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Crossroads of Afghanistan

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Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 12:00 am

Editors note: The paratroopers in this column are operating in Zabul Province, the same province in Afghanistan where Arizona’s 1st Battalion of the 159th Infantry fought and where two soldiers, including Desert Vista High School graduate PFC Mykel Miller, died.

A small group of paratroopers navigated in darkness along their patrol route. Under a canopy of stars they led the way for their Afghan allies using night vision goggles. Another team of paratroopers formed up the rear while a loyal dog from the Afghan National Army base tagged along.

The group began to climb down a dry river bed, called a wadi.

“Is that thing really that deep?” the platoon sergeant asked.

Inside the wadi an Afghan officer told the platoon sergeant that the previous ANA Kandak stationed in the area had been ambushed in that same spot.

“We need to get out of here,” the platoon sergeant said. “This is a very bad place.”

One by one the platoon sergeant helped Afghan and American soldiers alike across the wadi, and the patrol continued.

If you drive down Highway 1 through Afghanistan’s Zabul province, it might look like there’s nowhere to hide from the Baba Mountains in the southwest all the way to the Hindu Kush in the northeast. Looks can be deceiving. Orchards, mud-brick walls, deeply tilled gardens, wadis and waist-high vegetation create a maze of chokepoints and hiding places.

The 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, arrived in Zabul late this summer to advise and assist the Afghan national Army in providing security for the province.

Zabul is a crossroads. Highway 1 is the only paved road that links Kabul and the eastern provinces to Kandahar and the southern provinces, while the Taliban use the rugged terrain to slip through the province on their way between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Zabul is known right now as a transit point,” said Lt. Col. David Oclander, the battalion’s commander. “To the Taliban, Zabul has always been absolutely critical,” Oclander said.

Zabul was the last province to fall to the mujahedeen and Coalition Forces in 2002 and the first to see the reemergence of the Taliban in 2005. There is an 11 percent literacy rate in the province, with only about 70 working schools in the entire province. Because 90 percent of the population lives in remote locations and relies on subsistence farming, there are very few opportunities for people in the province, Oclander said.

“It lends itself to the rise of an insurgency and the rise of a radical ideology,” Oclander said.

In a recent shura, a traditional assembly of decision makers, community leaders from the Shajoy district met with Afghan and American commanders to discuss their concerns.

Some village elders expressed their concern that their communities could become battlefields because the Taliban use their towns as rest stops and hiding places. Others told the ANA representative that the Taliban were threatening university students who came back on break from school that if they didn’t pay extortionate sums of money to return to school they would either have to stay home or face violence.

Several of the village leaders pointed out that many others who were invited to the Shura did not attend due to Taliban intimidation. 

“As soon as they see a clear winner they will make a choice,” Oclander said. “Security is the main thing that will win people over.”

Before the recent arrival of additional coalition forces there were only a few hundred International Security Assistance Force personnel, Oclander said. In several cases paratroopers have replaced embedded training teams small enough to count on one or two hands with entire infantry platoons in remote Afghan National Army bases. In addition to the paratroopers, the province has also received another battalion from the 2nd Infantry Division, and a contingent from the Romanian army.

“Hopefully the greater resources will translate to a larger, more complete mentor mission,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Taylor, an Army Reserve medic who was one of the last members of the training team to leave Zabul.

Though small in numbers, the embedded training teams laid the foundation for the incoming coalition forces by establishing a positive relationship with the local Afghan soldiers.

“My soldiers know that our advisors are here to help,” said Maj. Mohammed Ahmin. “When we go together on missions we are comrades.”

Several nights later the Afghan soldiers are on patrol again. The night before, two insurgents had been killed by their own explosives while attempting to plant a roadside bomb. As the allies approached the wadi they had reconnoitered earlier, loud explosions and distant gunfire broke out behind them.

Afghan and American soldiers alike instinctively faced out and pulled security while the platoon sergeant called higher headquarters on his radio. The gunfire became more sporadic and finally stopped. A group of Romanian soldiers had come under attack further down Highway 1. As the patrol continued along its route, helicopters could be heard hovering overhead. The same dog tagged along, loyal as ever.

 

Sgt. Stephen Decatur is the public affairs officer for the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade.

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