VILSECK, Germany — While the world focuses on several high-profile setbacks for the U.S. in Afghanistan, battalions in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team are looking to more immediate concerns as they ready for a spring deployment — improving intelligence, pushing Afghan soldiers to the front and, as always, protecting one another.
“Obviously, recent events have changed a lot for Afghanistan, and it’s awful what happened,” said Capt. Mason Thornal, commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. “As for us, it’s not a game-changer.”
Scheduled to deploy as part of the Department of Defense’s spring rotation, the 173rd recently wrapped up three weeks of counterinsurgency training in Hohenfels. Companies occupied combat outposts across the training area, set beside mock Afghan villages that housed Germans role-playing residents. A focus of the rotation was pushing Afghan forces, played by Bulgarians, to the front of operations.
Among the scenarios: Villagers protested at outpost gates, insurgents attacked COPs and kidnapped a U.S. soldier. The training was set to mimic conditions in eastern Afghanistan, a spokesman for the Joint Multinational Readiness Center said.
“Do not get close to that vehicle! Get away from that vehicle!”
The orders, barked out on the training range during the recent exercise, came after a suspicious red van stopped at the perimeter of a mock combat outpost occupied by the 1-503. Soldiers demanded the driver turn around, and they warned each other to back off.
A loud pop, then a canister of smoke and the mock Vehicle Born IMPROVISED Explosive Device, or VBIED, went off, claiming the “lives” of a handful of soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. Had the battalion not stopped the van at the gates, the toll would have been worse.
A volatile time
The deployment comes at a volatile time in the nation. An Army sergeant was accused this month of killing 17 unarmed civilians. Last month, the U.S. acknowledged burning copies of the Quran at Bagram Air Base in central Afghanistan, setting off days of protests and several reprisal killings.
In interviews Wednesday, company commanders with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment said that while their focus is narrowed to their areas of operation, they understand the possible impact of national events.
“We can’t become so consumed with some of those broad things that it just takes over,” said Capt. Chad Peltier, of Company A. “However, some of those broad political events … they affect things we have to be cognizant of.”
Regardless of where each company goes, soldiers will be identified with recent events, said Capt. Colin Layne, commander of Company B. They’ll struggle to get past the image.
“It is very easy to say, ‘That wasn’t me.’ But you have to counter that more aggressively,” he said.
Officers here talk about Information Operations, or efforts to engage key leaders and civilians in positive ways. They say they’ll put an “Afghan face” on operations by pushing Afghan soldiers forward and backing them up, versus operating jointly.
Yet even in training, the challenges of working with a soured local population and an emboldened insurgency are visible. Insurgent “shadow governments” sought to undermine work in the mock villages. Villagers threw rocks at passing convoys. Thornal’s company angered its neighboring village when it entered to search for a missing U.S. soldier.
“In order for us to do that, we had to significantly affect their way of life for a day — lock down their town, search for him,” he said.
The Bulgarians helped replicate another likely frustration, the cultural and language barriers of working with the Afghan National Army. During one firefight, a Bulgarian sat on his Humvee turret, arms crossed. Unable to speak much English, he didn’t understand he was still alive in the exercise and could open fire.
U.S. soldiers must be ready for the cultural mix-ups and the frustrations that will come with working alongside the ANA, Peltier explained.
“I think the way you prepare for it is to expect it … We aren’t always going to get the result we want. We’re going to be frustrated,” he said.
Among reasons to be optimistic is an improved intelligence-gathering system on the company level, commanders say. Known as Company Intelligence Support Teams, or COISTS, the groups of six soldiers join patrols and leader engagements, compare information and make recommendations to their commander.
“It’s almost like a company commander having a staff,” Peltier said. “Almost unheard of.”
Commanders also said last year’s high-intensity, full-spectrum training allowed them to improve squad-and platoon-level tactics before training specifically for the deployment.
After a pre-deployment exercise with a focus on collaborating with Afghan soldiers and civilians, the 173rd will soon get the real experience. Layne, like others, remained optimistic.
“It’s all about the basics, our ability to develop partnerships and relationships,” he said.