Red Devils look back on a year in Paktika province
ORGUN-E, Afghanistan — How do you sum up spending about a year of your life trying to bring peace and prosperity to a region that has seen neither for at least three decades?
Even Lt. Col. Tim McGuire, commander of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment, had to pause at that question. His battalion, in the process in returning to its home base in Vicenza, Italy, has been involved in almost every aspect of life in Paktika province for the past 12 months.
“Our greatest accomplishment was working hand in hand with the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to extend the rule of the Afghan government,” he said. “Across the board, bringing a wide scope of projects,” he said. “Whether that was solar lights, cobblestone roads, police in uniforms or building up the Afghan army.”
There also were the country’s first parliamentary elections, and a series of projects, including the province’s first road network.
But the success did not come without a price: Eight Red Devils died during the mission.
“We definitely paid a high price for our success,” McGuire said, adding that each death “redoubled our resolve to be successful, to know their sacrifices were not in vain.”
But what did the battalion accomplish? It depends on whom you ask.
Capt. Tom Hando, the unit’s civil affairs officer, said the battalion invested about $9 million in the province on projects ranging from the restoration of Khayr Khot castle to the installation of solar street lights. So far, 112 lights have been installed, with another 300 paid for and scheduled to go up during the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment’s stint in the province.
The Red Devils refurbished seven schools and passed on school supplies for about 9,000 kids.
Cobblestone roads have been laid in larger towns such as Orgun-E and Wazai Kwah, prompting businesses to stay open later. Local entrepreneurs constructed rare two-story buildings in Orgun-E, while a businessman in Wazai Kwah opened up a gas station — another uncommon occurrence.
A road built by Task Force Sword — the military’s engineer brigade in the country — has cut the drive from the key towns of Orgun-E and Sharona from 12 hours to less than two.
“You can just see how having easy transportation access impacts a person’s economic status,” said 1st Lt. Martin Peters, commander of 2nd Platoon, Company C.
There also was a lot of moving around for Company C, including its push into southern Paktika province.
The battalion was spread thin after its Company B was sent south in June to help elsewhere in country. That meant Company A and the Headquarters and Headquarters Company gained more territory. At about the same time, Company C was moving into what 1st Sgt. Harry Howery called “Indian territory,” in reference to the old American West. “Nobody wanted to go down there.”
The southern part of the province wasn’t exactly a bastion of support for American forces or the Afghan government. No one flew the Afghan flag or seemed to have any loyalty to the government when U.S. troops arrived in Wazai Kwah, said Capt. Sean McCrae, the company commander.
After sending some troops into the area, the entire company moved south in early summer, fanning out across six districts in Paktika and four others in neighboring Ghazni province.
Staff Sgt. Sebastian Dus, the 1st Platoon leader, said the atmosphere “changed drastically” during the six months he spent in Farwe.
“There were people who had not seen a U.S. or coalition presence,” said 2nd Lt. Kris Kerksick, the platoon commander.
“No one would help us,” remembers 1st Lt. Sean Rufolo, the 3rd Platoon commander. “(The locals) thought we would fail.”
But the company’s vigilance, and a handful of projects that benefited local communities, gradually won over much of the population. That allowed the province’s governor, Gulab Mangal, to make changes.
McCrae said all the mayors and police chiefs of the major villages in the south were sacked and replaced with others who supported the government. Twice in one village.
But the Afghans didn’t always need the prompting of Americans to act. One local Shura — a gathering of tribal elders — decided to pledge allegiance to the central government in a rare public fashion, Rufolo said. Despite years of warring with each other, they decided to impose fines or jail time on those in their communities who aided Taliban or al-Qaida forces or didn’t cooperate with the government or American forces.
The battalion saw relatively few engagements in its time in Paktika, especially compared to its sister battalion from Vicenza — the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment — which has seen a lot of action to the southwest.
Capt. Kyle Barden, the 1-508th’s fire support officer, started off his tour as executive officer for the Battery D, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, also based in Vicenza. He said his element of the battery was deployed with coalition forces on the border in Paktika and involved in daily fighting.
When he rejoined the Red Devils, he was surprised that they weren’t fighting as much. But he said he came to realize that fighting wasn’t going to bring stability to the country anytime soon.
“It’s not like World War II where there are large armies lined up,” he said. “You can kill people every day, but as long as you don’t win over the local population, you’re not going to win.”
Capt. John Popiak, the battalion’s intelligence officer, said he knows the battalion has made a difference in Paktika.
“You can actually see the difference in the people,” he said.