KABUL, Afghanistan (December 23, 2011) — As the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan looks to 2012 as a time to build on gains made and extend the security zone east of Kabul, the soldiers of Regional Command East know they have a vital role to play in making that possible.
Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan, told reporters traveling here last week with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta he hopes to consolidate gains made in Afghanistan’s north, south and west over the next year.
And as “significant counterinsurgency operations” continue in the east, Allen said his goal is to push the security zone east of Kabul.
In addition, he cited an evolution toward an advisory mission in Afghanistan to enhance capability within the Afghan security forces as the United States looks toward scaling back its combat mission there.
Army Col. Edward T. Bohnemann, commander of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, recognizes the emphasis that puts on his soldiers in remote but strategically important Paktika province.
Bohnemann’s brigade is deployed from Grafenwoehr, Germany, with its headquarters just 30 miles from the Pakistan border at Forward Operating Base Sharana. Among his combat outposts sprinkled through the province, some are directly west of the border.
Paktika province is home to historic transitory routes between the two countries. It’s also an infiltration point for fighters, munitions and weapons filtering into Afghanistan bound for Kabul, Kandahar and the northern regions.
Bohnemann noted the challenge of stretching his soldiers and their Afghan counterparts to cover such a vast region. “There are too many small goat trails [and] small dirt roads to say I am going to have a hard stop at the border,” he said. “It’s too big of a border.”
Some of the border areas are so remote that when an incident occurs, “trying to get there rapidly becomes problematic,” he said.
So Bohnemann and his soldiers concentrate on improving the trends and making the most effective use of the capabilities they have. “I focus my soldiers on, how do we interdict, neutralize, slow the flow so that other places can build capacity [and] build on the security gains they have seen throughout the areas of Afghanistan,” he said.
Choking that flow, he recognizes, will be critical to Allen’s goal of expanding the security zone around Kabul. “My piece of that is … to stem the flow of weapons [and] fighters to the security zone,” he said.
Exacerbating the challenge, he acknowledged, is Pakistan’s decision to scale back cross-border coordination following the Nov. 24 border incident that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
“There is not a whole lot of cross-border coordination right now,” he lamented. “I would love to see the lines of operation open up.”
On the positive side, Bohnemann told reporters he’s seen enemy attacks drop significantly during the five months since his brigade arrived here.
He expressed growing confidence in the capability of Afghan security forces in his area of responsibility, and in the work his troops have done to establish conditions for their long-term success.
“Every day, when you look at the Afghan security forces, they are in the lead,” he said, noting that Afghans are independently leading two-third to three-quarters of operations here.
“The Afghans are in charge in Paktika province,” he said. “And they are doing more and more every day.”
Based on their growing capability, Bohnemann said he believes, “there is no insurgent force in Paktika that is going to overwhelm the Afghan security forces out there.”
“They have had some fights, [and] the Afghan security forces have stayed and held their ground,” he said. “On occasion, they have called for us for support,” particularly when they need to evacuate a wounded or fallen comrade. “But they are holding their ground.”
Bohnemann said he anticipates a natural progression as his soldiers transition toward an advisory role with the Afghan security forces.
He acknowledged areas where the Afghans still need assistance, including logistics and the systems to make the supply train more efficient. “What I am focused on is: Are they tactically sufficient to maintain security in the province? Can they support themselves?” he said. “My mission, my focus is getting the Afghans ready for the future.”
Bohnemann said he’s confident he has “the right soldiers in the right units” on the ground to support that mission.
Looking to the future, he said he expects the U.S. and ISAF drawdowns to maintain that balance, based on conditions on the ground and “not on a particular glide path to zero.”
During his visit here last week, Panetta told Bohnemann’s troops he believes the effort in Afghanistan has reached a turning point, thanks to the work they and other coalition and Afghan forces are doing.
“I really think that for all the sacrifice that you’re doing, the reality is that it is paying off,” he told them. “We’re moving in the right direction. And we’re winning this very tough conflict in Afghanistan.”