82nd Airborne Division soldiers fight traffic, avoid ambushes in streets of Kabul
KABUL — With the war in Afghanistan drawing down and Afghans taking more responsibility for their own security, Fort Bragg soldiers have a much different role than in years past.
Gone are the days of regular patrols in Afghan villages. But a group of paratroopers with the 1st Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division's 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment is filling a niche that puts the soldiers in the heart of Kabul on a daily basis.
The battalion's scout platoon — about 40 soldiers — serves as the movement control, or MOVCON, element for Kabul. Its job is to help coalition leaders and dignitaries move about the Afghan capital.
In unmarked armored SUVs, small teams of soldiers navigate the sometimes harrowing streets of the city — where aggressive driving and daring pedestrian crossings are the norm and bombs and ambushes remain a threat.
On a recent trip from Kabul International Airport to New Kabul Compound, two white Toyotas weaved through traffic as they carried the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command's inspector general and his civilian counterpart.
It was a far different mission from the one the battalion had on its previous deployment to Afghanistan.
In 2012, the battalion served in southern Afghanistan, outside Kandahar. There, the paratroopers patrolled alongside Afghan soldiers. They operated in much larger groups and drove hulking mine-resistant vehicles.
"It's way different," said Spc. Matthew Fossett, who also served with the battalion in Afghanistan in 2012. "It's kind of weird."
In Kabul, the paratroopers find a much more modern Afghanistan than in the south, they said.
But some of the same threats are present.
The soldiers are constantly watching for suicide bombers and run the risk of being sitting ducks for an insurgent attack if traffic is too heavy. Routes are constantly adjusted as intelligence reports try to predict potential attacks.
If something does go wrong, the soldiers are prepared to push through and carry their passengers to safety, said Staff Sgt. Justin Graham, who led the mission to New Kabul Compound and back.
Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Gilmer, who leads the MOVCON team, said paratroopers were trained for the mission by teachers from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and at Gryphon Group near Fayetteville.
In the past, this mission has fallen to military police, Gilmer said, but he thinks his platoon's experience in reconnaissance and surveillance provides an edge.
The biggest threat, Gilmer said, is falling into a "Groundhog Day" pattern of repeating the same route over and over.
It isn't as if MOVCON is just a taxi service.
"There's still a lot of threats," Gilmer said, detailing how the team has handled more than 1,000 passengers since January. "Complacency kills."
And then there's the traffic.
Pfc. Zachary Silva, who drove his first mission Wednesday, said the infamous Kabul street chaos was quite an experience.
Silva said he was warned about aggressive drivers, but actually negotiating the traffic "is a whole different thing."
On the way back to the home base, the convoy twice had to slam on brakes to avoid oblivious pedestrians.
One, an Afghan man crossing a busy, undivided street, did not see the Toyota until a side mirror passed inches from his face.
"There's a lot of idiots driving on Bragg, too," said Spc. Daniel McIver, another driver. "But here, people don't look. They just point where they're going and go."