By U.S. Army Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, Task Force 1-82 PAO and Sgt. 1st Class Qandagha, Afghan 3rd Brigade, 203rd Corps PAO
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ARIAN, Afghanistan – A key economic center along Afghanistan’s main highway between Kabul and Kandahar – and the Afghan security forces that protect it – are much better off today than just four months ago, said a U.S. Army commander.
The Afghan National Army’s 6th Kandak, 3rd Brigade, 203rd Corps, responsible for security along Highway 1 as it runs through the Qarabagh District of Ghazni Province, has made great strides toward becoming a proactive, effective fighting force, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Praxitelis Vamvakias, commander of 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Vamvakias’ battalion is part of the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, which deployed to southern Ghazni in March just prior to the spring fighting season.
His paratroopers share Forward Operating Base Arian with 1-82’s support troops, the 307th Brigade Support Battalion, and the ANA 6th Kandak.
A kandak is the equivalent of a U.S. Army battalion.
“Together we have increased security of Qarabagh District so that, in some villages, people have hope for minimal Taliban influence for the first time in a decade,” said Vamvakias, who, at 21 years of active duty, is living his dream job as a commander of an airborne infantry battalion.
The Fort Bragg-based paratroopers have attacked the district’s security issues with a many-pronged effort that has moved well beyond aiding and training Afghan soldiers, he said.
The effort has included integrating ANA operations with that of local Afghan Uniform Police and National Directorate of Security soldiers, expanding the Qarabagh District Center, or QBDC, and supporting agricultural and clean water projects organized and executed by the U.S. Embassy’s District Support Team, a provincial reconstruction team, a team from the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, and the United States Agency for International Development.
The ultimate goal is to create jobs and wealth, establish a presence of Coalition Forces in the QBDC to bolster the availability of government services, and most importantly, to knock the insurgency back on its heels to give Afghans a breather, he said.
“We have severely impacted the Taliban’s ability to fight,” said Vamvakias, noting that combat patrols began almost immediately when 2-504 arrived at FOB Arian in March.
According to U.S. Army Lt. Col. William Ryan, a former professor of military science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who heads the 6th Kandak Security Force Assistance Team, when his team arrived, they found a capable ANA force operating in a very unstable environment, arrayed in a defensive posture with focus on securing the road.
Daily patrols, multi-day air assaults, and regular sweeps of the highway for roadside bombs by 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers created the time and space for the 6th Kandak to “go back to the training camp,” refit and learn some new skills, said Ryan.
His team coached the Afghans through their first regular staff meetings, targeting process and a comprehensive noncommissioned officer training school, he said.
“We now have weekly staff meetings that provide the commander the ability to make informed decisions, facilitate cross talk and information sharing amongst the staff,” he said.
Creating NCOs, the Backbone of the Afghan Army
NCO training was organized by Ryan’s team and the top U.S. and Afghan NCOs, Command Sgts. Maj. Scott Brzak and Toryalia.
During his last deployment, Brzak’s unit was an integral part of the first advise-and-assist brigade to Iraqi security forces.
From that experience, he understands that any training must respect and complement the training regimen that already exists within the 6th Kandak, he said.
On the other hand, while Afghans see American troops being successful with high-tech gadgetry, it’s only natural that thay want to be trained on it as well even though, in all likelihood, they will never have access to it, he said.
NCO training included understanding and assigning roles, development and accountability of subordinates, communications, map reading and navigation, weapons use and maintenance, first aid for combat, detaining and handling prisoners, and battlefield movements, said Brzak.
There isn’t just one thing we are interested in,” said Toryalia, his ANA counterpart. “We want to learn everything. We are building the future of the Afghan army here.“
Training for individual soldiers has also occurred through day-to-day partnered operations such as foot patrols, said Toryalia.
Since the paratroopers arrived, the 6th Kandak has conducted126 foot patrols and eight air assaults with them, he said. His soldiers have confiscated more than 100 enemy weapons, including mortars, machine guns, assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and more.
They also found and detonated 72 improvised explosive devices, he said.
Shoulder to Shoulder, Foot to Foot
ANA Maj. Barat Niyazi, a company commander with 6th Kandak, reported that coordination between his soldiers and the Americans has greatly evolved over the past five months.
“We help them and they help us,” he said.
When pressed by Sgt. 1st Class Qandagha, an Afghan army journalist, Niyazi explained, “When we plan a mission, we go down to the American side and tell them, this is the mission, this is the departure time, this is the link-up time, and we need like one or two platoons from you. We have a mission brief and mission plan. Whenever the Americans have a mission, they come here and do the same thing. We are on equal footing now.”
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Kirk Shoemaker, an infantry platoon leader who regularly partners with Niyazi’s troops, has noticed marked improvement in training, discipline and intensity of the Afghan force, as well as their willingness to engage the Afghan public in dialog while out on patrol.
“Maj. Niyazi takes every opportunity to speak to local villagers and answer their questions, and he seeks to help them in any way that he can,” said Shoemaker.
Niyazi replied that it is important that people of Qarabaugh feel they are being protected.
“I have seen lots of changes in this area,” the major said. “Just a year ago, people were not talking to us. People couldn’t work in the shops. They were tired of the constant fighting. Just today, we went to the Qarabagh bazar. All the people were talking to us, and they looked so happy. I am hopeful for the future of Afghanistan. We are all hopeful. That’s why were are all working so hard.”
District governor, Zayatollah Azimi, agreed. “In our culture, we take care of our mother until she dies. We take care of our country just like that.”
Though he has one of the most dangerous jobs in the province, Azimi said he doesn’t care if he is killed in the line of duty because his job is an honorable one.
Expanding the District Center
At the district center, U.S. Army Maj. Drew Staples has been advising AUP and NDS soldiers for many months.
“There was a lot of disbelief when we showed up,” said the major, who is on his fourth deployment.
Paratroopers have recently begun expanding the government center, which sits practically in the middle of the bazar, and that sends a message that government and security forces are here to stay, said Staples.
“What a great way to send a message,” he said.
Matt Hornick, a member of the U.S. Embassy’s DST, said that, since the arrival of Vamvakias’ troops, the number of district officials now working at the QBDC has increased, and many previously vacant positions have been filled.
“In terms of helping the district staff positively move forward an Afghan solution, the civil affairs team and the DST have focused efforts on developing and strengthening the lines of communication between the district and provincial leadership,” said Hornick.
By arranging for the provincial governor and many of the critical line directorates to visit their local representatives at the QBDC, they were able to put a human face and situation to each end of the relationship, which is of particular importance now with the approach of government budget cycles, he said.
Further meetings coordinated by DST allowed Afghan officials to conclude that a policy allowing some line directorates to work remotely from the provincial capital was not in the best interest of their mission or their constituents.
Since partnered forces began pushing into the area, applications for Afghan identity cards at the district center has risen from 15 per week to over 300, a clear sign that Afghans are feeling more safe, according to Vamvakias.
Also in Qarabagh, a farmer’s shura was recently held to promote best practices for highest yield and most advantageous terms of sale for locally grown crops, he said.
Farmers were taught how to grow a better apple through selective pruning, how to prevent summer rot and winter freeze of grapevines, how to employ grape-drying machines to cut drying time in half, and how to build cool-storage bins so they don’t have to bring their crop to market all at once.
The idea is to ultimately create a “self-licking ice cream cone,” he said. “We can increase security to a point, but if there are no jobs to fill that vacuum of young males being unemployed, then we’re always going to have problems.”
Passing the Baton
Vamvakias recalled a conversation that he had with a village elder during an operation in nearby Barlah regarding foreign fighters in the area.
The elder told the battalion commander that, though his people were not educated, they were smart people. They understood the damage being done by the Taliban, especially as they invite influence from Pakistan by importing foreign fighters.
“We don’t want them here,” the elder said.
“My response was that we want to help you get rid of the foreign fighter influence and that’s where we need to work together, and as soon as we do that, we’ll be gone also. Then it’s back to Afghans controlling Afghanistan,” said Vamvakias.
The foreign fighter issue is just one of many problems that the Afghans themselves must confront, Vamvakias said. Afghans must take full advantage of the momentum the American paratroopers have created in southern Ghazni.
Vamvakias’ men were handed an abbreviated timeline and train-up for the Ghazni mission and established combat operations in a place with minimal prior operations. In a very short time, they have had a huge impact. For that, they can be proud, the lieutenant colonel said.
“They’ve added a chapter to the history of the 82nd Airborne. We were not given a lot of notice for this mission, which is exactly what paratroopers do,” he said.