorting Ryan to a meeting in nearby Asadabad, insurgents attacked his personal security detachment in the morning hours of June 25. Rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire were shot at the Soldiers, with some striking their hardened vehicles and also targeting the Soldiers on patrol.
The Bulldogs fought back by engaging the enemy with their organic weapon systems, but after suppressing the enemy and the smoke had cleared, two Soldiers were killed, and four others were wounded in the attack.
“Sadly, we lost two Soldiers killed in action, Spc. Blair Thompson and Spc. Jared Plunk, on that day. It is my personal charter to honor their memory by ensuring we accomplish our mission,” noted Ryan.
The road ahead
Only one road runs through the Pech River Valley, leaders within the 1-327th recognize the significance of this road, known in the Task Force as “Route Rhode Island”, and understand the impact it has on the locals’ way of life in the Pech.
“The terrain is very mountainous and forbidding here; valleys are narrow and there is but one road leading into or out of the East-West running Pech River Valley from Asadabad, the provincial capital city of Kunar,” said Ryan.
“We are on that road every day, because it is ‘peace’ on the road, and, in military parlance, ‘freedom of movement’ along that road shows the people that their government can protect them. The enemy knows that they can find us on that same road, so we are always ready.”
The 1-327this deployed at a crucial time in the war in Afghanistan, a time where a battle of wills, along with the hearts and minds of the people are at stake. There is a reason why the battalion’s motto is, “Above the Rest!” Soldiers within the unit take that motto to heart day in and day out.
“After over 40 days, I couldn’t be more proud of these Soldiers. They are truly heroes and perform their work with a calm, professional demeanor,” said Ryan. “They aim only to help build Afghanistan into an environment where its’ people can live a life that barely, if at all, just begins to approach so many of those things we take for granted in the United States.”