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173rd, ANSF enable security, demonstrate capability throughout Logar, Wardak Provinces

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As American and coalition forces begin their drawdown in Afghanistan, they continue to support their Afghan partners.

The U.S. Army soldiers of Task Force 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team are taking on their role with vigor. A role which has them focusing on enabling Afghan National Security Forces to take on their own sustainment, mission planning, execution of combat operations and everything in between.

Recently, 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps, Afghan National Army, the partnered ANA Brigade to 173rd ABCT, participated in Operation Thunder, a clearing operation planned and led by the ANA’s 203rd Corps, combining soldiers from the Afghan National Army with members of other Afghan National Security Forces as they made their way through the villages and district centers of Afghanistan’s Logar and Wardak provinces.

With the assistance of U.S. Army Capt. John Naelgas, commander of B Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, and a native of Chicago, the ANA’s 7th Kandak, the unit in charge of the area near COP McClain in Logar province, is getting used to the idea of life after American forces have left the area.

“It’s that feeling that if they have us behind their back, they’ll tell themselves ‘we can do this,’” he said. “You don’t need us as a QRF (quick reaction force), you have your own QRF, and you won’t always have air support so we try to share that mindset with them.”

The situation is similar further north in Wardak province, an area along east-west Highway 2, defined by high mountains, green valleys and Taliban activity. U.S. Army Capt. Tommy Feeney and the soldiers of B Battery, 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, have worked closely with the 4th Toli, 2nd Kandak that operates out of COP Garda, and while initially coming to terms with it took some time, the soldiers of 4th Toli are adopting the new reality of post-American life.

“I think initially it took them a while to actually accept the fact that we were leaving,” said Feeney. “They’ve started realizing ‘there are some serious issues that we need to fix on our own that we’re not going to be able to rely on the U.S. Army for anymore.’”

“I know when we’re gone they’re going to find a way, because they won’t have a choice,” he said. “It’s what they’re going to have to do to maintain their ability to stay out here.”

Missions that combine different units as well as different branches of the ANSF are a stepping stone to the future capability of the Afghans. Operation King of the Hill combined two Afghan company-sized elements and their U.S. counterparts to clear the Kona Kumar valley in Wardak province. While the U.S. assisted in planning, ultimately the operation was conceived by the 2nd Kandak commander and led by the ANA.

“The Security Forces Advise and Assist Team at the kandak level, and us at the toli level, helped coach the ANA on their own planning process,” said Feeney. “We gave them the general idea but the 2nd Kandak commander came up with the plan.”

“I thought it went great,” he added. “We and 4th Toli had our blocking positions in support of the decisive operation and everybody made it home safe so it was a good operation.”

The ability of the ANA and the rest of the ANSF to plan and execute operations like these begin with communication. Communication between Afghan kandaks and corps is important, but the ability to get mission information down to the lowest levels is crucial to their future success.

“The toli here came to me and said ‘have you heard about this operation we’re going to be doing in a couple days?,’” said Feeney. “It’s good to see their kandak planning the operation, communicating that plan down to the toli level and then executing.”

For King of the Hill, the troops of B Battery and 4th Toli left long before dawn, through orchards and up the side of a nearby mountain to defensive positions overlooking the Kona Kumar Valley. The high altitude and the loose rocks made for slow going but as the sky slowly began to show signs of daylight, they were set in their positions overlooking the deceivingly-sleepy valley below.

“They don’t usually go out at night because they don’t have the night vision devices but they went out last night regardless,” said Feeney. “Each of us moved on our own, on separate avenues of approach into our mutually-supporting blocking positions and it worked out really well.”

While the U.S. troops made the hike with the use of night vision devices, the Afghan soldiers made their way by the light of the moon. The increasing use of technology by U.S. and coalition forces is an advantage over the Afghan units they patrol with who often aren’t equipped with the same night vision, anti-IED or mine sweeping capabilities and as coalition troops begin to withdraw from the country, Afghan troops are relying more on their instinct and familiarity with the areas that they patrol.

“Prior to this, we were clearing IEDs and suspected areas the same way they are,” U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jim Natiello, of Aston, Pa., the platoon sergeant for B Battery’s 1st Platoon, said. “You’ve got to get down there and you’ve got to look for the signs and indicators they teach us in counter IED courses.”

“They’re doing the same stuff we used to do and they’re pretty good at it,” he added.

“They’ve been in this area a lot longer than we have, so they know the places to look, they have a good eye for it, they know what to look for, and sometimes they’ll spot it before we do,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ryan Yamauchi a platoon leader for B Battery and a native of Honolulu, Hi. “They’re using the most basic techniques, they’re working with what they have, they improvise, which I give them a lot of credit for, but they do their job.”

U.S. Army Spc. William Lopez, a team leader in 1st Platoon and a native of Las Vegas, has also seen the effects of increased awareness by the Afghans.

“They’re not scared of dismounted IEDs, I think they have an eye for them,” he said. “They can pick them up as fast as we can, even with the stuff we use.”

While there are signs of progress, in places across Logar and Wardak, the impending withdrawal date is looming over the heads of the Afghans, however, rather than shirk the responsibility, they seem to be thriving in their increased responsibilities. Planning and executing missions, often without the oversight or guidance of coalition partners, because they know that ultimately, Afghanistan is theirs and they are the enablers of their own security.

“When the U.S. Army leaves here, they will take their Soldiers and they will have to be replaced by ANA soldiers, so we’re planning a lot of missions around the area, to talk to the people and change the way the civilian people think about us,” said Afghan 2nd Lt. Ziudin Mazlumyar, a squad leader for 4th Toli. “We have to ensure our security, we have to serve our people and bring a change to our country.”

Article by Sgt. Michael Sword, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team