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Command Sgt. Major Arthur McCann, left, and Col. Kevin Owens furl the colors of the 173rd Airborne Brigade during a transfer of authority ceremony Tuesday at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

Command Sgt. Major Arthur McCann, left, and Col. Kevin Owens furl the colors of the 173rd Airborne Brigade during a transfer of authority ceremony Tuesday at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Kent Harris / S&S)

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The 173rd Airborne Brigade didn’t come to Afghanistan looking for a little quiet time. Which is fortunate, because the Sky Soldiers didn’t find any heading up coalition efforts in Regional Command-South.

The brigade’s tour, featuring months of heavy fighting in the territory it was responsible for, officially ended in a transfer of authority ceremony Tuesday. Some elements, such as the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, still have weeks to serve in the country. But the bulk of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) is now either back in or headed back to Italy.

Col. Kevin Owens, who commands the brigade, said Task Force Bayonet made headway across a number of fronts, though most attention has focused on a series of battles regarded as some of the fiercest fighting since the 2001 invasion that drove the ruling Taliban from power.

“Killing the enemy is part of what we have to do,” Owens said. “It’s just a small part. It gained the most attention for obvious reasons. But it’s just a small part.”

The fighting — and the deaths of 17 U.S. soldiers in the sector in the last year — have led some to believe the situation in the country is getting worse. But, shortly after handing over authority to an international brigade led by Canadian Brig. Gen. David Fraser, Owens said he’s not among them.

“I don’t think it’s growing at all,” he said. “The insurgency is relatively weak. The challenge is that the Afghan government and its institutions of state are relatively weak also.”

“I think we have been much more aggressive in getting out to the areas we identified as traditional strongholds of the enemy,” Owens said.

That included trips to out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach villages having little previous contact with coalition forces.

“They would tell us that we were the first [American] soldiers they had ever seen,” Owens said. “That, in itself, is telling.”

Owens said much of the heavy fighting came early in the rotation. Enemy forces took heavy casualties, he said, and don’t often look to engage American troops in open battles now. Instead, they’ve increasingly relied on tactics such as roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

“We’ve had enormous success on the battlefield,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, we can kill dozens of Taliban insurgents. If that’s all we do, then, quite honestly, so what? That doesn’t have lasting effect. What has lasting effect is building a road to a town that has not had access beyond their enclave.”

Or, he said, funding a trade school for locals to learn job skills. Helping a governor meet the needs of the people he represents. Empowering women. Getting ethnic groups to get along.

Owens said one of the task force’s most important achievements was building the Afghan security forces. One Afghan National Army brigade has been in Zabol province since August, another is based in Kandahar and a third should stand up in Helmand province about the same time as British forces move in.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, the new commander of Combined Joint Task Force-76, praised the task force’s work in comments he made during the ceremony.

“You take a well-deserved reputation of duty well-performed back with you to Italy,” he said, adding that the people in southern Afghanistan “are stronger because of your efforts.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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