SAROBI DISTRICT, Afghanistan, Jan. 6, 2017 —
Radio chatter calling distance and direction crackles loudly through a handheld speaker. Afghan and U.S. forces perched on a dusty mountainside watch an element maneuver through the barren valley toward their objective Dec. 27, 2016.
At first, a scene like this seems like it should be from previous years of the war here. This time the U.S. forces present are from Train Advise Assist Command-East. They are part of an expeditionary advisory package observing the unit training with their Afghan counterparts. This mission is different because it allows the advisors to observe training within a brigade element, when ordinarily they are only able to see what happens within the corps headquarters.
The ground forces conducting their attack battle drill belong to the 3rd Brigade, 201st Afghan National Army Corps operating out of Camp Torah in Sarobi district. The company level unit, known as a tolay, is conducting a collective training cycle as a part of the winter campaign strategy designed to build capability and capacity within the organization.
“To our knowledge, nothing like this has been done before in the 201st Corps,” said Maj. Tino Colon, the operations advisor in the military advisory team for Train Advise Assist Command-East. “Going through our old records we found examples of training, but not like this. To them, collective training used to mean manning guard towers or observation posts. This time it’s different.”
Colon, an engineer, is assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. In his second deployment working with the 201st Corps, he has watched the transformation of the organization. His efforts have contributed to the success the corps is having. Colon and his team of advisors have been working with the 201st Corps on a daily basis emphasizing the need for realistic and quality training. They have been training the trainers and evaluators. Their advising efforts have resulted in Afghan-led training and a sustainable, long-term program for the corps.
“Before, they didn’t incorporate the entire tolay in the training process,” Colon continued. “They are now incorporating not only the tolay leadership, but all organic elements and enablers. This allows them to build cohesion as a unit and increase their effectiveness.”
In addition to building confidence and improving leadership, the tolay training allows the unit to practice the integration of enabler support into their plan. This time, they used mortar fire as an enabler in conjunction with their maneuver to take out a simulated enemy outpost.
“The employment of fires [mortars] illustrates the communications between ground forces and the forces shooting,” said Colon. “The corps artillery officer is already coming up with an improved scheme of fires for the next cycle of training. They are showing their determination to improve and succeed.”
The man in charge of the entire training operation at Camp Torah is Col. Rahmatullah Mohmand, the 201st Corps training officer. He reiterated the fact this is the first time the corps has done training like this and how it would help them improve their skills.
“The collective training is of great significance because the tolay commander has the opportunity to work with, and lead, his officers and noncomissioned officers while they are training,” said Rahmatullah. “Not only does he [the tolay commander] get to lead, but he also gets to assess his subordinates and ensure the right people are in the right positions while they perform. Additionally, it gives me the opportunity to ensure the tolay is capable and make my assessment on whether or not retraining is required or if personnel changes need to be made. This is our program.”
The leadership development that comes with the training is important to the advisors as well, especially Command Sgt. Maj. Bryan Barker, the Train Advise Assist Command-East command sergeant major.
“Training like this, collective unit training, is what develops leaders,” said Barker, who is also the 3rd Cavalry Regiment command sergeant major. “What the 201st Corps is doing with this training is not only building confidence within their organization, but also increasing their lethality. Both of those things are invaluable to a force that continues to fight a war while they are building their capabilities and capacity.”
The 201st Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Muhammad Waziri agrees with Barker about the value collective training provides to his unit.
“This training enhances not only our ground forces’ combat skills, but also improves leadership development skills at the small unit level,” said Waziri. “Ground force commanders are forced to make tactical decisions in a realistic training environment that will help them make the right decisions in actual combat. This training is so imperative to our success going forward, and the 3rd brigade has set the standard for what collective training should look like.”
For those observing the training from the mountainside that day, it’s easy to remember a war is still going on. A group of U.S. soldiers provide overwatch for those who are advising their Afghan counterparts. There has been recent insurgent activity in Sarobi.
“We are the first line of defense,” said Sgt. Eric Capel, a guardian angel assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. “Our job here is to defend the advisors.”
Capel is one of the many guardian angels, a term used for the soldiers responsible for providing security to the advisory teams, who makes the train, advise and assist mission possible. Capel also recognized the significance of the advising mission in Sarobi.
“Being here allows us [guardian angels] and the advisors to see the effect of the advising effort first-hand,” said Capel. “We get to see the advisors in action, and also see how their efforts are enabling their Afghan counterparts to get better. This is really the whole reason why we are here.”
Spc. Timothy Leslie, also a guardian angel assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, agrees with Capel. This will be something people will look back on years from now and remember, said Leslie with pride.
“Being out here is important to me,” said Leslie. “I get to be a part of history as it takes place. I get to watch the 201st Corps improve, and know I contributed to that effort by providing security for the advisors. Because of my work, the advisors were able to focus solely on their jobs.”
The 201st Corps will continue conducting collective training iterations throughout the winter months to improve the overall readiness, with the coalition forces by their side. As the Corps undergoes its training cycle, it remains responsible for security in seven provinces, and the Sarobi district, in eastern Afghanistan.