“I was expecting a lot more danger, a lot more firefights. A lot more war, honestly.”
KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Back from a lengthy morning patrol, the pair of young infantrymen slumped over the lunches inside the dining facility of their combat outpost.
Over several hours they had stood guard as their platoon leader interviewed residents of a nearby village about security, their impressions of local forces and their families. Such patrols are a basic element of counterinsurgency — meet the locals, win their confidence.
“So boring,” one of them groaned.
For soldiers making their first, and perhaps last, combat deployment to Afghanistan and this border province, a lack of enemy contact and a quiet training mission are painting a much different picture of war than the one they envisioned when they joined the Army — or the one experienced by their predecessors.
Primed by war stories and trained for the worst, they’re instead providing security cordons for village patrols and urging Afghan forces to take their place. Success is measured in how little they’re needed.
“It’s the exact opposite of what we thought we were doing,” said Pvt. Cullen VanHooser, who is on his first deployment, with the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment. “I was like, ‘This, this is just weird.’ You want to talk about outside the comfort zone.”
Their nine-month tour marks one of the last large U.S. combat deployments in Afghanistan. After a surge phase in which troops sought to expand the security on the ground, putting them into more regular enemy contact, their current mission emphasizes swapping Afghan forces into that space.
As the deployments evolve, young U.S. combat troops will make up less of each force, replaced by fewer, more experienced soldiers who will advise Afghan troops.
The new calculus means soldiers in Khost often wait for combat to come to them. Many have seen little violence save the occasional indirect fire attack and sporadic roadside bombs, and even those are smaller, they say.
“I was expecting a lot more danger, a lot more firefights,” said 2nd Lt. Scott Oplinger, a platoon leader. “A lot more war, honestly.”
With less fighting, soldiers focus on partnering or advising Afghans. Units in Khost regularly patrol with Afghan forces, while pushing them to act more independently.
On a recent patrol in a village near a U.S. combat outpost called Wilderness, an Afghan National Army platoon asked its American counterparts to stay back while they searched the home of a suspect. The villagers would become agitated at the sight of U.S. forces, they said.
Such independence marks a success under the current mission, said the platoon leader, 1st Lt. Kyle Volle, on his first deployment, with A Troop, 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment. But it also carries a bit of disappointment.
“Definitely my mentality is, I want to take part, but I can’t,” Volle said.
Much of the interaction between U.S. and Afghan forces occurs between officers and NCOs, leaving younger soldiers on the periphery for security, a basic infantry task, said Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Murphy, a platoon sergeant with 3-187. That can lead to frustration.
“When you have an aggressive, Type-A personality and you got to back off from that and do some of the things we have to do, it can be frustrating, it can get boring for them sometimes,” he said. “But at the same time, that’s the job.”
As they enter an advisory role, soldiers are trying to be more hands-off with their Afghan counterparts, a difficult task when watching a force whose methods and motivation they often question.
During a recent joint clearance operation, the U.S. provided much of the means to get Afghans into the village safely, from convoy protection to communication and air support.
Once they arrived, U.S. soldiers largely observed as their counterparts entered and searched the homes. At times, they had to restrain themselves from telling the men what to do.
“We’ve got to find the fine line between advising and taking over,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Mickey, a platoon sergeant.
Some older NCOs like Murphy say they’ve needed multiple deployments to understand, and even appreciate, the precepts behind counterinsurgency, an opportunity their younger counterparts may not get.
A longer perspective might be required, commanders say. The mantra of the 1-33 commander, Lt. Col. Donald Evans, is that his soldiers might not know whether they’ve been successful until after they leave.
Still, morale seems no lower in the combat outposts here. Three months into their tour, most soldiers with the 1-33 and 3-187 have yet to suffer a loss, or much deprivation. Their combat outposts have heated rooms, Internet, television, phone and dining facilities. Their 9-month tours are short, relative to prior deployments.
VanHooser said he’s happy to be deployed. While he predicts little lasting attachment to the successes or failures of the ANSF, he said he takes his job seriously.
He also received a boost about a month ago, when his platoon received its first taste of enemy contact. During a visit to an Afghan Border Police station near the Pakistan line, the unit took mortar and small-arms fire, which it quickly returned in kind. VanHooser can deliver a blow-by-blow account.
For someone who has long waited for such a moment, it came as a relief, he said.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s almost to the point of, ‘Shot at — check that off the list.’ Now all this boring crap is worth it.”