By Sean Kimmons, Army News ServiceSeptember 22, 2018
COMBAT OUTPOST BAZIKHEL, Afghanistan -- Spc. Stephen Powers sat on the ramp of a combat vehicle as he studied the screen of a dusty laptop full of blue circles maneuvering along a map.
The circles represented Afghan soldiers involved in a clearing operation less than a mile away. Using the Afghan National Tracking System, the 22-year-old advisor's job was to inform leaders and his Afghan counterparts of those GPS positions.
As the lowest-ranking member of Combat Advisor Team 1131 -- part of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB -- he jumped at the chance for extra responsibility during the multi-day mission.
"It doesn't really matter if I'm an E-4 or not, I'm here and part of the team," said Powers, a signal support systems specialist. "I got to do the best that I can do, even if it means outside of my job title."
Since March, the 1st SFAB has placed teams across Afghanistan to conduct the Army's re-energized train, assist and advise mission. For many of its roughly 1,000 Soldiers, like Powers, the deployment has thrust them into new roles.
Soldiers in his position, he said, typically stay on forward operating bases to ensure communications are up for the teams.
"I've actually taken on more of a [radiotelephone operator] role, communicating back to our [tactical operations center] and stuff like that," the Fayetteville, Arkansas, native said. "I've also been placed in a security role when there are not enough assets."
The recent operation was a culminating event for the U.S. Army advisors, who have been enabling Afghan soldiers and police officers as part of the new effort to build closer partnerships than in years past.
Powers' team, for instance, lives next to an Afghan National Army base with easy access to their counterparts, a U.S. Army advising tactic that rarely occurred before.
In the operation, about 400 troops from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which includes the army, air force, police, special forces and other elements, swarmed villages nestled in a valley southwest of Kabul. Their efforts aimed to root out insurgent activity ahead of the parliamentary elections next month.
While Afghans led the operation, searching homes and buzzing in helicopters overhead, the 1st SFAB advisors stood by to help if needed.
The Afghan army battalion that the advisor team assists lacked a tactical internet capability, so they relied on Powers and other Soldiers to oversee the tracking system.
And before the operation even kicked off, there was another issue in coordinating it. Besides being the largest operation carried out since the 1st SFAB team arrived, it included security entities that do not normally work together.
"A lot of our involvement and influence has been for this moment," said Capt. Dare O'Ravitz, the team leader. "It's something that has been planned for months. Not necessarily this operation, but this type of operation looking at all the warfighting functions and making sure all their staff is incorporated in the planning."
Planning included the "meat and potatoes" of the orders process -- warning order, operation order and rehearsals. While routine for U.S. Army planners, they are still a new concept for the Afghans.
"They're all second nature to us," O'Ravitz, 32, of Phoenix, said, "but we're trying to get them to incorporate that into their planning process."
In their dealings with the Afghans, many times his team strives to connect with them on a personal level and leave it up to the Afghans to figure out solutions.
"Our presence here really inspires them and shows them that we're here with them," he said. "Without even really doing anything, just by us being here, we inspire confidence in them and they feel that they are supported and we care about them."
It is important, he said, for his team to understand the challenges the country is working to overcome with a new army and other budding security forces.
"A lot of their challenges aren't so different from ours, but their army has just not been around as long as ours and that's something we kind of forget about," he said.
Afghan army Col. Abdul Mobin Mohabati, deputy commander of 1st Brigade, 111th Capital Division -- the division that handles security for Kabul Province -- appreciates the autonomy his unit has been given.
"We are very happy that the Afghan army is capable of planning operations," Mohabati said through an interpreter. "In the past, [U.S. forces] were preparing the mission plans and we were just part of the mission."
In those planning processes, the Army advisors stress the need for collaboration among other Afghan security forces.
"No operation is going to be completely successful here if just the [Afghan] army participates, or just the police," said Lt. Col. Zachary Miller, commander of the 1st SFAB's 5th Battalion, which is in charge of tactical-level advising in Kabul. "It takes a combination of them."
While the Afghans work out the kinks of integrating their forces, Miller's advisors, including those in Team 1131, will continue to accompany their partners out on operations.
"We're helping them maintain their situational awareness, where their forces are," he said. "We're helping them communicate across all the different Afghan security institutions and we're also, if necessary, helping to deliver effects from the coalition."