Ready for war, but keeping the peace in Afghanistan
The 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment has never been warm and fuzzy.
Fearsome fighters of American Indians in the 1800s who wounded the famous Shawnee chief Tecumseh, the regiment in World War II was known for scaling snowy mountain peaks on the island of Attu to rout the Japanese.
Nowadays, its members remain, for the most part, combatants. Their usual role is to war-game against other U.S. Army Europe soldiers training at Hohenfels, Germany. And they always play the bad guys.
“They really know how to play the bad guy,” said Col. Roger King, U.S. Army Europe spokesman.
So when Company D recently left Germany temporarily behind to become the only U.S. infantry company assigned to NATO’s stabilization forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, some adjustments were needed. Because this time, they have to be the good guys.
“Working with NATO, you have to represent yourself a little bit different,” said 1st Sgt. Craig Simpson. “We’re here to help. We’re not here to fight.”
Gung-ho infantrymen were told to be nice.
“Things like waving at people,” Simpson said. “Or you smile at them. Or a little kid gives you a thumbs up and you give him the thumbs up back.”
Their mission, which began in July and is planned to last until some time after Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections Sept. 19, is to provide security to the nascent political process and to respond quickly if an attack does occur.
At the same time, the company, located at Camp Phoenix and calling itself Team Dragon, is working for a Romanian battalion commander, who is said to be “pretty close to fluent” in English.
The Romanian colonel, in turn, reports to the Italian general now in charge of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
“You’d think you’d find an American commander. But we’re in NATO,” said Gen. B.B. Bell, on a recent trip to Afghanistan to rally the troops, both as USAREUR commander and commander of NATO’s Allied Land Component Command Headquarters Heidelberg.
Bell had brought along the Bulgarian army’s chief of staff so that he could visit with his troops and discuss the Bulgarians’ upcoming expanded mission, as well as his NATO Land Component command sergeant major, Canadian Chief Warrant Officer Camille Tkacz, whom he introduced with high praise.
“She’s as tough as woodpecker lips,” Bell said. “You don’t know what a woodpecker is, but I do. It’s a bird with really tough lips.”
What may have been lost in the translation was more than compensated for in the multinational feelings of good will as everyone huddled for a photo op.
But having U.S. soldiers report to foreign commanders, while not unprecedented, is unusual and has been politically touchy in the past.
“That has a very long and honorable tradition,” said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a military think tank. “It goes back to Black Jack Pershing in World War I.”
Pershing refused French and British requests to disband American units to use U.S. soldiers as replacements — many would say cannon fodder — for French and British troops being slaughtered by machine-gun fire.
“He wouldn’t stand for it. He didn’t want the French to get them killed,” Pike said. “It’s been that way ever since.”
“It was a custom because they didn’t trust the rest of us, and rightly so,” said a Danish member of NATO’s Heidelberg command who asked not to be named. “But NATO has changed.”
After the pleasantries, Bell met with the Company D commander to see how everything was working. One problem was that the company’s patrols — part of the job of being visible and of knowing where things were in the event of a needed response — had been discouraged because of territorial concerns of other units patrolling the same areas.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Maj. Robert Dixon told Bell. “There’s a few frustrations with the soldiers. You only can do PT (physical training) four times a day only for so long.”
Dixon said some of his soldiers had expected Kabul to be something more like Baghdad. “We had to tone our guys down a bit,” he said.
Bell told them to find a way to start patrolling again. “We need this American infantry out practicing their skills,” he said.
Spc. Torrey Gray said just being in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, was “quite a culture shock,” but that he had no problem with the mission, which, he said, had been described before the soldiers arrived.
“They said it’s not your typical mission. It’s making sure peaceful stuff stayed peaceful.”