KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Many nights at this sprawling military metropolis in Afghanistan’s southern wastelands, residents are roused from bed by the high-pitched, rising tone of the indirect-fire alarm.
A rocket or mortar is arcing through the air, and it’s time to hit the deck. While the attacks are rarely deadly, they are disruptive. Thousands of residents must stop what they’re doing and get on the ground before heading for bomb shelters.
A small group of Air Force advisers is working to disrupt such attacks, not to mention more spectacular ones — like two brazen attempts to breach the air field’s gates in 2010, in which several NATO personnel were injured — and teach their Afghan counterparts how to do it themselves.
The team stays busy, with just 65 advisers to work with about 1,000 Afghan counterparts. Beyond perimeter and flight line defense, these mentors also work with Afghan pilots, mechanics and firefighters.
Col. Jim Breck, commander of the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, said his Afghan counterparts are making progress, though there is much work to be done on developing noncommissioned officers and the Afghans’ logistics capabilities. With the 2014 deadline for the U.S. drawdown of combat troops looming, U.S. leaders are hoping for a rapid improvement in those areas.
“These guys are technically proficient, they can do their patrol … but they’re still reliant on ISAF for enablers,” said Breck, who heads the 738th mentoring mission at Kandahar Air Field. “They need some more training and a lot more mentoring.”
The mentoring includes regular patrols to the farms and compounds that dot the landscape beyond the air field’s fences, and which often serve as launching points for the rocket attacks that rain down on the base, especially during the traditional summer fighting season.
On a recent patrol, an Afghan sergeant major stopped to talk to some local farmers digging a well just a few hundred yards from the base, as his U.S. counterparts hung back. One farmer told the sergeant major of some explosives he found while digging his watermelon patch. When Afghan air force soldiers and U.S. airmen went to investigate they found two rusted recoilless rifle rounds (often used as anti-tank weapons). While the rounds were long past useful, Air Force Master Sgt. Kenneth Vassar, 37, of Great Falls, Mont., who mentors the Afghan air force, said it shows the trust the Afghan airmen have gained with local residents.
“They have gotten information on where they’re shooting rockets from,” Vassar said. “It’s so much better for the Afghans to talk to their own instead of us trying to figure out what’s going on.”
Little in the 738th’s approach to perimeter or flight line security has changed in the wake of riots over the burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Field or a bizarre incident in which an Afghan translator drove a truck at a group of NATO officials on the tarmac at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province as U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s plane was taxiing toward the gathering.
“(We have an) increased awareness, yes, but we really had all the force protection measures in place,” said Air Force Capt. Dustin Williams, 27, of Fayetteville, Ga., who patrols with the Afghan air force.
Williams said Afghan noncommissioned officers have gained confidence in the past few months. Indeed, before the recent patrol, it was an Afghan sergeant, not an American, who gave the patrol brief, laying out toy soldiers on a sand table to review how to respond if attacked.
“When I first got here, we would really drive the patrol briefs,” Williams said. “That’s a big change.”