KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan, June 6, 2011 -- Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Cacti, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force Bronco Soldiers traveled by helicopters into the Pech River Valley to train Afghan National Army soldiers at Nangalam Base, Kunar province, May 28, 2011.
Capt. Weston D. Amaya, an Afghan National Security Forces liaison with TF Cacti, and his team of Soldiers have the daunting task of training the Afghan National Army, or ANA, in everything from emergency medical care, to logistical operations and security procedures.
The task, dubbed Operation Stone Steps, comes at a critical time in a critical place, Amaya said.
In April, a month after the 101st Airborne Division realigned most of the Pech River Valley bases that included transferring Nangalam Base to Afghan control, the Taliban announced their spring offensive.
"The ANA's ability to really dominate the terrain out here is going to be decisive for them," said Amaya. "I think right now they are doing a very good job at it. Frankly, they've had almost no coalition presence here until Stone Steps began."
Only an hour into their training, .51-caliber diskha machine-gun fire rained down on them from the mountains.
Within minutes, round after round of Afghan artillery pounded the craggy mountains echoing throughout the valley.
"When we were taking dishka fire, the ANA's use of supporting fire, indirect fire, the observation posts and adjusting fire was very good," said Amaya.
After more than 30 rounds of artillery and close air support, the insurgent fire halted.
ANA Maj. Mullah Mahbob, an operations officer for 2nd Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 201st ANA Corps, explained this area is more dangerous than other areas because it is an important route for insurgents coming from Pakistan and the mountains make it difficult to defend.
"We have tried to decrease the enemy situation with the support and coordination of coalition forces and have been successful," said Mahbob. "Terrorism is not only an Afghan problem, but an international problem. But since terrorists operate in the Pech River Valley, we are here to eliminate them."
Over the past few months, the ANA independently conducted several patrols, successfully clearing the area of many insurgents, said Mahbob. But he warned, if his men aren't better trained or equipped they might fail.
This is a warning all too familiar to TF Cacti commander Lt. Col. Colin Tuley.
Tuley likened the situation to parents teaching their children how to ride a bicycle.
"Right now, we're not going to let it falter and we're not going to let it fail. I'm not. Not on my watch. I'm going to continue to provide those training wheels," said Tuley. "We're going to be out there every week. I'm going to keep on being there with them with the training wheels. Yeah, at some point in the future we've got to let them do it alone."
Tuley explained Operation Stone Steps is part of an over-arching concept of methodically transitioning to the point where coalition forces are no longer needed.
"This is another method to get to that end-state," said Tuley. "The question is, that most people are uncomfortable answering, is: 'When is that point?' And a lot of folks ask me that question every day. 'Sir, I thought that we realigned?' You're right. But they weren't ready and they didn't transition. There's a key difference between realignment and transition."
Right now, an important factor in making that transition is training the ANA to become self-sufficient. Since jagged mountains cut off many bases, sometimes when an ANA base is attacked, they are quick to overreact, said Tuley.
"A number of times in the past, it'd be that one young, 19-year-old soldier up on the wall up there at Nangalam in the middle of the night with no [night vision]," explained Tuley. "He hears gunfire or even the impact of the rounds and in his mind, rightly so, in his mind, he's thinking the base is being overrun."
Then, that message is passed through the chain of command before it reaches the TF Cacti headquarters in Forward Operating Base Joyce. FOB Joyce is about a 20-minute helicopter ride away.
"I tell everybody to take a deep breath," said Tuley. "Let the dust settle a little bit. Initial reports are initial reports. We go through the same process with the coalition."
Even with these frequent reports, Tuley has to take every case seriously. He said he sends out air support every time, but usually comes back with just a few insurgents probing the base's defense.
"I think the toughest part is going to be us, as a parent, letting them be out there on their own," said Tuley. "We're afraid of them falling down. We don't want to watch them fall down and skin up their knees. Sometimes you have to watch them fall, learn and get up and get better."
After four days of training the ANA, Amaya said he could already sense a boost in morale in their counterparts.
"We're not just realigning and handing this over and saying, 'Hey, good luck.' We're here for the long haul," said Amaya. "We're they're partners. We're going to do whatever it takes to make sure the ANA is successful in the Pech. I think that means a lot to them.
"When the Pech realignment is successful and these guys are able to sustain and take ownership of the Pech," concluded Amaya. "It will be the model and it will be the shining light for the future and the way ahead."