1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment: Troops fight to extend security reach
Experts have said for years that the Afghan government’s control over its population doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Kabul.
Expanding the influence of Afghan local governance is one of the missions of all U.S. forces in the country, but getting federal officials and programs involved has been a trickier proposition.
The 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, was in that situation during its yearlong tour of Afghanistan.
Located in Wardak province directly south of Kabul, the battalion found itself in the middle of a U.S./Afghan effort to “push security and prosperity south from Kabul,” according to Lt. Col. Matt McFarlane, battalion commander.
By the end of the deployment, Afghan National Army units were involved in battles with anti-government forces without any direct support from U.S. forces, McFarlane said. Those units found enemy forces on their own, planned their attacks and carried them out. In some cases, the only U.S. interaction was an after-action report.
Afghan police and Army units “still have a long ways to go, but there is a difference we were actually able to see,” McFarlane said.
With more security, agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture are able to operate more widely, so programs reach more people.
Efforts also were made to get Afghan civilian and military leaders to talk more with citizens, touting efforts made by the government and trying to counter claims made by insurgents. While such tactics have been used by U.S. forces since they first entered Afghanistan, Afghan allies didn’t often take such steps on their own.
The biggest danger to U.S. troops and Afghan civilians in the northern district of Wardak were roadside bombs. Sgt. Louis Fastuca died July 5 when his vehicle was struck by such a device. McFarlane said regular patrols on roads and cooperation with local citizens reduced that threat, but never ended it. So soldiers often took their vehicles off road where terrain allowed it and varied patrol routes.
Conditions farther south weren’t as good, with more open hostility shown toward U.S. and Afghan government forces.
“We had a lot of contacts (with enemy forces) down south,” McFarlane said.
And there were areas where U.S. forces didn’t venture much.
“Certainly there are pockets, especially in the south, where it was difficult to find a leader willing to work with us,” he said.
McFarlane said he hopes that such places will become fewer and more isolated during the next few years. As improved roads allow more people to travel and ideas to spread, the need for U.S. troops should ease, he said.
“It’s interesting how we’ve evolved,” he said. “As infantrymen, we’re always ready for a fight. But here, success is when there aren’t enemies around to fight.”