Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan – “I’ve never seen somebody that people loved more: him walking down the street, and the crowds would gather around him, and they would listen to every single word he said,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Charles Studer of his Afghan National Army counterpart. “They wanted to be Afghan, and they wanted to be proud of their country.”
Studer is a member of Security Forces Advisory and Assistance Team Archangel, 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. SFAAT Archangel spent the last nine months working with the ANA’s 2nd Kandak, 4th Brigade, out of former Forward Operating Base Shinwar.
On July 14, the SFAAT and the Kandak command staff celebrated their achievements together at Shinwar. The soldiers exchanged gifts of appreciation and offered a few words about the time they spent with each other.
Advising occurred on every level of the military organization: from intelligence to tactics, from soldier welfare to base security. Studer mentored the Kandak’s cultural and religious advisor, an Afghan soldier who would interact and pray with locals whenever operations took the ANA into a town in the surrounding area.
The region surrounding Shinwar includes the Highway 7 corridor, which runs from Pakistan, through the customs gate at Torkham, all the way through Jalalabad. Traffic along this road is responsible for much of the country’s economy: ensuring safe travel is of utmost importance.
On account of this, operations the SFAAT and the 2nd Kandak have conducted together have focused on securing the districts around Highway 7, particularly Bati Kot.
‘Securing’ means more than just chasing the enemy away once contact is made: it means winning support of the locals, so enemy footholds vanish over time. Doing this effectively meant the Afghans had to master the training the SFAAT provided to them, as well as overcome certain preconceptions or misconceptions.
The first misconception was a sort of regional idea that the enemy forces were larger than life and unstoppable, said U.S. Army Capt. Nicholas Drake, Archangel SFAAT commander.
Because of this, locals were hesitant to get behind the Afghan National Security Forces at first.
Then, through the course of repeated operations that sent enemy forces fleeing, perceptions changed. Not only about the enemy’s strength, but about the ANA’s as well.
“Over the course of this deployment, they were able to gain confidence in their abilities,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Kyle Harnitcheck, SFAAT operations advisor. “Now they are conducting joint ANSF operations, multiple days, over places that were considered Taliban safe havens, with great success.”
Superior firepower and training is one thing; engaging the local people like the Kandak’s cultural and religious advisor does takes the fight to a whole new level. The ANA’s efforts are winning local loyalty.
“Now that they’re starting to do it, you see a lot of people shifting over,” said Drake. “You see villages pledging that they won’t allow the Taliban in there.”
Because the collaboration between Archangel SFAAT and the 2nd Kandak progressed so well, the SFAAT recently transitioned to a new phase in the partnership. Level-two advising allows the ANA to progress to greater prominence within their area of operation, while U.S. forces take another step back.
On all accounts, the future is bright.
“They know what they have to do, and they know how to do it,” said Drake. “They seize the high ground, move in a controlled fashion, engage the right people, and we’re starting to see this kind of unstoppable momentum.”