Spartans join major operation to bring heat to Taliban
March 1, 2012
KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- A five-day, multi-unit operation in the Maiwand District of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, involved Soldiers from Combined Task Force Spartan for the largest-ever combined operation of Regional Command South, Feb. 22-27, with nearly 1,700 Spartan Soldiers participating.
The units included aviation, ground and special operations assets from throughout southern Afghanistan, with CTF Spartan serving as the mission's main effort.
"The units come from two separate regional commands and include elements of five battalion headquarters, an aviation brigade and supporting effort from our sister brigade to the south," said Maj. Michael Davis, chief of operations for 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI).
The mission, known as Operation Sledgehammer, was designed to deny the Taliban the ability to prepare for fighting during the upcoming spring season and to deny insurgents the ability to affect the transition between the 3rd Brigade Combat Team and its successors, the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
CTF Spartan will continue to run intensive missions until the unit's transfer of authority.
"We have conducted this operation to set the conditions for a seamless transition between units as we conduct a relief in place with our sister brigade and to diminish the capability of the insurgents as they prepare for the beginning of the fighting season," Davis said.
Historically, insurgents will fight the hardest during the spring and summer months and then retreat to their homes or across the Pakistan border for the winter. Soldiers from the Fury Brigade will assume command of the Zharay and Maiwand districts at the beginning of the traditional fighting season, and a major goal of the Sledgehammer operation to diminish the threat to the new brigade, while striking insurgents before they returned to the districts in full force.
For CTF Spartan Soldiers and their Afghan counterparts, seizing key terrain in Maiwand District was imperative -- a critical district that borders both Helmand Province to the west and Mullah Omar's home district in Zharay to the east. Maiwand District is home to several areas where insurgents once staged their attacks and trafficked weapons, explosives and personnel.
"The focus is on the area between the villages of Hutal and DeMaiwand in the Talkakhay Plain," Davis said. "Operations against this area will disrupt the insurgents' ability to organize and conduct attacks against (International Security Assistance Forces) and Afghan security forces in the future and allow for continued capacity building of the Afghan government."
For 11 months, Spartan Brigade Soldiers' diligent efforts of have led to noteworthy progress in many aspects of the Zharay and Maiwand districts.
"This operation complements our campaign in a number of ways," Davis said. "First, we continue our efforts towards defeating the insurgency on the security front. Second, we are strengthening the ability of our Afghan counterparts with partnered operations such as these, many of which with Afghan security forces in the lead. This, in turn, builds the confidence of the Afghan people towards (their) government as well as the security forces that protect them.
Finally, it will allow us to continue the strong, nonlethal effort we are conducting as security continues to improve."
Main effort on the ground
Soldiers in 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment (Task Force Titans), were the Spartans' main effort on the ground for Operation Sledgehammer. The Titans have been conducting intensive operations in Maiwand District since assuming responsibility for the area in December.
"We're the brigade's decisive operation for clearing central Maiwand; we've got a succession of missions," said Lt. Col. Mike Kirkpatrick, 3-71 Cavalry commander. "This operation will provide time and space for 4th Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division to come in, gain a foothold and begin their operations."
The Titans and their Afghan partners divided into troops and attacked the mission in Maiwand head-on.
"We have a number of operations," Kirkpatrick said. "We have one troop in a ground role, one troop in an air-assault role, then we also have Afghan (National) Army operating independently in the Hutal Bazaar, and the (civil order police) operating basically independently at the 'Flying J' vehicle inspection station, and the Afghan Army operating independently on Highway 1."
For the past year, the brigade's focus has been on securing the volatile Zharay District, the birthplace of the Taliban. But after 11 months, much of the district is stabilized, and the local population is regaining a sense of security and normalcy. Now nearing the end of their deployment, CTF Spartan made their final push through Maiwand.
Kirkpatrick said a key issue within the district is threat financing, meaning the Taliban forces local villagers to farm illegal poppy to fund the insurgency. Profits from the crop are used to pay for weapons and homemade explosive material that poses a serious threat to Afghan and coalition forces' Soldiers. Many villagers do not want to grow the illegal crops, but they are too afraid to say no to the insurgents.
"I think the brigade has been able to make a lot of security gains in Zharay, which has allowed us to focus our operations on Maiwand," Kirkpatrick said. "Maiwand is a large district within the province, and there is a significant poppy growth here, which leads to threat finance. So, now that we are in the poppy-growing season, it's time to focus operations in Maiwand and interdict that threat finance."
With Sledgehammer, the squadron and fellow units participating in the operation had the chance to eradicate illegal crops, push any remaining insurgents from the villages, and spread the message that the Afghan government is a trustworthy government in place to help and protect the population.
At a shura held Feb. 24 in the village of Karezak, Maiwand District Governor Saleh Mohammed took the opportunity to speak to local villagers about turning away from poppy and supporting the Afghan government.
"DG Mohammed is the most 'deployed' district governor; he goes out and visits every place we go to on operations," Kirkpatrick said. "It provides him a platform to project his influence from the district center out to areas that normally wouldn't see him. So, this is very important for him to get out here and speak the peace about the government."
The fact that the Maiwand District leadership takes the time to meet with residents shows villagers that the Afghan government is a legitimate institution and can be trusted.
"He is willing to show his face; the Taliban government comes in at night, they don't show their face to the people. So, it is important for the people to see the face of the real government out here."
The involvement of the Afghan government security forces was critical to the success of Operation Sledgehammer. Without Afghan leaders working alongside the Titans and other Spartan units involved, local villagers would not realize the legitimacy of the mission and their government.
Results of Sledgehammer
Operation Sledgehammer yielded significant gains in the Maiwand District on many different levels. The involvement of the district government in the operation first demonstrated to villagers that they can trust their leaders.
Often, the main reason Afghans will support the Taliban is because of financial reasons or fear. Showing them that the government cares and will provide protection and assistance will draw the people away from illegal activities.
During the mission's first day, Afghan and coalition security forces found three improvised explosive devices, were involved in three firefights, and conducted a shura with local villagers.
The next day, more CTF Spartan units moved into Maiwand, clearing as they went, resulting in seven IED finds along with a cache with 16 pressure plates, homemade explosive material and IED components. This cache was the first of five to be discovered and seized over the five-day operation.
Soldiers from the Spartan Brigade found and cleared 53 pressure plates and 29 IEDs, as well as 200 pounds of HME over the duration of Operation Sledgehammer. Seven repeater towers used by the Taliban for communication also were destroyed by attack helicopters.
In addition, more than 5,400 vehicles traveling along Highway 1 were searched. Highway 1 is the main thoroughfare through southern Afghanistan, and thousands of motorists use it daily to commute between Kandahar City and Helmand Province. Most of the searches were conducted independently by Afghan security forces.
Even more substantial than the noticeable dent put in the insurgents' arsenal and manpower is the fact that no Afghan or coalition forces Soldiers were significantly wounded during the five-day push through Maiwand.
For Soldiers with Combined Task Force Spartan, leading the way against the enemy's ability to conduct a spring offensive was well worth the commitment and hard work for the nearly 2,000 Soldiers involved.