By SGT Michael J. MacLeod
Sgt. Bashir, a platoon sergeant with Afghan National Army's 6th Kandak, 3rd Brigade, 203rd Corps, greets a farmer during a U.S.-Afghan clearing operation in southern Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, June 2, 2012. (Photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ARIAN, Afghanistan (June 8, 2012) — Insurgents are learning that U.S. and Afghan forces will go anywhere at anytime to disrupt and destroy their capabilities, said a U.S. military commander in southern Ghazni Province today.
After dramatically reducing the occurrence of roadside bombs along Highway 1 here, U.S. Army paratroopers and Afghan forces are beginning to take the fight to insurgent safe havens, said Lt. Col. Praxitelis Vamvakias, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
The paratroopers from Fort Bragg, N.C., concluded a multi-day helicopter assault June 5, that resulted in the destruction of at least five insurgent weapons caches in a number of remote "safe haven" villages in the mountains west of the Qara Bagh District Center, said Vamvakias.
"This is part of our plan to keep the insurgents off balance, allowing Afghan National Security Forces and the district governance space and time to gain traction in improving security, governance and economics," he said.
Cleared were the agricultural-based settlements of Barlah, Lar and several smaller villages, all of which are located at nearly 8,000 feet of elevation in a remote valley.
One of the company commanders involved in the operation, Capt. Robert Gacke III, said that such operations are intended to knock insurgents out of their comfort zones, causing them to make mistakes that U.S. and Afghan forces may capitalize on.
Along Highway 1, for instance, high pressure from route-clearance teams has led to a slate of civilian deaths caused by roadside bombs likely meant for military convoys. Such missteps further erode already-waning civilian tolerance for insurgent activities.
Another insurgent misstep, a forced closure of 83 schools in Ghazni's Andar District to protest a government mandate that all motorcycles be registered, met a swift end when citizens clashed with the Taliban in open conflict.
Gacke, whose company partnered with Afghan National Army soldiers to clear Barlah, said he believed the biggest benefit from the most recent mission was that it was "the spark that began the transition of responsibility and mission-leading from us to the Afghans."
The mission used a "combined-arms rehearsal" beforehand, a significant planning tool during which each commander described in detail on a floor map his role in the operation.
Maj. Shamhoon Saf, operations officer for 6th Kandak, 3rd Brigade, 203rd Corps, said that he planned to use the planning method for their own missions in the future.
"We want to become this professional," he said.
In the field, the "big win" for American paratroopers was when Afghan soldiers began leading on clearing compounds, said Gacke.
One of Gacke's platoon leaders, 1st Lt. Kirk Shoemaker, explained that Afghan soldiers entered every home first and were always in the lead of moving formations.
"Our ANA partners were phenomenal, particularly 1st Lieutenant Lashka Khan and his platoon sergeant, Sergeant Bashir," said Shoemaker.
"In fact, sometimes they outpaced us climbing mountains. They are hungry to make sure the people are protected and the Taliban is eliminated from this area," he said.
Shoemaker conceded that the Afghan soldiers are much better at discerning the tell-tale signs of Taliban influence within the normal context of Afghan village life.
Lashka Khan, who has served seven years in the Afghan army, agreed with the lieutenant's analysis, adding that his army is getting better every day.
"My oldest boy is 11," he said. "He is proud that I am fighting the Taliban because, if they were in control again, our country would once again plunge into darkness. When we searched the houses, the people told us they don't have schools. I want my country to have a shining future where all of my children and my neighbors' children can attend school and become knowledgeable citizens."
Shoemaker, who was an intelligence officer before taking lead of a platoon, said that the safe havens they cleared were not nearly as menacing as the reports suggested and lacked the improvised explosive devices, anti-personnel mines, car bombs and suicide vests that planners warned against.
"There weren't any direct engagements with the Taliban," he said. "There was Taliban rumored to be there and have influence, but it was not as belligerent as we expected."
That may just be a sign of how safe insurgents believed their safe haven to be up until now, he said.
(c) US CENTCOM