PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Sept. 22, 2011 -- "It's probably the most dangerous mission all year," said Capt. Michael Hefti, speaking to his Soldiers before they headed off to the remote Suri Kheyl area of Waze Zadran district, Paktya province, Sept. 15.
The impending joint effort between coalition and Afghan National Security Forces to locate and destroy enemy strength, designated as Operation Tofan II would prove to be an illuminating one in many ways.
Hefti, commander of Blackfoot Troop, 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, knew the mission would be a challenging one, largely because of what the area promised to reveal.
"It's a popular transit line for the insurgents," Hefti said.
The operation's goal was to establish contact with the insurgents, disrupt their logistics, and reduce any material or moral support from the local population. Movement to the extremely remote area, which featured narrow or non-existent roads set among mountains, included mounted and dismounted Soldiers who also had to be aware of the need to control the key terrain features around Suri Kheyl.
"We know this area is where the enemy enjoys freedom of movement, largely because of the terrain," said Lt. Col. Mark Borowski, commander of 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment.
"We wanted to disrupt enemy safe havens and elicit a reaction that we could base future operations on," he added.
Tofan II is the latest of several major operations since January in which TF Duke has partnered with Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, in their joint area of responsibility in Khowst and Paktya provinces.
These operations have all attempted to influence the battlefield by targeting insurgent weapons caches, securing key routes, eliminating insurgents from populated areas and removing their local hideouts.
According to Hefti, the operation was a landmark one not just for what it hoped to accomplish, but where. The Suri Kheyl area has long been thought to be fertile ground for the Haqqani Network, a criminal organization with links to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and believed to be based across the nearby Afghan border with Pakistan.
"It [Tofan II] shows that ANSF forces can go wherever they want," said Hefti, adding that few Afghan or coalition forces have visited the area over the years.
The operation included several additional objectives, with the most important possibly being to convince villagers to work alongside coalition and ANSF forces in ridding the area of insurgent activity. Blackfoot Troop and their Afghan National Army partners methodically swept the Suri Kheyl area for improvised explosive devices, weapons caches, human and other intelligence targets.
Enemy resistance and activity was less than expected during the majority of the operation.
"It was quieter, and the enemy made it very clear they wouldn't confront our air assets," said Hefti.
Regardless, important progress was made on several fronts. Small caches of weapons, ammunition and components for improvised explosive devices were confiscated from several locations, removing all from future use on the battlefield. The most beneficial result of all may have been the levels of support and cooperation shown between coalition and Afghan forces.
"The ANA (Afghan National Army) were amazing," said Hefti, specifically citing the battlefield leadership of Maj. Shapoor of the Afghan National Army's 6th Coy, 1st Kandak. Shapoor took the lead among his men, Hefti said, in professionally conducting searches, interviewing villagers and maintaining accountability of Afghan personnel and materiel.
Exiting the Suri Kheyl area when the mission concluded might have been the most dangerous part of the mission. Isolated skirmishes with the enemy were settled quickly through strong air cover supplemented by artillery support provided by TF Duke's 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment. Having such powerful assets available left Hefti quite pleased.
"Those guys are the greatest. It [artillery support] gives you a sense of peace, and has a very powerful psychological effect on both enemy forces and our own," said Hefti.
For Borowski, the many successful aspects of the operation helped to confirm a lot of suspicions that coalition and ANA leadership had about the area.
"We think it will be very helpful for the future," he said.