Only a few months ago the first company of combat engineers from the Afghan National Army (ANA) 209th Corps began conducting fully independent operations for the first time in Regional Command (RC)-North, Afghanistan. Now, the other two combat engineer companies have been validated by the U.S. Army engineer development teams (EDTs) they have worked with for almost a year and proven they are ready to operate without coalition assistance.
This great accomplishment for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) shines as a beacon of marked progress during a time when significant media attention has been dedicated to questioning whether the force will be ready to take over in 2014. The 209th Corps combat engineers continue to demonstrate that a strong, effective ANSF is not merely a pipedream, but a real and attainable goal in the process of being accomplished.
As in any organization, it is the caliber of the leadership that shapes the culture of discipline and dedication necessary for building lasting excellence and it is no surprise that the route clearance companies of the ANA 209th Corps’ 2nd and 3rd Brigades, have achieved such success. Insiders and outsiders alike have expressed praise for the leaders of these organizations, often referring to them as “committed, trustworthy, caring,” and “the hardest of workers.” In turn, the leaders always humbly forward such praise to their Soldiers and consistently reiterate that they are willing servants to their country.
“My message to the people is that I wear this (ANA) uniform and I will defend Afghanistan the rest of my life. That is my promise.”
Second Bde. RCC Commander Capt. Nawid placed his hand over his heart while speaking these moving words in Dari during an interview conducted only days after his company of combat engineers completed their validation mission and were officially deemed independent.
Similarly, 3rd Brigade RCC Commander Capt. Abdul Qahir, a strong and proud leader who had designs on being an ANA commander from the time he was in grade school, spoke with a passionate tone that matched his soulful, honest eyes when he remarked,
“In only a year we have diffused countless IEDs (improvised explosive devices). We do this for God, County, family: in that order. This is about making a better Afghanistan and that takes leaders that are patient, controlled, and know their soldiers.”
For the past ten months, these companies have trained daily with their respective EDTs from the 420th Route Clearance Company, a U.S. Army Reserve unit out of Indiana, Pa. that falls under the conglomeration of engineer units in RC-North called Task Force Comet, supporting the theater-wide engineer operations of the 411th Engineer Brigade, Joint Task Force Empire. Originally there were six teams, each assigned to one of the three construction companies and three RCCs within the 209th Corps.
Spread across the 62,607 square miles that comprises RC-North, the teams had to work independently and be exceptionally resourceful. Each group faced unique circumstances that shaped their experiences.
The soldiers assigned were given little to no information or training to prepare them for their new mission of working with the ANA. EDT 3 member Cpl. Christopher McCall, twenty-four years old from Pittsburgh, Pa., noted,
“Before we arrived here, all we knew was that we were going to work with the ANA. We put ourselves in a position to assess them and discovered they were already very sound, operationally. They were clearing routes, mitigating improvised explosive devices; the mission was getting done.”
Throughout the months, the teams continuously trained and assessed the companies on everything from maintenance procedures and administrative paperwork to basic soldier skills. EDT 3, which was assigned to the 3rd Brigade RCC, found the company already had extensive experience and multiple successful IED finds.
They focused on the planning process, specific tactics and techniques that would sharpen mission performance, and most importantly, vehicle maintenance that helped enable the company to conduct missions more frequently. Even Capt. Abdul Kahair stated he felt his greatest accomplishment as a commander was learning how to keep the trucks running consistently and the procedures to get them fixed when they break.
As the mission tempo picked up and the EDT was able to observe progress over time, they could identify specific tactical improvements.
“We saw them doing a better job of maintaining security, looking for specific “indicators,” or signs that an IED may be placed nearby, and they had their electronic counter measures working well to block certain types of detonation attempts,” EDT 3 member Spc. Levi Prisk from Curwensville, Pa. said proudly. “The day I saw them lead a convoy of U.S. and Swedish vehicles and be the first to find an IED and dig it out of the road was a very proud day.”
The teams developed their assessments by comparing the International Security Assistance Force’s list of core competencies to their direct observations during their respective company’s mission planning and execution.
“We saw they knew what they were doing and that our main function would be to help them become more efficient. We focused on sharpening their knowledge of what tools they have, how to use them most effectively, and how to maintain them.”
EDT 5, assigned to the 2nd Brigade RCC, had a much different experience. The company has just barely arrived at their new station in RC-North after completing training together. EDT 5 leader Sgt. Jason Bell smiled as he recalled,
“These guys weren’t even allowed to pull security on their own forward operating base when we got here. Now they are light years ahead of where they were and doing route clearance on their own. They have built a name for themselves even among the Afghan National Police and Afghan Local Police in the area.”
With the company being so new, the team began training on basic soldier task and drills but even this proved to be a challenge. EDT 5 member Spc. Derek Welsh of Brookfield, Pa., recalled his exasperation.
“The language barrier was ridiculous. The language assistant had to translate everything into both Dari and Pashto because many of the soldiers only spoke one or the other. We wondered how they even conducted missions together but they had developed their own system of hand and arm signals to communicate we had to take very frequent breaks because it was so tedious getting through a lesson.”
To help promote more entertaining and engaging classes, the team became creative and started hosting small competitions on basic tasks. The various hands-on challenges accelerated the process and built strong relationships between the trainers and the company. Sgt. Bell playfully ribbed Spc. Turnbull adding,
“In the end, they crushed Turnbull in a race to disassemble and assemble the 240B machine gun. They cheered and were so proud!”
It was due to observing their character in the classroom as well as on the battle field that respect and admiration for the sacrifices and commitment of the ANA soldiers grew. Bell recalled a specific occasion their selfless service moved him.
“We had a Husky tipping over. The operator couldn’t even get out of it because it was so close to rolling. Without anyone asking, the RCC immediately jumped out and got us unstuck. Without their help we would have been stuck in danger for much longer.”
Similarly, EDT 3’s Cpl. McCall noted, “Our leader, Sgt. Lewis really loved this job and the company and he would share our care packages with them. Many of them send all of their money to their families in other provinces and don’t have much at all. Soon we realized they weren’t keeping any of the items. They would hand the toiletries and candy out to local children in need.”
Outside of their personal accomplishments, the two companies have made giant strides forward in the eyes of their high leadership and the local population. ANA 209th Corps, 2nd Brigade Commander Brig. Gen. Khair Mohammed Khawri proudly stated,
“The engineers accomplish whatever mission is put in front of them. We are pleased with their take-action attitude. As a command, we know how important the RCC is. We don’t do a mission without them. They are an asset to the brigade and corps. The enemy cannot fight us face to face, so their only option at this point is to place IEDs and our RCC finds them and disarms them effectively. They are famous.”
It is a central doctrine of counter-insurgency operations that it is impossible to be successful without the support of the civilian population. The RCCs have been embraced by the people and gather most of their intelligence by taking the time to engage villagers during their missions. However, it wasn’t always this way.
“They didn’t know they should be talking to people while on mission,” added 420th RCC Platoon Leader 1st Lt. Brandon Curtis, who frequently conducted partnered missions with the ANA 209th Corps, 2nd Bde. RCC.
Sgt. Bell nodded, adding; “now they go out, talk to the people and find at least one IED a week as a direct result.”
Spc. Andrew Turnbull of Brookfield, Pa. and Spc. Garon Owens of New Brighton, Pa. proudly recalled specific moments their assigned ANA RCC made decisive strides forward in this regard.
“The ANA RCC was in front leading a mission with partnering coalition forces when they spotted an IED. The commander immediately took charge, pushed out security and cordoned the area, keeping civilians at a safe distance,” said Owens.
“Another time, after one of the platoons had just completed a six hour patrol, a civilian on a bike told them he knew where a bomb maker was located. The soldiers cordoned off the area in question, handed out water to local civilians and acted very professionally. They built rapport that still helps them accomplish their mission today,” added Turnbull.
Story after story they recalled reinforced a picture of two companies that are not only sufficiently prepared to take over route clearance operations, but dedicated to and passionate about the job. While many of the ANA soldiers acknowledge that they joined for a better education and a better life for their families, many, like ANA Staff Sgt. Abdul Ghafoor, solemnly stated,
“Since I have known my right and left hands, I have been fighting. I don’t care if I am killed for serving my country. I just want my children to be able to go to school and be safe. I just want peace.”
It is that very dedication combined with proven effectiveness that led Cpl. McCall, a proud combat engineer himself, to confidently state,
“I trust them. I trust going on a route they have cleared as much as any route that Americans have cleared.”