By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte, 300th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentMarch 22, 2010
KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - It was quiet for about a week after the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Lethal, of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, took over responsibility for the Pech River valley in Afghanistan's Kunar province in June 2009.
"After that, it was kind of intense," said U.S. Army Maj. Ukiah C. Senti, the battalion executive officer.
The attacks began - a daily diet of aggression against Afghan National Security Forces and International Security Assistance Forces that included small arms fire, heavy weapons, indirect fire, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices.
Nearly a year later, the violence has lessened, and some locals once known for their hostility towards the government now deal with its representatives regularly.
To achieve this drop in violence, the battalion took an interesting approach. Instead of using pure combat force to achieve their goals, the units used unconventional tactics, like sitting down to chai tea and snacks with village elders.
Reaching for higher ground:
Task Force Lethal Warrior covers an estimated 1,000 square kilometers of operational area with 11 forward operating bases, combat outposts and observation posts.
From the farmlands of the Watapor valley to the wooded Korengal valley, the concept of high ground depends on where you stand. The region's main travel routes are overshadowed everywhere by peaks and acres of mountainsides.
The battalion itself comes from Fort Carson, Colo., where the mountainous terrain mirrors that of the eastern Afghanistan territory the unit now patrols - chiefly the Kunar province.
Many Soldiers comment on the impressive landscape, even though they regularly face steep climbs up inclines while weighed down with about 50 pounds of body armor, weapons and ammunition.
Senti, who is from Taos, N.M., said when the battalion started its work here, most of their efforts were focused on the kinetic operations. Then about a month in, the unit began holding more meetings with village elders.
"(The elders) were probably the most helpful element of the whole process," he said.
During these discussions, village leaders helped the battalion narrow down the areas where the attacks were coming from - the "seams" of terrain where insurgent forces lurked.
By targeting these seams - on both high ground and low - the battalion and ANSF have sought to reduce civilian casualties. By disrupting enemy operations, it helped reduce the insurgents' influence over the communities, Senti said.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James M. Combs, of Midland, Texas, a squad leader with 1st Platoon, Company A, said the more the unit visits certain villages, the more accommodating the residents become.
"That's the first indicator," Combs said. "When the kids like you, the adults start to come around."
According to Senti, the battalion is currently spending about 70 percent of its time on stability operations. These efforts range from new fruit orchards to development councils, and have become key in the struggle for peace in the region.
Where the unit used to simply ask residents about the projects they needed, then managed the process through contractors, now village representatives work with Afghan government officials to make developments happen.
U.S. Army Capt. Edward Y. Park of Orlando, Fla., a team leader with the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion, said the goal is to empower the Afghan officials, known as line directors, who work with village leaders.
"We want the people to be seeing their line directors, not us," he said.
Each village has a Community Development Council, which in turn appoints a representative to a District Development Assembly, Park said.
The assembly is not just responsible for identifying needs for the community. It also requests local bids from contractors, and then provides both quality assurance and quality control, ensuring the work is also done by locals.
While the assembly still uses the Commander's Emergency Relief Program as a budget for its projects, officials expect this money will eventually be replaced by funds from the Afghan government.
Getting villagers to participate has been one of the challenges. U.S. Soldiers continue to meet with elders throughout the area's many valleys and encourage them to take part in the weekly assembly meetings.
U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Florent A. Groberg, of Supply, N.C., the platoon leader for 4th Platoon, Company D, said he wants to bring as many villages into the process as possible.
"It's our job to let them know what's going on and get them involved," Groberg said. "That's the only way we can be successful in our mission."
In turn, the battalion created Development Support Teams last year to help mentor line directors and other Afghan officials on the law and other issues.
One indicator of progress came in November, when the battalion began seeing tribe members from the Korengal Valley - traditionally an area of severe resistance - coming to talk to the district governor about projects on a regular basis.
"The fact that they're there is a huge success for us," said Maj. Chris T. Owen, of Austin, Texas, the training and operations officer for the battalion.
Through mid-March, the battalion has lost eight U.S. Soldiers from various attacks throughout the area of operations. Their photos and identification tags line the main hallway of the battalion headquarters.
Senti said losing their comrades has been hard, but their ultimate sacrifice would not be in vain.
"I think the number one thing is, how can we do better next time to prevent this from happening in the future'" he said.
Combs, who knew three of the eight fallen Soldiers and has previously served tours of duty in Iraq, paused as he tried to talk about the losses. He said some Soldiers wear bracelets engraved with the names of their friends.
"It's still a touchy subject," he said. "You just kind of grab it, accept it, pick it up and take it with you. We've still got our missions."
Fatalities and injuries haven't been limited to U.S. troops. In February, Lt. Col. Aziullah, the commander of the Afghan National Army's 3rd Kandak was killed in an 82mm mortar attack on FOB Blessing. Afghan National Police officers as well as private contractors have also been killed in the violence.
Senti said there have been several cases where Afghan security guards were pulled from vehicles and murdered when they were travelling to visit their homes.
"Across the board, obviously, people have given blood," he said.
Although there have been attempts, militants have not been able to overrun an ISAF post in the area during the past year.
They even tried to overrun the Chapa Dara District center in February, before being beaten back by ISAF and ANSF.
Last summer, intelligence pointed to a massive attack aimed at FOB Blessing, Senti said. Using the radio station on base, the Afghan officials were able to talk to the public about the rumors and the attack never materialized.
"It allowed us to beat it without firing a shot," Senti said.
The radio station enables residents to call in information about potential attacks and helps ISAF and ANSF disseminate facts to the public. This includes the cost of community projects, which helps make the process more transparent.
Other efforts to reach the public have taken more tangible form. The unit has arranged the planting of 20 orchards of fruit trees as well as a forestry effort to prevent soil erosion along the rivers. Both projects are expected to be complete by time the battalion leaves.
"The concept of rich and poor here are completely different," Senti said, noting how money means less to the Afghans than tangible goods that can be traded or used.
The fruit trees, which include five orchards planted by previous units, can eventually become a source of economic strength for the communities, he noted.
"All the economic functions of any of the stability operations we do, really, you have to look at it long-term," Senti said. "You get continuity between units, so development stays the focus."
Combs said at his level he's seen improvements and progress. Instead of Soldiers having to fight blind, residents call in tips and information. A rapport has developed between the battalion, the Afghan forces and many villages.
The battalion has made headway in the region, Combs said.