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Afghan army's 7th Kandak stands as 'the way ahead'

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As American forces continue to transition security responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces, units deployed to Afghanistan are shifting their focus from providing security and combined combat operations to enabling and increasing the operational capabilities of the Afghans.

Operation Thunder, an ongoing mission planned and led by the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, has been a test and a demonstration of Afghan capability. As they make their way through Logar Province, the Soldiers of B Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, Task Force 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, are seeing first-hand, the future of the province and the way ahead.

"They're clearing major cities and population centers in Muhammad Agha district," said Capt. John Naelgas, commander of B Troop, and a native of Chicago. "Our mission is security force assistance so if they run into something they can't handle, I'm there."

During a patrol Sept. 9, B Troop's 3rd Platoon followed elements of the ANSF through the district, stopping in the village of Lash Karkhel. As the Afghan National Army, or ANA, cleared the route and the nearby villages, 1st Lt. David Frye, platoon leader for 3rd Platoon, and a native Berlin, Germany, found himself and his men standing by.

"This time they already had this plan made and we were just there as support," Fryee said. "We didn't really affect their overall mission."

"Operation Thunder has gone really well because of that," he continued. "I don't think they needed us there today."

As the ANSF and 3rd Platoon made their way through the bazaar, the Afghan Route Clearance Package Company, 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps, came across an improvised explosive device, known as an IED, along the road and quickly disabled it, detonating it in place.

"They're a great asset," said Frye. "They work really quickly and they know what they're doing."

Afghan 1st Lt. Mutbar Khan, who has been the executive officer for the Afghan RCP Company for four years, was proud of the quick and effective actions of his men.

"This morning we started moving from the Mohammad Agha District Center, clearing all the routes, and blowing up any IEDs we found," Khan said through an interpreter. "Today we found two in one place so I sent them to clear the IEDs and they did a good job."

During Operation Thunder, as they do most of the time, Khan and his men are out every day, keeping the roads clear and making their country a safer place.

"We are going out every day and we find a lot of IEDs in this area," he said. "I like my job because I can serve my country with my soldiers, and if we were not here these IEDs would be killing people."

Since the last time the 173rd was deployed to Logar and Wardak Provinces in 2009, the ANSF have improved in places and continue to develop in others. First Sgt. Nathan Gaines, first sergeant for B Troop, and a native of San Diego, was deployed with the 173rd at Combat Outpost Charkh, in Logar Province, in 2009.

"It was highly kinetic and there was a lot of fighting," he said. "This time is a lot different."

The area around Combat Outpost, or COP, McClain in Logar, where Gaines and his men are living and operating with the company-sized tolis that make up 7th Kandak, 203rd Corps, on a daily basis, is much different from the green farmland, orchards, towns and close mountains around COP Charkh. Security of Highway 1 and the main district centers are a priority and the Soldiers of B Troop are quickly adjusting to their new role of supporting, not providing, the area's security.

"Last time, we were more combined and in the lead so I think we were expecting to be more involved," Gaines said. "Initially it was hard but I think we've gotten used to our role now."

As B Troop continues to settle into the role of supporter and enabler, Naelgas works carefully with the 7th Kandak leadership, giving them enough assistance to continue developing their unit and their men but also enough to illustrate their capabilities to the Afghan people, and more importantly, to themselves.

"We need to make them confident in their competence," Naelgas said. "The advice I'm giving my platoon leaders is that 'your legacy to the Afghan units you're working with are the tactics and discipline that you're showing them and they will mimic you.'"

"They mirror us and they've been successful," he added.

That success has been a welcome surprise to some like Gaines, who remembers an Afghan National Army unit with discipline and motivation problems, but to others like Frye, who is on his first deployment to Afghanistan, the soldiers of 7th Kandak are an appreciated asset.

"They love their country," Frye said. "They know what they're doing. They're willing to listen to advice and they're easy to work with."

A few months into their deployment, B Troop continues to support and further define their role working with the ANSF. The Troop's Soldiers are seeing a capable and constantly-improving Afghan security force, as well as getting a glimpse into the future of the area, the province and perhaps the country.

"They know we're leaving in 2014," said Naelgas. "They're the model kandak for how things should go for the rest of Afghanistan. The 7th Kandak is the way ahead."

"They want to be here and I think they could take over today," said Gaines.

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