FOB GAMBERI, Afghanistan, –
Artillery is consistently an Afghan Army success story. That's because it's devastatingly accurate, regularly destroying Taliban and Daesh targets as they unsuccessfully try to mass on district centers and other strategic locations.
Nowhere is this more true than in Afghanistan's eastern provinces, where Train, Advise, Assist Command – East works with the Afghan 201st Corps to put rounds downrange. From artillery to mortars to air support, the Afghan colonel in charge of fire support here is passionate about pounding his enemies into submission; his TAAC-E advisors are equally passionate about ensuring he has what he needs to succeed.
Col. Ahmed Jan, fire support officer, 201st Corps, is a rare breed. A former Northern Alliance fighter, his life's work is destroying the Taliban. Yet in spite of seeing so much war – and being so proficient at it – he has remained compassionate and human.
"The colonel has seen the brunt of it," explained U.S. Army Capt. Dennis M. Kelly, Ahmed's biggest supporter, friend and advisor. "Yet, amazingly he's managed to keep his humanity. He doesn't accept collateral damage. He's a family man and wants a better life for Afghans. It's more than just war for him."
Ahmed politely cuts off the younger captain, partially out of being humble but also wanting to explain.
"We have a culture of protection here. This war goes way beyond killing; the mission is important, but I say to you: we are building relationships. We are building trust," Ahmed explained expressively, looking everyone in the eyes, addressing everyone individually yet as a group. The colonel talked about his large family, and the Afghanistan he's working to build for them.
Then, Ahmed Jan switched from diplomat back to warrior. Rolled up map in his hand, he once again begins to expressively explain his outlook.
"But yes, we aren't just up here sipping tea. We are at the front line handling business," Ahmed continued, switching from Dari to English and back again.
When there's a battle or a problem, Ahmed is on his way. He said that as a tactician, his job is to analyze the situation and fix it when necessary. But as a leader, he has to mirror his soldiers. They won't be motivated if I – we – don't share their struggles, he said. Unsurprisingly, his approach is popular and effective.
Earlier, Kelly and a couple soldiers gathered around a map covering several eastern provinces. Red rings inter-lapped everywhere, representing potential artillery kill zones. He pointed out exact spots the enemy had made deadly mistakes – places the Afghan Army in turn saw great success. When district centers have come under fire, the Afghan "lanyard pullers" (as artillerymen are known) have really let them have it.
"The 201st has assets laid out well, but their real success is in maneuvering support through difficult terrain," Kelly said, pointing out places like Laghman and Kunar provinces. "They're calling audibles all over the place and it's working. Down here in Nangarhar, there are a handful of young Afghan lieutenants calling in artillery, controlling airstrikes – it's amazing stuff."
Kelly explained that the Afghan soldiers are well beyond the basics. They've mastered the details, and now working on big-picture projects. Better coordination with intelligence, working with adjacent and supporting units. The proof, he said, is in the results.
"He's all about new ideas. As I said, he's been fighting the Taliban his whole life. He despises the enemies of Afghanistan – not only the Taliban, but things like corruption. He told you he wants an Afghanistan better than the one he grew up in; he's not kidding," Kelly said.
The colonel said the 201st's success is based on training, but it's apparent that the relationships he referred to are at work every day – pushing them to succeed. When Ahmed Jan saw Kelly for the first time today, his eyes lit up. The two are friends and it shows. They embrace, they ask after each other's families, and only then they get on to the soldier stuff. In spite of just coming out of a particularly long meeting, Ahmad Jan has plenty time for Kelly.
The relationship is so close, they're to the point where they can tell if something is slightly off. Kelly talked about the recent loss of a couple of Ahmed Jan's men, how he instinctively stepped back for a bit. They shared their pain from a distance. As much as advising is about teaching, it's also about sharing, learning and growing together. A great deal of introspection, according to Kelly.
"Without a doubt, relationships are key to success," Kelly said. "It's why we're here."
The U.S. Army defines artillery and other major weapons as "pacing items," systems of such importance that they're subject to continuous monitoring and management at all command levels, according to Brig. Gen. Paul T. Calvert, the TAAC-E commander. The 201st Corps' artillery assets are clearly pacing items, and Calvert points to Ahmed Jan's monitoring, management and employment as one of the Corps' decisive success stories.
"For Train, Advise, Assist Command – East, our primary pacing item is relationships; relationships grounded in mutual trust," Calvert said. "Without good relationships with our Afghan partners, we simply cannot accomplish our mission. The relationship between Col. Jan and Capt. Kelly is a superb example."
Although artillery is only one piece of the puzzle, it's an important one. Accurate artillery is capable of turning a battle around within seconds.
The enemy cannot withstand or match this capability. They've tried rockets, direct attacks, car bombs, but the Afghan Army hasn't lost a single piece of artillery in TAAC-E. And every piece of artillery – represented by a giant red ring on the tactical maps – severely hobbles the enemy. It limits them in multiple ways, and when the Taliban or Daesh disregard those limits, they die.
"I pray for peace in Afghanistan for the sake of my children. But if the enemies of my country want war, I will give it to them," the colonel concluded.