Sunday, November 6, 2011

High and Dry on FOB Sharana

FOB SHARANA, AFGHANISTAN: The 172 Infantry Brigade is headquartered on Forward Operating Base Sharana, SE of Kabul on the Pakistan border in Paktika Province. The 172nd Infantry is turning over the southern portion of Pakitika to the Afghan National Security Forces and the Nov. 3rd transfer of Combat Outpost Waza Kwha to the 2nd Kondak, 7th Zone Afghan Border Police officially made that happen. In terms of battle space this is the largest transfer thus far to the Afghan Security Forces.

In spite of skepticism from most of the news media, violence has been steadily dropping along this area of the Afghan-Pakistan border for the last two years. “For so long the war effort here has been shuffling along with no clear strategy,” said Maj. Joe Bucccino, the brigade public affairs officer (PAO). “On Nov. 3rd in south Pakitika province, the forces of the Afghan Border Police along with the 172nd Infantry demonstrated our exit strategy.”

FOB Sharana will remain the source of supply and repair for Pakitika as well as security for the portion not turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces.

PRT team stopped up along highway under construction for a possible IED.

Lt. Ryan DeCamp who hails from Plattsburgh is the public affairs officer (PAO) for the provincial reconstruction team (PRT) for Patikita. In his briefing for today’s mission, mention is made that the team is still recovering from the loss of two team members to an IED near the end of October. Later today the team did once again find themselves held up for a potential IED. The scout dog found something suspicious which prevented the team from completing its road inspection mission, leaving little time for the meetings in Sharan at the new government center and women's health training center.

“Our goal is to do the best that we can, for the time we are here,” said Lt. DeCamp.

Lt. Jason Brown of A, Co. 172 Support Battalion runs the Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) which ships people and supplies throughout their sector and connects with other military locations throughout Afghanistan. Much of the equipment and supply effort is carried out by slings under the larger helicopters like the Chinook.

Lt. Jason Brown with a Russian built MI-8 on the HLZ , FOB Sharana

“We sling loads from Sikorsky’s owned by Presidential Airways and Russian MI-17s contracted from a Colombian company,” said Lt. Brown, “and some of the pilots are from the old USSR and have actually flown here during the Russian-Afghan war in the l980s.”

This means that these same pilots who fought the Taliban for Russia now fight many of the same forces for the Americans.

Warrant Officer Scott –center- with his crew working on an older 155mm cannon.

Sgt Charles Ennin looking over a home made cannon captured previously from the insurgents.

172nd Support Battalion Armaments Section repairs large guns, mortars, handguns etc. Warrant Officer One, Scott Towne has a crew working on the older 155MM cannons from the Viet Nam era which are being fazed out. They are replaced by the M-777 medium towed howitzer which fires a 155MM. GPS guided ‘smart shell’.

“These 777s are much lighter so consequently much easier to maneuver than the old guns, and are digitally controlled,” he said.

Air Force 1st Lt. Ryan DeCamp, Provincial Reconstruction Team Paktika Public Affairs Officer, records video during a mission to meet with members of an Afghan Local Police outpost in the Sarobi District of Paktika Province, southeastern Afghanistan, Nov. 7th. The PRT’s mission is to link the province’s citizens with its government so they don’t turn to groups like the Taliban for economic development or conflict resolution. DeCamp, a Seton Catholic graduate, is stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo Provided)

Friday, November 4, 2011

The First Infantry Division at Pasab

FOB PASAB, AFGHANISTAN: Major General William Mayville, commanding officer of the 1st Infantry Division, is in Afghanistan to look in on his soldiers stationed in country. The 4-4 Cavalry (RSTA) and the 2-34 Armor battalions from the 1st Infantry Division headquartered in Fort Riley, Kansas are both attached to the 3rd Brigade CT, 10th Mountain Division here in Kandahar Province.

Today’s convoy traveled from Pasab to Combat Outpost (CP) Kolk and Strongpoint Ghariban, which are both manned by soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division. They are located between FOB Pasab and the Arghandhab River. Both of these sites are jointly occupied by soldiers from the US Army and the Afghanistan National Army. General Mayville is looking into the security of his soldiers, how they have been relating with the local Afghan people and how they are dealing with the ever present IEDs. In this area the main crops are opium and pomegranates. The harvest is in for both this time of the year.

L to R: General William Mayville, LT. Col. Michael Katona and Col Patrick Frank at the briefing at COP Kolk.

A fairly in depth briefing encapsulating the mission of these 1st Infantry units was held for General Maybille, at CP Kolk along with Lt. Colonel Michael Katona of the 1st Inf. Div. and Colonel Patrick Frank, commanding officer of the 3rd BCT. A number of junior officers and senior NCO’s looked on.

After the briefing the General inspected the troops as well as awarding medals to a number of these soldiers. More than a few Purple Hearts were pinned to the chest of soldiers who had been wounded. He wound up this ceremony with a heart felt speech to his troops.

General Mayville awarding medals to 1st Infantry troops at COP Kolk.

General Mayville awarding a medal to the 1st Sgt of the Afghan Army Unit stationed at Strongpoint Ghariban.

The convoy passed through Strongpoint Ghariban where the General visited troops of the 1st Infantry stationed there. He inspected a selection of home made IEDs that the unit had captured and posted on a display board.

When finished, General Mayville and the contingent boarded helicopters for a more distant outpost out of range of today’s convoy from Pasab.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

3rd Brigade CT Companies at FOB Pasab

FOB PASAB, AFGHANISTAN: Members of the 3rd Brigade CT s 710th Brigade Support Battalion have been working along the Argandhab River to improve a local road that runs along the shore in the dry season and to build a 1500meter long concrete wall seven feet high along that road to keep local insurgents from coming back home to continue the fight against the 3rd Brigade CT. The main crop here is opium. It’s after the harvest season but there are piles of dried poppy plants ready to burn.

Stacks of dried poppy plants ready for burning, the opium having been harvested much earlier in the season.

L to R: 2nd Lt. Eric Berg, Capt. Dour Morrison and SSgt John Rock of the 3rd Brigade DT checking the progress of the wall and road along the Argandhab River.

Sick Call here on FOB Pasab is handled by B Company of the 3rd Brigade CT . Their full service health center, using the Medical Campus Concept, can take care of most any health problem that does not require hospitalization. This includes full dental, mental health, physical therapy, combat stress control and recently a concussion recovery center. Their return to duty rate is in the high 90 percentile.

The dental team in action.

L to R: Capt Peter Kirkendall, B Company commanding officer, with 1st Lt. Heather Woodruff, the company executive officer.

L to R: Capt. Kirkendall and Capt. Amanda Chamberlin, Veterinarian from Iowa State who handles the lab and provides vet services for the nearly 50 dogs from the K-9 Corps under the command of the 3rd Brigade CT.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Flying Afghans of Kandahar

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, AFGHANISTAN: Over the last year the Afghan Air Force detachment here at Kandahar Air Field has doubled in size and greatly improved. With the addition of C-130s and C-27s, a fixed wing group has been added. The C -27s are similar to the C-123s from the Korean and Vietnam eras but with Turbo prop engines. There are six MI-17 Russian built helicopters permanently stationed here as well. This morning’s flight will be in one of these basic but rather extraordinary aircraft.

Afghan Helicopter MI-17 after landing in the mountains near the Redgistan Desert

“I’m a Huey pilot these days,” said Lt. Col. Fred Koegler. “These aircraft are the Russian version of a Huey, just much larger.” The Lt. Col. will be the chief pilot on today’s training mission which will take place southwest of Kandahar over portions of the Redgistan Desert, and the mountains that run along its western border. This vast span of red sand covers 10,000 square miles.

The weather is 81 degrees F., visibility is good, the winds light, 05 is the active runway as Lt. Col. Koegler taxis the Afghan chopper along the taxiway parallel the active runway. The aircraft speeds up and climbs out quickly in the direction of the Red Desert.

Col. Michael Outlaw is the co-pilot and Tech. Sgt. Jason Stitt the instructor gunner round out today’s crew. Col. Outlaw is in the right seat in order to make the required flight hour requirements to remain current in the MI-17. There would ordinarily be an Afghan co-pilot. Also on board are Flight Engineer Sher Gan, two trainee crew chiefs, Faiz Mohammad and Powlat Khan and Shari the interpreter.

Within a few miles from the Khandhar area, there are no roads, power lines, vehicles or any evidence of a modern society. From an altitude of a thousand meters all that’s visible is Bedouin shepherds, their tents, and their goats and camels….a scene from another age.

The MI-17 makes a number of landings in the desert with the crew chiefs looking out both sides as the aircraft nears the ground, to look out for sand bursts that might blind the pilot before his final touchdown. Other landings are made in the high peaks in tight places where level landing zones are difficult to find. These mountains must be accessible to helicopters both for armed attacks against insurgents and for rescue of American or Afghan GIs who could be injured in operations there.

L to R: Col. Michael Outlaw and Lt. Col, Fred Koegler departing aircraft after training flight

After returning to the field and landing, Lt. Col. Koegler again stresses the importance of the crew chiefs carefully watching both sides of the helicopter as it comes in for a landing. “The rotor on a MI-17 is 63 ft in diameter,” he said. “We land in tight spots on the many FOBs (forward operating bases) and COPs (combat outposts) that are supplied daily by helicopters. Every kind of obstacle is to be expected and obviously avoided. You all saw how tight it was on that small LZ (landing zone) in those mountains.”

Afghan Air Force ground crew securing aircraft after landing

A thorough de-briefing was held in the Afghan compound conference room after the flight. The Afghan Air force flight crews are capable, serious students but if they are to take over the mission now preformed by the US Air Force here in Afghanistan, they have a long road ahead. The US Command does not allow Americans as passengers aboard an aircraft with an all Afghan flight crew.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Flight of the Drones

FOB PASAB, AFGHANISTAN: The high pitched roar of the ‘Shadow’ can be heard every morning before dawn here at Pasab, the command post of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team here in southern Afghanistan. It departs from a 1500 ft paved strip on the back side of the brigade motor pool. This TUAS (Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System) uses the strip just for the landing phase of the operation.

A Shadow drone coming in for a computerized GPS landing at FOB Pasab, Afghanistan.

“We launch this aircraft using a pressurized launcher system, a catapult that’s attached to a trailer and can be towed by the truck that also carries four disassembled aircraft,” said Warrant Officer One, Marilyn Payano, the chief TUAS technician. “As you can see, this system which is less than thirty feet in length, can have this drone airborne from zero to 70 knots in .07 seconds.”

This complete system can be packed up and on the road with an infantry outfit in three hours. Here at Pasab its main function is to provide nearly continuous coverage of the AO (area of operations). This provides the brigade commander at the TOC (tactical command center) aerial coverage throughout his command. The TOC has 16 screens, one of which is provided with live video from the TUAS Shadow platoon. This platoon can focus on and provide an overhead view of any insurgent activity happening in the AO, including any US troop movements that are pertinent. The primary focus of this system presently in the Kandahar area is to provide information to convoys. The Shadow drone can scan the routes ahead of time and pick any insurgent activity, especially the laying of IEDs along the highway which is the largest cause of injury and death to US troops here. The infrared camera on board provides coverage for night time raids.

“You see,” said Warrant Officer Payano, “the maneuver battalion commander on the ground has the ability to view the same live feed video through the OSRVT (One System Remote Video Terminal) which is just a laptop; and furthermore both the unit on the ground and the commander in the TOC are in direct radio communication with each other.”

Warrant Officer Payano hesitates for a moment. “I might add also,” she said, “that this live video feed from airborne Shadow aircraft here in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan can also be beamed live to the Pentagon. There have been instances in Afghanistan where officers in Washington, DC have actually directed firefights at the platoon level here on the ground in this country.”

L to R: PFC Clinton Gardiner and Warrant Officer Marilyn Payano preflighting a Shadow drone for a mission from FOB Pasab, Afghanistan.

The ground crew is running a Shadow drone through a preflight to take off before the one now airborne lands. PFC Clinton Gardiner who hails from central New York State where he grew up on a dairy farm is going through the checklist. He had formerly worked as a mechanic at the Hamilton Airport and joined the army aviation program because he’s always loved airplanes.

“This is basically not a complicated aircraft,” he said. “It’s powered by a 37 hp 100 octane gasoline engine similar to those used to power civilian ultra light aircraft. It stalls at 70 knots and cruises at 80 knots. The high cost of $1.5 million is in part due to the camera pod which cost $0.5 million itself.”

After launch the Shadow is piloted by soldiers in a two station van which houses display screens and controls. It is flown by computer prompts, not conventional stick and rudder controls. When its 5 or 6 hours of flight is finished it is programmed to return to its take off point and lands automatically through a GPS computerized landing system.

“This aircraft has a parachute recovery system,” said Warrant Officer Payano. “If it runs out of fuel or malfunctions for any reason it turns upside down, to protect the camera pod, and floats to the ground. We don’t use that system here though since we’d not want to chance recovery by an insurgent group. It will crash and burn.”

Thus far the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division has not lost any of their Shadow aircraft.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Nowruzi Bridge

FOB PASAB, AFGHANISTAN: It’s mid morning here at this dusty US Army post in southern Afghanistan. Soldiers of the Third Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division who man this Forward Operating Base are preparing to drive East on Highway #1. Their mission for the day is to participate in a ceremony marking the opening of the Nowruzi Bridge. This is a secondary crossing of the Arghandab River which forms the border between Kandahar and Zahari provinces, and is half a mile upriver from the main Route #1 crossing over Baghepul Bridge.

The convoy is made up of a dozen or so heavily armed MRAPS, and other types of mine clearing vehicles. There were at least as many four-man pickup truckloads of Afghan Army Troops who will attend the ceremony and provide security throughout the surrounding area while the US Army and local dignitaries participate in the ribbon cutting. Col. Patrick D. Frank commanding officer of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team will be in attendance.

Col. Patrick D. Frank watching bridge ceremony with Haji Toragan

“My men fabricated this pedestrian passageway over a collapsed span on the old bridge which was built by the Russians” said Lt. Col. Jered Helwig, commander of the 710th Brigade Support Battalion. “It had been down for nearly 30 years and the school children have been walking an extra mile around the highway bridge twice a day just to make it to and from school.”

While work was ongoing during this project the safety of the soldiers from the engineering company had been an issue, hence the caution being taken during the lead up to this ceremony. The MRAPS mine clearing vehicle sweeps forward on the dirt road which runs from the main highway to the older river crossing. There is no evidence of incoming fire or mortar activity. A large crowd of local residents, Afghan army and police are in attendance while the local dignitaries line the bridge railings. The main local celebrity here is power broker and tribal leader Haji Toragan.

L to R: SSG David Gibbons, Lt. Michael Scutier, Capt. Adam Phearsdorf, Haji Toragan and Col. Patrick D. Frank

“We call Haji Toragan the Keith Richards of Afghanistan,” says Lt Col Helwig. “His red hair and flamboyant clothing stand out among the locals but this guy is a very forward thinking leader.” In the past Haji Toragan has fought with the Russian army, with the Mujahudeen and now he supports the Americans. These varying allegiances seem to be in the background of most men in Afghanistan in their struggle for survival.

It turns out that Haji Toragan has built the local school that’s visible across the Arghandab River from the new bridge site. He insists that both boys and girls attend. He himself is illiterate but he means to see that this younger generation be educated so that they can enter and compete in the modern world.

School Teacher for the Nawruai bridge district school

Col. Frank has arrived along with the district governor, assorted local politicians and tribal chiefs. The children from the neighborhood school look on with their book bags and lunches. Well equipped local press and TV media are set up to cover the event that begins with a Muslim prayer sung by one of the Afghan Army soldiers.

Afghan school children waiting to cross over the new bridge to attend school

With the speeches concluded and the ribbon cut, the children along with the dignitaries cross over the new span. The soldiers from the 710th who actually cut and welded the steel span together look on approvingly, proud of their work and justly so. This is the type of project that might, as has been predicted for so many years, win a small space in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Brigade Commander Col. Patrick D. Frank is a firm believer in the ‘Shona-ba-Shona’ program which means simply standing shoulder to shoulder with our Afghan security and governance partners. He will condone nothing in the way of collateral damage or simple rudeness toward the Afghan people.

L to R: Col. Patrick D. Frank and Lt. Col. Jered Helwig on the Nowruzi Bridge

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Kabul - After the Surge

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: The US influx of soldiers is complete but this war torn and weary capital city is viewed quite differently depending on one’s position. US Army General David Petraeus, commander of all NATO forces here in Afghanistan stated recently on a local television show that, “Kabul is obviously much safer and more secure now than it has been in the last few years. Look for yourself. There is hardly a presence of ISAF (International Security Assistant Force) or US military vehicles on the streets.”

He does have a point. Two years ago ISAF soldiers were everywhere. Uniformed personnel appear to be either Afghan police or recruits of the Afghan National Army. They man numerous check points through out the city and their vehicles are omnipresent. It’s worth noting that no employees of the US government, no UN employees and none of the numerous civilians here that draw their incomes from the US taxpayer live outside the wire. They reside in well guarded compounds and normally are allowed to leave only under armed guard.

One of the main streets in Kabul whose buildings still show the scars of the artillery barrage from the Russian war.

“You might say that Kabul very much resembles North Africa when ‘Rick’s bar, of Casablanca fame, was operating at the beginning of WWII. It’s a city of great intrigue, rumors of every variety; and at times quite great fun.” This opinion comes from Ben Farmer, correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph who has lived on the local economy in Kabul for the last two years. Mr. Farmer finds surviving this way is economically feasible, and quite safe within the city limits. Most of the foreign residents of Kabul proper are journalists or NGO workers.

“We’re about the only people working here, excluding the GIs, that aren’t making six-figure money” he said. On closer inspection it appears that there is quite an ex-pat scene here in Kabul that much resembles Saigon and Phnom Penh of the 1990’s. Alcohol is available for foreigners and non Muslims. Witness the crowds at the ‘Gandamack Lodge’, ‘l’Atmosphere’, or ‘Boccacio’. Rumours of hashish use and illicit affairs run rampart among their own crowd.

It’s been reported that the largest CIA station and the largest British MI 6 are located in this very secretive city. The same goes for the Pakistani ISI, the Iranians, the Chinese, the Russians and the Indians all have a presence here. The Russian residents have good connections made during their ill fated military adventure here in the 1980's. They were able to live in Kabul with their families while forming relationships that still bind. The word is big money is everywhere, its source being US funded programs run amuck, as well as the vast influx of military supplies brought in by civilian contractors. Kabul is rated by the UN as the second most corrupt country in the world after Sudan.

Razda, a local taxi and fixer has agreed to drive out from Kabul during daylight on all three main roads as far as they are safe after darkness falls. That’s when the Taliban set up their check points where it’s not uncommon for them to pull out any foreigner or local who they believe is working for the US and shoot them on the spot.

“If you like” said Razda, “I can drive you as far as Jalalabad during the daylight hours, but you’d have to wear Afghan dress. The Taliban have snipers positioned along the main highway who have on occasion ‘taken out’ passengers in western garb. Of course travel at night is impossible, even for me. Transport in any other direction from Kabul seemed to be out of the question, day or night.

The Afgthan taxi driver, Radza showing where the Taliban set up road blocks every night just a few kilometers outside of Kabul on the route to Jalalabad.

Two years ago it was possible to take a cab from Kabul to Jalalabad, at least during daytime hours, without jeopardizing personal safety. The same held true for the route between Kabul and Bagram, and Kabul and Kandahar. None of these routes are passable by foreigners today and would seem to contradict recent pronouncements from US authorities here on advancements in security.

Afghan tribesman watching the traffic along the highway from Kabul to Mazar e Sharif.

David Greenway, a columnist for the International Herald Tribune is staying at the Gandamack Lodge, a favorite of journalists in Kabul, while gathering information for an article. Mr. Greenway covered the Viet Nam war for Time magazine from 1968 until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North.

“This situation here in Kabul rather reminds me of Phnom Penh during the end of the war in Cambodia,” he reminisced. “The city was completely surrounded by Khmer Rouge fighters who fired in occasional rockets, but life continued as usual in town. It to, was almost entirely re-supplied by US aircraft.” He continued along that line. “Who could have guessed then, that the US would be embroiled in another war in Asia thirty five years later?”

There was an earlier battle in Afghanistan. British forces were retreating from Kabul to Jalalabad in January, 1842. They were attacked midway near the town of Gandamack by tribesmen from the surrounding mountains. Out of a force of 16,500 British officers, colonial soldiers and assorted camp followers, one survivor reached Jalalabad. Dr. William Brydon had been allowed to pass safely from Gandamack, to bear witness to the massacre of the entire British force.

*A version of this article was published by the Press Republican on January 5, 2011.