By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense Kandahar bureau chief
"We don't know if what we're seeing is the start of a trend or an anomaly," one Counterinsurgency Advise and Assist Team (CAAT) senior advisor admitted when discussing ground operations in Kandahar, Afghanistan. "We just don't know. It's like the blind men with the elephant."
That's the sentiment I picked up while in Afghanistan recently. "We would be the first to caution that victory is not just around the corner," said a senior official in Kabul this week. He also noted that while some members of the media may have rushed to change the narrative from one of 'all is lost' to 'winning is inevitable,' but quickly clarified that "Neither is true."
So what is true, and what exactly is going on in Kandahar, the "heart of darkness," as it's now been coined? What appears to be true is that our conventional forces can still conduct major combat operations, and they're making some progress. The 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), also known as STRIKE Brigade Combat Team (BCT) is certainly feeling momentum and confident about their advances in the area. "We've removed the Taliban's ability to limit our movement in the area," said 1st Lt. Reily McEvoy, a platoon leader in the brigade. "This is what we trained for… a classic dismounted fight."
While the brigade is focused and accomplished in full-spectrum operations, they are also proving that our conventional forces can still tackle difficult combat operations and integrate all enablers in very kinetic ops against a tough enemy. "This is a complex fight and requires detailed synchronization of lethal operations and a partnership with our partner Afghan forces," said one ISAF official. "But STRIKE is doing it all." The feared loss of "conventional war-fighting capacity" has been debated in the military with the arrival of the "COIN era," but the STRIKE BCT's successful operations should assuage at least some of that concern.
STRIKE BCT's overarching objective since their arrival in May has been to secure the Afghan population in Zhari and Maiwand districts, and now they have an additional mission to secure the virtually unchartered "horn of Panjwa'i." The unit S-2 estimates that the majority of fighters are local but some come from Pakistan, some from Arabic-speaking countries, and -- as locals have reported -- some come from Iran. STRIKE BCT has also been involved in Operation DRAGON STRIKE since its movement to Kandahar Province in September. This operation is part of HAMKARI (Dari for "cooperation") Phase 3, the coalition's effort to partner with Afghan forces to stabilize parts of southern Afghanistan. The goal of DRAGON STRIKE is to reestablish control of Highway One, Kandahar's busiest route and a vital line of communication for Afghans. Since this operation began on Sept. 16, STRIKE BCT has fought hard to clear and hold the area, helping the local Afghans to benefit from some semblance of stability.
How do they know they are effectively "holding" the route? The evidence seems to speak for itself: Children now ride their bikes along Highway One. There is an increase in the amount of elders and community leaders coming to the district center for communal meetings. And there is greater freedom of movement for the Zhari district governor Kharim Jan (who has survived three assassination attempts) to visit more of his villages and conduct shuras with Afghan citizens who now feel safe enough to attend. One local farmer thanked STRIKE BCT soldiers for securing the road. He hadn't been able to commute to his farm for months, he told them. The number of local Afghans sharing information via hotlines to inform STRIKE BCT about locations of cache sites and actual locations on IEDs has noticeably risen. In the past month, there has been an increase in the Afghan applicants for the U.S. military's "jobs program" which employs local Afghans in local projects like digging trenches or improving roads. Over the past year, Afghans had been too frightened to apply for these jobs because of assassination threats from the Taliban. On the first day of the announcement in September, eight Afghans showed up. Just over a month later, there are 1000 locals enrolled.
STRIKE BCT has helped clear and hold key areas in their AO through some aggressive fighting. "We're catching them on their heels and plowing over these guys," Colonel Kanadarian assured his troops. Last week, they began mounted, dismounted, and air assault operations in Panjwa'i, a Taliban stronghold. "Keep advancing that ball," Kandarian coached as he conducts his battlefield circulations out to the combat outposts and forward operating bases in his AO. How does he define "advancing the ball?" "It is not about the number of insurgents we kill. It is about the number of Afghan people we protect with our Afghan partners," he routinely states during his VTC update briefs to his outposts.
Kandarian cautions members of brigade to "under-promise and over-deliver" as they talk about their operations with the media. "It's exciting to see our planning and execution come to fruition and meet with success," said the unit public affairs officer, MAJ Larry Porter. "But we were explicitly told to avoid overstating our progress, even though we feel like we've made great strides with DRAGON STRIKE and other operations, in particularly our partnership with the ANA."
From the day the Strike Brigade arrived in May as part of President Obama's surge, they have closely partnered in field operations with the 8,000-man Afghan National Army partner unit, 3-205 Corps. "I never saw a partnership integration in Iraq as this brigade has done in Kandahar," said a former 101st brigade combat team commander. The ANA Corps commander, Col. Sarwari Mertaza, has an office just across the hall of the wooden headquarters from Colonel Kandarian. His troops go out on every mission with U.S. forces. "We did the 'crawl' phase with them, now they're starting to take 'steps,'" said STRIKE BCTs public affairs officer.
In spite of Colonel Kandarian's optimistic outlook about his successes on Highway One, it may be too early to tell what these advances in Kandahar really mean, whether it reflects the historical pattern of insurgent hibernation for the winter, insurgent regrouping, or lasting gains from the surge of coalition forces. And while myriad challenges persist at the political and strategic level, and winning is still not inevitable, there may be some good news on the ground. STRIKE BCT is proving its mettle by successfully conducting combat operations in very kinetic operations against a tough enemy. Let's hope the other surge forces can do the same. And for the COIN skeptics out there, don't worry too much that our conventional forces can't fight and protect the population at the same time. STRIKE BCT has shown otherwise.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.