by JASON REICH
I’ve come here to Wardak province, southwest of the capital, to gauge how well the coalition provides basic security and governance in the Afghan government’s own backyard. I’m embedded with the U.S. Army’s Task Force Spartan, composed primarily of soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. These troops represent the spearhead of the “Afghanistan surge,” which has moved troops into Wardak districts that haven’t seen foreign soldiers since the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. For the first two weeks of my embed, I linked up with 4th Battalion of the 25th Artillery, tasked with improving governance in Wardak. After that, I headed to the 2nd Battalion of the 87th Infantry, which handles local security.
The moment I arrived at 4/25’s Combat Outpost (COP) Conlon, it was clear I would be seeing more security operations than anything else. As I arrived, the battery commander was busy guiding three CH-47 helicopters onto a small landing strip outside the COP. The helos came in so low and so fast that they knocked one of the satellite dishes off of the roof of the command post and onto the steps where I was waiting. Someone shouted, “Welcome to Conlon!”
Arriving on the Chinooks was a group of Special Forces soldiers tasked with a capture/kill mission near the COP. Before I could even introduce myself to the soldiers of 4/25, I was ushered onto a waiting MRAP and whisked out on that mission. After only a few hours, and a brief burst of gunfire, we got reports that the SF guys had gotten their man. The local Taliban cell leader, known only as Wazir, was the man allegedly responsible for a devastating IED that killed four soldiers from 4/25 only a week earlier. Judging from a grainy picture and vague biometrics they had, the body of the man lying in front of them seemed to be Wazir’s. A week later we learned otherwise. The man killed in that operation was Wazir’s brother, and Wazir is still at large.
I spent two weeks with the “governance” battalion of Task Force Spartan, but I saw hardly any governance work. The operational tempo just didn’t leave them enough time or manpower. The under-manned battery’s two platoons were busy either clearing the road of IEDs or working on the COP’s defenses. That isn’t to say that there was no progress at all. I saw a humanitarian mission in the village of Khowt-e-Ashrow, where soldiers delivered school supplies to the local children, and a key-leader engagement, where the village elders consulted with the battery commander on how to spend the $15,000 in reconstruction funds for their district. (Village elder meeting pictured.)
Now I’ve joined up with Bravo Company of the 2/87 Infantry, at COP Blackhawk, to see how security operations are run when you’ve got a fully staffed, dedicated infantry company. COP Blackhawk is right outside the village of Nerkh, a much hotter area than Conlon. This COP gets rocketed almost every day. And unlike the frustrated artillerymen of 4/25, these guys get to shoot back — a lot. With the elections just around the corner, this district will be a key indicator of just how well the Afghan government and the coalition can secure the rural polling stations. While fighting rages in the southern provinces, here, just 50 kilometers outside of Kabul, the insurgency is simmering. According to the men of Bravo Company, it’s just a matter of days until it boils over.
(Photo: Jason Reich)