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Afghan Soldiers in armored humvees led a combined convoy of Afghans and Americans down Highway 1 in the early morning. As dawn broke they passed an Afghan national police checkpoint and dismounted by an ANA combat outpost. Their objective was Shah Hasan Kheyl, a village about a kilometer off the road.
Starting in August 2009, small embedded training teams dispersed throughout Afghanistan started getting replaced with combat units from 4th Brigade Combat Team (Task Force Fury), 82nd Airborne Division to serve as combat advisors. The battalion-sized operation involved several companies of the Afghan National Army, their combat advisors, the ANP, and a company from 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
It was the first large-scale mission conducted by 3rd Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 205th Corps of the ANA in conjunction with their new combat advisors from 4th BCT, and was aimed at increasing ANA presence in the village and surrounding communities in Zabul province, Afghanistan.
As the Soldiers made the uphill journey to the village they spread out across multiple avenues of approach up terraces and into orchards. Green grass and trees by the Tarnak river made the area look like a completely different country from the broad desert they just came from.
People waking up for their morning chores stopped and watched the group coming. Inside the village Afghan Soldiers knocked on doors, searched houses and interviewed the inhabitants. American combat advisers watched and observed their techniques. The people told the Afghan Soldiers that the Taliban come in the evening and take their food and water. One boy came to an American paratrooper and told him in English that the Taliban beat him for going to school. After searching outside the village the Paratroopers found fresh camp sites in nearby orchards.
The district chief arrived in the middle of the operation driving a sedan and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle. Shortly afterward he and the executive officer for 3rd Kandak, Maj. Mohammed Ahmin, gathered all the military-aged men in the village to hold a shura, a traditional meeting in Afghanistan.
"This is a major opportunity for the ANA to get and prove what they can do," said Capt. Jacob White, commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th BCT, 82nd Abn. Div. "It's also a chance to see where we're at and assess what we can improve."
Prior to the operation, the paratroopers were conducting patrols day and night with the ANA in the district, and trained with them on tasks ranging from weapons skill to first aid and equipment maintenance. Part of the reasoning behind conducting combined operations is to instill confidence in ANA Soldiers, said Lt. Col. David Oclander, commander of 1-508th PIR.
While on patrol with Americans the ANA have access to medical evacuation helicopters and heavier fire support.
Soldier Najibullah of 3rd Kandak, who has been at his unit for about a year, said that he has participated in numerous patrols and missions alongside Americans.
"I've done more than 100. Who can count? If they're with us we can get a medevac. If not there's no medevac. I feel safer because they're with us."
Daily marksmanship practice is also one of Oclander's priorities for the ANA, he said.
"When they hit what they aim at it'll send a message that they are capable of fighting on their own. It'll also send a message to the Taliban that not only can they not stand up to the Americans, they can't stand up to the ANA either," Oclander said.
One of the biggest confidence boosting measures taken in the past year was to equip ANA Soldiers with armored humvees and weapons used by American Soldiers like the M16 rife and M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. Having the same equipment not only makes the Afghans easier to train, it also brings them closer to their American allies by leveling the playing field, Oclander said.
Transitioning from the routine mission of controlling battle space and pursuing the Taliban to training and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces was not a difficult switch, said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lindsay, a platoon sergeant with A Co.
"This mission isn't any different from what we do every day," Lindsay said. "A squad leader's job is to teach Soldiers. A platoon sergeant's job is to teach squad leaders."
The only difference, Linsay said, is that now not only is he responsible for a 30-man platoon, he is also responsible for advising a 200-man company. But one thing Lindsay doesn't have to teach his Afghan counterparts is how to fight, he said.
"They're very proficient at their weapons and at their combat skills," Lindsay, said. "They're good warriors and fighters. A guy that comes in the army here and shows up at his unit is already at war. We talk about multiple deployments; there are Soldiers who have been in this province for six years"
"They're fairly proficient as it is." White said. "Right now we're working more on planning and logistics."
Many of the issues facing the ANA are directly related to supply, said Lt. Col. David Oclander, commander of 1st Bn., 508th PIR. Lack of winter clothing and other necessities is extremely detrimental to the well being and morale of many Afghan units, he said.
"Their greatest challenge is logistics," Oclander said. "If they don't have the supplies they need they'll lose the confidence to sustain the fight and take the fight to the enemy."
The combat advisers must often take a hands-off approach to resolving problems like supply, because their ultimate goal is to make the ANA capable of accomplishing the mission on its own without any help from U.S. forces.
"Before, if something was wrong it often got fixed for them," Lindsay said. "We want them to fix it themselves."
White, who also served as a combat advisor for the Iraqi army, sees a lot of potential in the ANA, he said.
"These guys are head and shoulders above the Iraqi army when I worked with them," White said. "We've got the opportunity to sow the seeds for future success here. We can go out and play and kill the Taliban, but if we don't build the local security forces they'll just get replaced."
"It's rewarding seeing the Afghans learning," Lindsay said. "They want to go out and do better. They want to help their country. Ultimately, I hope the reward is that in three or four years we will not have to be here, or that my 12-year-old son won't have to come here ten years from now."