Battle-hardened U.S. team on dangerous Afghan eastern front

McClatchy NewspapersMay 12, 2009 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) now patrolling three eastern border provinces of Afghanistan is a battle-hardened unit with a commander who's making his fourth tour in the country.

In helping them gear up for their counterinsurgency deployment February, their training focused as much on helping Afghans build a new society as it did on fighting the Taliban, al Qaida, criminal gangs and other destabilizing forces.

"It's not really what you'd expect of a pipe-swinging infantryman, but that's the war we're in," Col. Michael Howard, the brigade commander, said in an interview in January.

Before deployment, Howard ordered a weeklong seminar for every company commander and leader from first sergeant and up. With university-level lectures, they studied historical counterinsurgency failures and successes, from Algeria and Vietnam to the Philippines and Colombia.

"It was a pretty rigorous training event," Howard said.

The four-year-old brigade, part of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, is the Army's first airborne unit to be created in the post-World War II era. Its 3,500 soldiers are based at Fort Richardson in Anchorage.

A little more than a year after its birth, the brigade deployed for a one-year mission to Iraq, primarily in the mixed Sunni-Shiite Muslim rural areas south of Baghdad. Its area of operations included the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, where it saw two of its biggest battles. One battalion was detached to help the Marines tame the then-Sunni insurgent stronghold around Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

On Jan. 20, 2007, Fort Richardson soldiers assigned to a provincial government compound in Karbala came under attack. Militants dressed as Western-style private military contractors and driving big American SUVs got into the compound, with the probable assistance — an American investigation later found — of Iraqis inside. Iranian intelligence operatives were suspected of organizing the operation.

The militants kidnapped four American soldiers and later executed them when they encountered an unexpected roadblock and abandoned their vehicles. Another Fort Richardson soldier, who was killed in the compound when he jumped or fell on a grenade, was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

Just a week later near Najaf, soldiers from the brigade, including its deputy commander, were drawn into one of the biggest battles since the 2003 Iraq invasion. More than 1,000 members of a doomsday cult, the Soldiers of Heaven, got into a firefight with the Iraqi army over the cult's suspected plans to attack religious pilgrims.

The militants shot down a U.S. Army helicopter and moved to seize the bodies of the crew, but about a dozen Fort Richardson soldiers got there first and held off the militants for hours until armored reinforcements arrived. By the time the battle ended, more than 400 cult members were dead and one U.S. soldier was seriously wounded.

When the Bush administration ordered a buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq, the brigade's deployment was extended to 14 months. When it finally returned to Anchorage in December 2007, the names and photos of 53 paratroopers were memorialized on its Wall of Honor.

Even as troops were unpacking and taking long family leaves, however, the brigade learned that it would be part of a Pentagon experiment in rapid turnaround, one way to get more out of an Army stretched thin by two wars. While a unit the size of a brigade would be expected to remain at home about two years before deploying again, the 4-25th was told that it would have only 12 months.

Under pressure to maintain troop strength, lower-level commanders invoked the threat of "stop loss" — an Army rule that can force soldiers to remain in uniform after their expected release dates — to convince some soldiers to re-enlist.

Howard, the brigade commander, said some lower-ranking officers were out of line in making the threats. When the unit departed for Afghanistan, however, about 10 percent of the force — some 350 soldiers — was there under stop loss, according to his personnel office. About 40 percent of the brigade was made up of paratroopers who'd also served with the unit in Iraq.

Howard said the experience of engaging in the Iraq counterinsurgency would help his soldiers in their latest assignment. He's served three previous tours in Afghanistan since 2002, one as a battalion commander in the eastern part of the country. He said he'd seen the Afghan army mature, the police forces grow and local governments begin to coalesce, and he hopes that his soldiers understand how important that is.

"Some people take that to mean a year of no fighting. It doesn't mean that at all," Howard said. It could mean taking a firefight to the Taliban or other insurgents who are interfering with efforts to build roads or train judges.

"Sometimes the people who are up to this foolishness are kids, 18-year-old boys who have been paid money to cause trouble, and sometimes it's better to run them off than it is to kill them and then cause this huge problem in a run-down village, where you probably could have talked to the elders and said you've got a bunch of 18-year-olds who are going to get hurt if you don't do something about it," he said.

"The brilliance comes when a young sergeant figures that out instead of just going in with a machine gun."

(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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