Specialty unit trades bullets for stealth
Stars and Stripes November 25, 2009
KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan
On a recent night in this insurgent-riddled eastern border region, a team of U.S. soldiers and Afghan Border Police crept into the home of an enemy sub-commander and arrested him while he was still in bed.
Not a shot was fired. The village remained asleep until morning.
For soldiers of the Focused Targeting Force, the mission was a success because they got their suspect without disrupting and possibly alienating the population.
“This guy actually woke up with Afghan Border Police and one of our soldiers with a hand on his mouth going ‘Sh-h-h-h,’ ” said Capt. John Thomason, 32, the team leader out of Colorado Springs, Colo.
The FTF at Forward Operating Base Salerno is the prototype for Afghanistan, and others are being planned.
Falling under the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, the Salerno FTF combined the best rifle platoon of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry with a team of Afghan Border Police. The joint team was then trained by former Special Forces soldiers to act like a top-flight SWAT team.
Support units were added, including explosives ordnance disposal technicians, dog handlers and the joint terminal attack controllers who call in air support.
So far, the targeting force has conducted more than 70 operations, seen 25 suspects through the judicial system to conviction and engaged in two firefights, team leaders said.
Instead of detaining suspects after an attack, the FTF strikes only after studying a suspect through intelligence, surveillance and evidence from bomb scenes and previous missions.
They work closely with Task Force Paladin, which has laboratories and specialists to gather data on bomb-making networks.
“We treat it like CSI (crime scene investigation) evidence pieces,” said Capt. Robb Dettmer of Forest Lake, Minn. “That’s why we get to keep a lot of guys in jail.”
Thomason said part of the strategy is winning over the locals, who are caught between insurgents and a foreign force working with a weak government that is unable to protect them.
“A lot of the population know these guys (insurgents) are bad, and they know they’re intimidators and go around and threaten people,” said 2nd Lt. Travis Ward, 32. “When they see these guys leave and no shots are fired, everybody comes out and it’s like ‘Hey, they got this guy and he’s gone now.’ ”
FTF members don’t kick in doors or trash houses. They are well-versed in key Pashto phrases, which they say helps avoid deadly misunderstandings. Only female soldiers approach women. And only Afghan officers handle Qurans.
At the end of an operation, the team lets village leaders know the results.
“At the scene of capture, we take all the evidence, the IED components, the rockets, machine guns,” Thomason said. “We lay it all out and have him [the suspect] sit in front of it.”
“Then we bring in the village elders and show them,” he added. “If you are wondering why we are taking him off the battlefield,” Thomason said he tells the elders, “This is what we found in his house.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Dianna Cahn contributed to this report.