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NEWS | May 15, 2012

Paratroopers learn to work with Afghan partners

By SGT Michael J. MacLeod , 82nd Airborne Division

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ARIAN, Afghanistan — As the American paratroopers moved carefully into the sleepy village of Ghat Kala, the Afghan troops that accompanied them were noticeably at ease.

The mission’s goal was to search a kalat in the shadow of a razorback mountain for homemade explosives, the insurgency’s weapon of choice when packaged in roadside bombs.  Another mud compound was purportedly owned by an insurgent commander.  There might also be arms stashed in the rocky caves above the village.

The Americans came in ready for a fight, but the Afghan soldiers clearly were not expecting one.

“When we came into the villages and spoke with the elders and villagers, if we talked to 100 people, maybe two praised the Taliban,” said Maj. Niyazi, a lean, dignified officer with a close-cropped beard in his 40’s, the Afghan company commander.  “The others are so tired from the war that they have no use for the Taliban.  The only service the Taliban provides them is trouble,” he said.

“Except for the young ones, all of these guys and me were Mujahedeen and fought against the Russians when they invaded Afghanistan,” said Niyazi, a native of Laghman Province who joined the Afghan National Army as soon as the Karzai government was formed.

Niyazi’s American counterpart is a staid Texan, Capt. Robert Gacke III, a company commander with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.  The regiment is one of the Army’s more notable units, the helm of which has been held by some of the Army’s best and brightest, including David Patraeus and John Abizaid.

Gacke is new to Afghanistan, but he led a platoon in Baghdad during the Surge, and spent another year in Kirkuk.  He understands the native advantage.

“The Afghan soldiers crack the code of how the villagers work, how they think, how to get them to respond,” said Gacke.  “They can pick up on some of the cues from locals that we can’t see.  They are better able to know when they need to be secure and when they don’t.”

Together, the Afghans and Americans searched the suspected kalat.  There was drug paraphernalia – locals said the owner was a drug addict – but no explosives.

Niyazi arranged to meet with a few of the village elders in one of their homes, where Capt. Gacke explained why the soldiers were in the village.

Gacke told them how his rearing in rural Texas made the sparse, wide-open spaces of Ghazni province appeal to him, and how the Afghan way of life – family-centered and agrarian-based, where a man’s word is his bond – was a familiar one.

Everyone at the meeting understood the effects of the fear sewn by radical insurgents, many of whom are imports from neighboring Pakistan and Iran, but Maj. Niyazi told the villagers that every Afghan still has a duty to his country.

“I have a son,” he said. “If my son becomes an engineer or anything else, civilian or army, he should try to serve his country.  It’s not just those of us wearing the uniform that can or should serve.  This is always my advice to the villagers too.  This is the only way to save our country.”

Over the next two days, the commanders broke bread with a number of elders in Ghat Kala and neighboring Akhyvondkhely, visited a school and chatted with locals.  While no explosives were discovered, Gacke considered the mission a success anyway.

The counterinsurgency fight is intelligence driven and often takes the form of key-leader engagements, talking to locals, and piecing a puzzle together for more direct-type actions when the time is right, he said.

“We were able to clear certain parts of the area such as the caves, and we got quite a bit of information from locals that in time will build a bigger picture for future operations.  The Afghan troops were indispensible because they knew how to ask the questions, but they also knew what was acceptable and what was not,” he said.

Niyazi said that his soldiers liked to join the Americans on patrol because, if the Americans entered the villages alone, there was much potential for unintended consequences.

“They should not see the females.  They should not enter the houses uninvited.  They should be polite and well mannered so the people will like them.  The people, especially the children, should not be afraid of the American or ANA troops.  Anything they need, they should feel safe to ask from us.  We are soldiers, yes, but we are also cultural advisors,” he said.  “This creates safety for everyone.”

Niyazi has worked with Americans and their coalition partners ever since the war began.

“Whenever we wear this uniform, we are ready to defend our country,” he said.

“We appreciate their service because we love our country,” he said.  “We hope the Americans are successful in their mission so that they can go back to the country they love.”