U.S. Army 1st Lt. Clayton Smith, from Oxford, Maine, Scout Platoon leader for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Spartan, debriefs members of the Afghan Uniformed Police inside the police headquarters courtyard after a presence patrol through the city of Gardez, Feb. 16. (Photo by Spc. Ken Scar)
PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Februrary 22, 2012) — The city of Gardez is located at the junction between two important roads that cut through a huge alpine valley. Surrounded by the mountains of the Hindu Kush, which boil up from the valley floor to the north, east and west, it is the axis of commerce for a huge area of eastern Afghanistan, and has been a strategic location for armies throughout this country’s long history of conflict. Observation posts built by Alexander the Great are still crumbling on the hilltops just outside the city limits.
For the last 10 years, Western armies have controlled this valley, with the paratroopers of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Spartan, currently holding that distinction. Their mission: to prepare the Afghan Security Forces to operate independently.
On Feb. 16, the soldiers from Scout Platoon, HHC, 3rd Bn., 509th Inf. Regt., accompanied a local Afghan Uniformed Police element on a presence mission around the city. Something that may seem routine here after a decade of modern war, was actually a big leap forward for Afghanistan’s emerging security forces because it had been planned and executed exclusively by the AUP without coalition input.
This time, the scouts were just tagging along for the ride.
“Today was a big step,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Clayton Smith, a scout platoon leader and Oxford, Maine native. “This is the first time [Gardez AUP] Capt. Kardir has ever planned his own patrol. It used to be we’d call them and say we need 10 guys and two trucks. It’s been easier to plan it as a U.S. mission and just tell them, walk up this road ahead of us.”
On this day, however, it was the first time that the AUP called to request operational support, and was a heartening sign of progress for U.S. personnel stationed in the valley, said Smith.
“We’re getting ready to turn the country back over to the Afghans,” said U.S. Army Maj. Brad Kattelmann, chaplain from Brookings, S.D., 3rd Bn., 509th Inf. Regt., who came along on the mission to build trust with the local Afghans. “So what happened today is very important.”
Important, also because the Afghan-to-U.S. troop ratio on these types of missions is evening out.
“Today we went out and their line of guys was just as long as our line of guys,” said Smith. “So the people don’t see us dominating the patrol and think, as soon as we’re gone, they have nothing.”
In the months to come, the soldiers from 3rd Bn., 509th Inf. Regt., will continue to accompany their Afghan counterparts on missions, carefully stepping back from taking an active part in the operations to assume a strictly supervisory role.
“Today was day one, creating a starting point,” explained Smith. “Now we bounce it off of what they were taught in their academy and assess their performance.”
“They know how to go out on patrol, because that’s something we taught them because it effects our security,” Smith added. “But what we’re trying to work on is getting them to not just do raids with Americans, but to patrol the streets and arrest people who are breaking the law.”
It’s important for the populace to see the local police actually doing police work, like arresting troublemakers and drug users, Smith explained, because it gives them credibility in areas where it has been lacking.
“Cops don’t need to go around and shake hands and make nice with everyone they see, but they need to get the respect of the population, and you do that by doing everything you can to positively affect every civilian you come in contact with,” Smith said. “If the people of Gardez see the AUP arresting a 17-year-old troublemaker, throwing him in the slammer for a night and making his parents come get him the next day – that’s going to be the talk of the town.”
With the AUP taking the reins in Gardez, the scouts may finally get a break from what has been a gruelling operational tempo – even for scouts.
“We cover down on the largest area of operation in Paktya, and the largest population center,” said Smith. “We constantly patrol.”
Even with their only respites coming when the lack of air support nixes foot patrols into the city, and even with such a high operation tempo, the scouts’ morale remains high.
“Scouts are the cream of the crop of the battalion,” said U.S. Army Maj. Mychajlo Eliaszewskyj, the HHC commander from Canandaigua, N.Y. “They are prepared for anything.”
“The guys expect it because we drove them hard training up to come over here, but its going to be a long ten months,” said Smith.
Pfc. Mike Halberg, of Vancouver, Wash., expressed a positivity that is typical for soldiers in the Scout Platoon about the difficult job they must execute in the months ahead.
“It’s going to be a long year but its good times,” he said. “[Together with the AUP] we’re keeping Gardez safe and catching bad guys as they roll through. It’s fun stuff.”
“When we go home, everyone will tell their war stories, but these [scouts] are going to leave this small chunk of Afghanistan a better place than what they found it,” said Smith. “You can already see it.
These actual soldiers with boots on the ground are making a positive change in Afghanistan. It’s not just some briefing by a general. The civilians walking the streets of Gardez are being positively affected by their hard work.”