Soldiers going dismounted in Afghanistan

About seven or eight months ago my good friend Scott Kesterson who was and still is in Afghanistan told me “things are changing here, they are going back to a Vietnam way of patrolling”. I was not sure what he was talking about or implying so I asked him. He told me that the troops were getting out of he vehicles and walking every where they go. Vehicles were limited to the roads for the most part and the enemy had them channeled and could focus the IEDs and EFPs on the roads. Soldiers were finding (along with GEN McChrystal’s direction) that if they went dismounted they were safer because the enemy could not IED wide open space.

In order to have freedom of movement and to increase the chance of survival, soldiers were going “cross-country” by dismounted patrols. Since that time I have read reports and stories where entire platoons and sometimes companies never even see vehicles. They spend their whole year walking everywhere. Not to mention that this is the most effective way to engage the local populace and truly exercise COIN. You cannot get to know the local people by speeding through the bazaars behind 3″ of glass and armor. So by going dismounted the troops are accomplishing several things both tactically, and for force-protection.

Of course I am speaking mostly of US Forces as local Afghan forces like to ride. My buddy vampire-6 wrote on several occasions over at his blog www.afghanistanshrugged.com about his ANA riding into an objective rather than walking, which was against the plan. I guess when you spend most of your life in dirt, farming dirt, and walking in dirt everywhere, if you get a chance to ride you are going to take it.

I am also glad to see our forces get out of the vehicles and back to the basics of movement, by foot. We have been our own worst enemy in the military by coming up with so many cool and beneficial technologies that in many areas we have lost sight of the basics. How many junior leaders even know how to land navigate with a compass and protractor anymore, much less even know what a protractor is.

Due to the fear of IEDs, the reliance on body armor and the concern by commander to lose any soldiers “on their watch”, our soldiers have been told to stick with the vehicle and never leave. Heck, when I was an ETT in 06-07 we had an idiot of a Corps Commander (COL) tell us that we should never leave the truck. That ETTs had no reason to be on the ground. We were the mentors, advisors, and even leaders (most of the time) of the ANA, so how were we supposed to “set the example” if we could not leave the vehicle, yet we would tell our ANA to do it. This is the same idiot of an officer that said we were…get ready for this, “non-combatant combatants”. I am not exaggerating, that is an exact quote. I am a pretty smart guy when it comes to military doctrine and tactics, and I know many other people that are too, but I still cannot find anyone that knows what the hell a “non-combatant combatant” is. By the way, this genius of a Colonel is now a General in a certain state’s National Guard.

Well back to the point of this blog, all of what I have written so far is really to prep you for what you are about to read below. This story, titled Willing to Walk by Heath Druzin, came out on March 5th, 2010 in the Mideast edition of the Stars and Stripes. You can see the online version of this story and the entire edition HERE.

Willing to Walk by Heath Druzin

KANE IZAT, Afghanistan — The airborne Soldiers of Company B walk. Then they walk some more. Through snow and mud, across apple orchards and frigid rivers, in the shadow of menacing, snow-capped peaks, when the Soldiers need to get somewhere, the road is almost never an option.

Roadside bombs have been the biggest killer in Afghanistan for coalition troops, and as armor has improved, the bombs have gotten bigger and more sophisticated.
Capt. Kirby Jones, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment’s Company B, sees a simple solution to this: Never drive. Anywhere.

“We almost always walk,” he said. “I see two benefits to that: You get to interact with the people and you don’t get blown up.”

Jones, 31, of Bellingham, Wash., and his company of Soldiers, under the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, are based at Combat Outpost Nerkh, perched more than 7,000 feet up in the shadow of 11,000-foot peaks in northern Wardak province. Soldiers across Wardak, much of it with similar terrain, have also largely eschewed vehicles.

It means a boot-sucking slog with cold, wet feet, filthy uniforms, and a chill that penetrates every layer of clothing. It also means a much longer commute. What would be a 15-minute drive can become a two-hour walk, and for more remote missions, Soldiers in Wardak often rely on helicopters, which are subject to the whims of the weather.

Walking through the village of Kane Izat near Combat Outpost Nerkh, Jones’ Soldiers are mobbed by children asking for pens and stop to chat with residents. After stopping at an outpost of a local U.S.-backed militia, where fighters complain they are not getting their full pay, the Soldiers stop for tea with the principal of a nearby school.

Insurgents have been paying attention and there are signs they are adapting. In the Tangi Valley in the south of the province, one Soldier was injured by a booby trap laid for his foot patrol, and Soldiers in the area have found several similar explosives in the area before they detonated.

In three months, though, in an area notorious for roadside bombs, Jones’ men haven’t suffered a single casualty.

It’s still early, and with the melting snow traditionally comes more fighting, but Jones says he is more comfortable handling a firefight than playing Russian roulette with cleverly concealed bombs.

Even in the midst of a steady, chilly rain on a recent patrol through fields of mud and snow, the infantry Soldiers weren’t complaining.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” said Sgt. George Inana, 27, of Mobile, Ala. “That’s the job.”
What is perhaps more surprising than Company B’s almost complete abandonment of vehicles is the fact that more units haven’t followed suit. In 2009, 275 coalition troops were killed by roadside bombs, more than 60 percent of total casualties, with that percentage holding steady this year. Sixty troops already have been killed by the bombs, according to icasualties.org.

In Afghanistan’s bomb-plagued south, troops regularly commute to patrols in everything from heavily armored Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles to the lightly armored eight-wheeled Strykers, a vehicle that has proven nimble in urban combat but has a miserable record of protecting Soldiers against buried explosives.

For Lt. Col. Matt McFarlane, who commands forces in Wardak province, pushing his men off the roads was an easy call, in line with directives from Gen. Stanley McChrystal to have a less intimidating presence and act more as guests than occupiers. Lumbering through a town in hulking armored vehicles sends a very different message from walking up with a handshake, said McFarlane, 40, of Burke, Va.

“When we’re walking around, we’re at the people’s level. It allows us to engage the population, it allows the population to engage us.”

(C) 2010 Stars and Stripes

Photo: Heath Druzin / S&S

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One Response to Soldiers going dismounted in Afghanistan

  1. carol bollesNo Gravatar says:

    Another excellent article. Why did it take this “brass” so long to figure it out? Isn’t walking good for you – as an exercise, anyway? Didn’t the soldiers go thru basic training to build up their muscles, lung power, etc just to fight? Why sit in a vehicle just to get blown up? Sounds expensive to me – both from the human lives and equipment expenses….