US and Afghan Army Engineers: 'bridging' the gap
Engineers have a reputation for being the designated catch-all problem solvers of the military. Integrating multiple unique elements into operations is not a new concept for this branch that folds the variety of professionals within the broad vertical construction, horizontal construction, and route clearance categories into its ranks. Yet, the U.S. Army engineers currently serving in Regional Command North, Afghanistan as part of Task Force Hurricane have embraced counter-insurgency concepts and established a uniquely holistic approach. By incorporating targeted information operations and fostering a robust partnership with Afghan National Security
Forces, the engineers have transformed what would otherwise be patchwork, temporary solutions into projects that have the potential for lasting positive change.
18th Engineer Brigade Commander, Col. Paul Paolozzi, set the tone when he addressed the freshly deployed Task Force Hurricane staff stating, “To me, success is not a laundry list of things you have accomplished at the end of your tour. Success means you are doing less at the end of your tour because the Afghans are doing more. You will find it is easier to do it yourself, but that would mean you are failing to accomplish your mission.”
Striving to “do less” is counter-intuitive for American Soldiers who are raised in the “land of opportunity” and raised in the hard-working, “make it happen” U.S. Army culture. Nevertheless, Task Force Hurricane, a conglomeration of Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard engineer units from across the country, led by the 841st Engineer Battalion out of Miami, FL, internalized the guidance and retooled itself to fit the mission. Twelve construction engineers and twelve counter-IED engineers were divided into a total of six engineer training teams, each of which was assigned to train an Afghan National Army construction or route clearance company. An engineer development cell was formed to manage the ETT’s and promote partnership at the battalion and brigade levels.
A coalition liaison position was established to ensure coordination and information sharing with German, Norwegian, Swedish and other coalition battle space owners while the traditional public affairs officer position was expanded and modified to serve as a strategic communications section capable of overseeing targeted message campaigns geared toward building goodwill and credibility for the Afghan engineers among the Afghan civilians. This bold reorganization left traditional route clearance and construction platoons thinly staffed but transformed the task force into one that could operate effectively in the irregular, fast paced, learning based counter-insurgency environment as proven through their various successful, partnered operations.
A distinct problem U.S. Army engineers and many other International Security Assistance Forces face is figuring out how to minimize their perceived presence while conducting operations in forty ton vehicles fitted with machine guns. In Regional Command North, where territories are systematically being turned over to Afghan National Security Forces, it is essential to minimize the perception of ISAF presence and simultaneously promote the capabilities and expertise of ANSF. When Task Force Hurricane and the ANA 209th Corps engineers were tasked with designing and constructing a low-water crossing in Faryab Province where a previously constructed bridge had failed, a central question became how to ensure the ANA engineer capabilities could be made visible to the population through this project, despite ISAF involvement. In this truly partnered endeavour, ANA and U.S. route clearance packages cleared the construction site and avenues of approach while ANA and U.S. construction platoons implemented the jointly developed low-water crossing plans.
Meanwhile, the Task Force Hurricane strategic communications section planned and executed a message campaign with the goal of getting Afghan civilians in the area to recognize the ANA engineer involvement the project. With the help of the German Regional Psychological Operations Support Element, flyers were designed and given to the Afghan National Police stationed in the area to distribute and billboards were erected.
The district governor recorded a radio advertisement in support of the project stating, “Dear Elders, brothers and sisters of the peace-loving people from the Ghormach district…to improve the situation at the river crossing, engineers from the 209th Shaheen Corps, together with international forces, are building a preliminary crossing.”
Afghan journalists filmed the operation and later a commercial featuring the excellent work by the ANA engineers aired throughout the region. The commercial included endorsement from the district chief of police and local ANA infantry commander who passionately urged the citizens to reject insurgents and support ANSF forces, vowing that “the ANA is ready to help and support the people until the last drop of blood is left in their body.”
Interviews of the local civilians consistently thanked the ANA for the improvement that would help facilitate better business, healthcare and safety for the people and rarely mentioned ISAF. Security and stability operations in Faryab province have now successfully been handed over to ANSF.
A similar operation was conducted in Chimtal District, Balhk Province, when the ANA independently planned to repair a culvert bridge and roadway destroyed by multiple improvised explosive devices placed by insurgents. In this scenario, Task Force Hurricane Route Clearance Package 67, of the 420th Route Clearance Company out of Indiana, PA, escorted the ANA construction engineers and their assigned ETT to the repair site and watched the ANA handle the rest. Flyers that depicted insurgents destroying the bridge and ANA engineers repairing it were again provided for ANA soldiers to distribute. The Soldiers asked for support and explained the operations to villagers in the area as they passed the papers out.
After the reconstruction was complete, Afghan radio correspondents interviewed civilians in the area who stated “the bridge was destroyed by the Taliban and created many problems for us. We are very thankful to the ANA for reconstructing it” and “The Taliban can’t fight the government so they are fighting the people. The Taliban shouldn’t have destroyed the bridge we use to bring our harvest to market and we are thankful to the ANA for rebuilding it.”
In the current environment, where IEDs are replaced within hours of routes being cleared and infrastructure can be destroyed soon after it is repaired, the only hope for lasting positive change lies in capable ANSF and a civilian population that is willing to support them. As ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, Regional Command North has already begun to hand over operational control to ANSF and the success or failure that ensues could be an indication of how other regions will fare in the future.
Regardless, Task Force Hurricane engineers have worked harder than ever to do less and their flexible model and recent operational success demonstrates there is hope indeed. Shona ba Shona, Essayons!
Article by 2nd Lt. Brittany N. Ramos, Task Force Hurricane Public Affairs