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
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
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.