The troops from Joint Base Lewis-McChord rolled out in full force, their armored vehicles protecting a convoy of supplies badly needed by Afghan soldiers stationed across hostile, rugged terrain.
At the front of the line: three slight Afghan men riding motorcycles with their army’s flag flying from their tails.
The men are human mine detectors in the style of the Afghan National Army.
“The road is very dangerous,” said Afghan Staff Sgt. Sarvar, who has scanned the road for buried bombs for the past six years. “I’m looking for a disturbed road. I can tell if someone has been working in it.”
He and other Afghan soldiers who race ahead of convoys looking for bombs on deadly roads could become even more valuable in the next year. NATO troops will scale down their numbers and shift more of the burden for fighting Taliban insurgents to Afghan security forces.
Behind Sarver on Saturday morning rolled a formidable lineup of American bomb-resistant vehicles with names like the Buffalo, the Double V hull Stryker and the RG-31 armored infantry carrier.
A few years from now, this armor won’t be as readily available to escort Afghan supply convoys.
This weekend’s convoy from the Americans’ Forward Operating Base Sweeney was the first land delivery to the Afghan army’s Forward Operating Base Nawbahar since October.
The troops hauled firewood, mattresses, construction equipment and vehicles in a chain of 26 Afghan trucks over 40 kilometers (24 miles). Their caravan moved through rough territory the Taliban uses to carry supplies from safe havens in Pakistan.
They were helped by a company from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.
Company commander Capt. Joe Mickley advised the Afghan army in planning the mission and called in a range of American support. Two of Mickley’s Stryker platoons were assigned to the convoy, as were aerial surveillance resources and a nine-vehicle route clearance team from his Stryker brigade.
“If we don’t supply (the Afghan army), they’ll have every reason not to patrol,” said Mickley, 35, of Lacey.
Col. Gadon Mohammed Dost acknowledged as much in a conversation with Mickley. Dost listed salaries and food as two essentials his soldiers must have to keep up their morale and do their jobs well.
Dost leads Afghan forces in this region as the commander of the 1st Kandak. A kandak is a unit similar in size and scope to an American battalion.
The Afghan commander said supplies are the most important assistance his unit receives from NATO forces. He complained to Mickley that he was having trouble repairing motorcycles for his route clearance team, or obtaining new ones.
“I will steal from the Taliban if I have to,” he joked.
Mickley asked why Dost’s commanders could not send him more motorcycles. The answer wasn’t clear to Dost.
“The problem with your battalion is logistics,” Mickley told him. “The problem with all the (Afghan National Army) is logistics.”
That problem is not new to U.S. forces.
In Iraq, they were late in the game training up that nation’s military how to order supplies and efficiently distribute them to soldiers. In 2008, when the Bush administration negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Iraqi government explicitly asked for help supplying and equipping its military. It was written into the terms of the withdrawal agreement.
Before that, joint American and Iraqi patrols often showed a contrast between well-armed and equipped U.S. troops working alongside seemingly ragtag Iraqis with machine guns mounted in the beds of their Toyota pickups.
The same need could arise this year as the Obama administration prepares for the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Mickley’s company has been running lengthy convoys around this mountainous district for several weeks in collaboration with Dost’s kandak.
It’s time-consuming and dangerous work.
Three weeks ago, his company with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division supported a convoy to an Afghan base in nearby Atghar District. That base is close to the insurgents’ supply route and the Pakistan border.
Enemy fighters spotted American soldiers going into Atghar and laid a series of mines for the convoy on its way home. U.S. troops spotted and disabled three of the explosives. They hit three others, though no one was injured, 1-14 squadron commander Lt. Col. Jim Dunivan said.
This weekend’s Nawbahar mission took about a week to plan. Soldiers anticipated another tough road as they prepared to leave.
They cracked jokes about getting blown up to motivate themselves for a drive that would cover roughly the distance of driving from Tacoma to Lacey, but would take 10 hours because of the terrain and the slow-moving mine-detection equipment.
At a premission meeting Friday, an Afghan commander warned that the insurgents could bring new tactics as they move into their fighting season.
“If the enemy comes back from Pakistan, they will come back with new techniques,” the Afghan commander said over a table with the route map drawn across the board and decorated with miniature mountains. He led the meeting for the American, Afghan and Romanian soldiers stationed here.
As Saturday’s mission played out, one U.S. route clearance vehicle hit an explosive in the road to Nawbahar, but no one was hurt.
The real challenge turned out to be the route itself, and the weight of the U.S. vehicles using it.
One 20-plus-ton Stryker sank to the top of its front tire near a small irrigation ditch on the way in; another Stryker sank on a narrow road in a hostile town on the way back Sunday. In both cases, they were towed out of the trenches they’d made.
Soldiers returned to Forward Operating Base Sweeney caked in dust. They looked like raccoons when they took off their sunglasses, but they were no worse for the wear of their mission.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” said Pfc. Michael Farris, 21, who lives on base at Lewis-McChord when back in the states. “We didn’t get blown up.”
He stood out of the rear hatch of Mickley’s Stryker and said that he looked like he was “wearing green makeup” when he got a glimpse of himself at the base.
Sarvar’s motorcycle team didn’t fare as well. Only one of the three bikes completed the entire journey. Two others developed maintenance problems and had to be carried on the back of a supply truck.
His crew was more successful last Wednesday when his team spotted a bomb on the road in front of another of Mickley’s convoys. That time, they used a stick and flagged it for a bomb-disposal crew to destroy.
Sarvar said he’s been knocked unconscious in the past while searching for mines. He keeps his focus by reminding himself that lives depend on him spotting bombs before his fellow Afghan soldiers roll over them.
“The whole time I was thinking about my friend behind me,” he said.
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