Air assault, the Afghan way
May 28, 2013
NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (May 28, 2013) -- Dozens of Afghan National Army soldiers, Afghan Uniformed Police, and a smattering of U.S. Army Soldiers serving as mission advisors, sat by their heavy packs on the gravel, talking and laughing in quiet anticipation, waiting for a sound.
After several hours of checks and double-checks, roll calls and final updates from the command center, the punchy staccato of rotors came faintly in the distance. Louder and louder the noise sounded, until the roar deafened and the dusty prop-wash buffeted those waiting at the landing zone for the choppers.
Into the helicopters the Soldiers went, and then, shortly before one in the morning, the air assault to Hesarak began.
Flying from Forward Operating Base Connolly, the mission, which occurred May 15-18, was an Afghan-led operation joining Afghan National Security Forces with U.S. Army advisers to drive back insurgents harassing the inhabitants of Hesarak, an isolated, agricultural district in western Nangarhar.
"They've been having problems out there with the district center being constantly under fire, or being harassed," said Capt. Justin Burney, battalion fire support officer, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), of White Bluff, Tenn. "The objective was to have the ANA (Afghan National Army) go through the area surrounding the district center and clear it of all enemy personnel."
Burney managed the indirect fire systems to support the operation from Forward Operating Base Connolly.
"This is the ANA and the AUP (Afghan Uniformed Police) trying to establish a base of security," Burney said. "They go out there and clear an area to show the people that they can still secure them; they can still provide safety and protection."
Soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Bn., 327th Inf. Regt., and Security Force Advisory and Assistance Team Blackhorse, 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regt., 1st BCT, 101st Abn. Div., joined ANA soldiers of the 1st Kandak, 4th Brigade, 201st Corps, and AUP personnel in the effort.
Soldiers and supplies were delivered to Hesarak in three waves. The first landed in a wheat field in the early hours, May 15; the second arrived shortly before noon that same day; the final dropped its passengers and cargo before dawn, May 16.
Under cover of darkness, the first wave slogged its way across freshly watered fields, up and down walled terraces, and through a maze of irrigation systems to the objective.
"That was the worst part of the mission: the movement in," said Spc. Vang Seng Thao, combat camera, 55th Signal Company, Combat Camera, 21st Signal Brigade, 114th Signal Battalion, of Fort Meade, Md. "There were freshly irrigated wheat fields, it was very muddy. Every time you would step, your boots would get stuck in the mud, or you'd be tripping on rocks."
Not only was the ground treacherous; the weight of the packs Soldiers carried had a tendency to pitch people off balance.
"Some guys were carrying M240Bs with all the extra ammo for those, so they were carrying well over 100 pounds," Thao said. "Everything else after that was a breeze because we didn't have all the extra weight."
Near dawn on May 15, one of the platoons took enemy contact. Sporadic barrages of small arms fire continued throughout the day, with each platoon eventually making contact with the enemy.
There were no U.S., ANA, or AUP casualties, even with the insurgents' continued attacks. The insurgents, on the other hand, took several.
Beating back the forces harassing the district center was a key part of the mission, but it wasn't the only part.
Rotating in AUP replacements -- the first in six months or more -- meeting with local leaders, engaging the Afghan Air Force to help with the airlift, and allowing Afghan forces to take another step toward the front were critical aspects as well.
May 16, a large group of local leaders got together to discuss Hesarak with Afghan and U.S. forces.
"The ANA commander spoke a lot about how Heserak is just as important to the ANA as, say, Jalalabad or Bagram," Thao said. "They're still in Afghanistan, they're Afghan citizens, and they're going to be protected by the Afghan Army."
Not only will the ANA and AUP provide support, but the Afghan Air Force will as well.
While U.S. Army Soldiers conduct air assault missions with the support of CH-47 Chinook helicopters from 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, ANA personnel came in on Mi-17 helicopters, which are Afghan Air Force assets.
Though Army and Air branches of the Afghan military in this region are just beginning to work on missions together, the combined mission to Hesarak was a success.
"This is the second time, I believe, since we've been here that we were actually able to request and get the Afghan Air Force," said Capt. John Reinke, team leader, SFAAT Blackhorse, of Greensboro, Ga.
With this mission ANA soldiers took another step toward the front of the column, first by reassuring local leaders of continued ANA involvement, but also by leading foot patrols around Hesarak.
"The patrols were, in a sense, run by the ANA to show that they could do their jobs," said Thao, who accompanied the Soldiers of Alpha Company's 2nd Platoon to record their particular mission of clearing and securing a portion of the village. "So whenever we did go on patrols, the ANA were in the front to get the experience and show that they knew exactly what they needed to do."
Afghan soldiers leading all aspects of a mission is something units like the Blackhorse SFAAT have been working toward throughout their time in country.
"What we're starting to do is have a smaller and smaller adviser footprint forward of the Kandak because they're capable of providing mission command forward," said Reinke. "Now we're starting to work back at the Kandak headquarters to ensure they're able to mirror the systems that we've been able to develop with them over the past six or seven months."
The approximately 80-hour mission allowed Afghan forces to show just how far they've come, but also where they still need to go.
"In the short run, we've been successful in establishing a presence and clearing through certain areas," Burney said. "It is the hope that the ANA will continue to do this, especially pushing out west in places like Hesarak."