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4-25th commander gives Afghanistan mission update

Paratroopers with 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, prepare to load a Chinook in the Bermel District of the Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan Oct. 13 during an air assault mission to detain a known militant. (Photo by Pfc. Andrya Hill/4th BCT, 25th ID Public Affairs)
Paratroopers with 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, prepare to load a Chinook in the Bermel District of the Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan Oct. 13 during an air assault mission to detain a known militant. (Photos by Pfc. Andrya Hill/4th BCT, 25th ID Public Affairs)

By David Bedard
Fort Richardson PAO

Col. Michael L. Howard, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division commander, spoke with members of the Anchorage media Oct. 16 via telephone conference from Afghanistan.

Paratroopers from 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division scan the ridgelines from the roof of a qalat in the Bermel District of the Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan Oct. 13 during an air assault mission to detain a known militant. (Photos by Pfc. Andrya Hill/4th BCT, 25th ID Public Affairs)
Paratroopers from 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division scan the ridgelines from the roof of a qalat in the Bermel District of the Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan Oct. 13 during an air assault mission to detain a known militant.

In his opening remarks, Howard thanked the Fort Richardson, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage and Alaska communities for their continued support of the brigade and he paid tribute to the unit’s fallen Soldiers.

“The brigade has lost 11 paratroopers and although this number is seemingly small to some, their loss is hugely significant to us, every last one of them,” Howard said. “It seems fitting...that I stop and tell the community and the families of these great Americans that they’re in our prayers and that we think about them every day, we remain committed and that we’re doing the very best job we can do here in Afghanistan as our final tribute to them.”

Howard said the brigade operates in three Afghan provinces: Paktika, Paktya and Khowst, known colloquially by Soldiers as P2K for the combined area of operations. The region shares 550 kilometers of border with Pakistan, is approximately the size of Maryland and is home to 2.2 million predominately ethnic Pashtun Afghans.

Howard added the region is ruggedly mountainous with brigade bases located in altitudes between 3,500 and 8,500 feet, requiring the Soldiers to navigate challenging terrain at altitudes often exceeding 10,000 feet.

Howard said 4-25th BCT ballooned from approximately 3,500 to 5,500 personnel because the brigade task force includes a multi-functional aviation brigade which provides air assault lift and logistics support, an additional infantry battalion which will assume their own area of responsibility and a military police battalion which provides partnership to P2K Afghan police forces. The task force also includes provincial reconstruction teams responsible for partnering with provincial governments and agribusiness development teams which are vital to restoring diminished agricultural capacity.

“In P2K, 75 percent of all Afghans make their living through farming,” Howard explained. “This year, Afghanistan had a bumper harvest and all three of our provinces were part of this bumper crop. We not only had a record spring harvest, we also had a tremendous fall harvest.”

Howard said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently completed a P2K watershed study leading to some insightful conclusions.

“We realized we don’t have a water problem in our provinces,” Howard said. “We have a water management problem. So we could continue digging wells all we want but really instead of fixing things, it’s making the problem worse because we drain the water table too quickly.”

Howard said the watershed is often bolstered by measures such as dams to slow drainage and to keep water in critical areas, adding $2.2 million is set aside for a three-year project working with the Afghan Conservation Corps to restore the watershed in Paktika Province.

Howard detailed how the ADTs serve to promote agribusiness in P2K, relying on a composite of Army National Guard Soldiers well suited for the mission.

“(The ADTs) are really remarkable units, about 75 strong, roughly half of them are made up of an infantry platoon to provide security,” Howard said. “The other half of these guys are just some remarkable people. They are farmers, veterinarians and animal husbandry experts and horticulturists. I mean, they are very bright people who happen to be Guardsmen who attack the depressed agribusiness in the area and they’re making a difference.”

Seven months into their deployment, Howard said the brigade has reduced civilian casualties resulting from enemy activity by 49 percent.

“The numbers have dropped because your Soldiers made them drop,” Howard exclaimed. “U.S. fatalities and casualties are way down as well. The numbers of Soldiers wounded in combat has dropped 57 percent as compared to the last unit in this battlespace in the seventh month of their deployment. Fatalities are way down as well, 80 percent in this area compared to the last unit.

“There’s a number of reasons for this,” Howard elaborated. “Obviously the last unit had a tremendous effect on the enemy, your Soldiers are having a tremendous effect on the enemy and the third reason is the Army is resourcing us with some really spectacular equipment.”

Howard said the brigade has completely replaced all of the unit’s Humvees with mine resistant ambush protected vehicles which use a v-shaped hull to greatly enhance Soldier protection from roadside bombs.

Howard said overall violence has dropped five percent, a remarkable feat considering violence has risen in other parts of Afghanistan.

Paratroopers from 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division prepare to load a Chinook in the Bermel District of the Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan Oct. 13 during an air assault mission.
Paratroopers from 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division prepare to load a Chinook in the Bermel District of the Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan Oct. 13 during an air assault mission.

“When we arrived seven months ago, we were told we had inherited the most violent battlespace in the country,” Howard said. “Well, enemy activity has dropped every month since May in our area.”

Howard attributed the drop to a novel approach, using a bullhorn to call insurgents out of a building rather than sending coalition or Afghan forces in to root them out.

“We’re doing a much better job of taking bad guys off the street,” Howard related. “The vast majority of these guys that are arrested are now done without any shots fired and a major change is most of these guys are taken off the streets by Afghans with U.S. Soldiers simply supporting.”

Howard said insurgent forces are targeted in depth, often calling them out in the local media to turn public opinion against the enemy. Partnering with the Afghan people to improve infrastructure also helps to diminish insurgent influence.

“The Soldiers make a huge difference in ways other than fighting,” Howard added. “We’ve all heard (U.S. Central Command commanding general) Gen. (David H.) Petraeus say we’re not going to shoot our way out of this war. Your Soldiers are taking this to heart and are involved in many initiatives to improve the lives of Afghans they live among.”

Howard said the brigade has partnered with P2K officials to place 390 kilometers of road under construction with another 128 kilometers planned. The brigade has administered the restoration of 29 schools, five medical facilities and three court houses. Additionally, the brigade has facilitated vocational training for more than 3,000 young adults in agriculture, livestock management, construction and the rule of law.

Last August, the brigade partnered with Afghan security forces to ensure peaceful presidential elections in P2K.

“It was secured and run by Afghans,” Howard said. “This is my fourth tour in Afghanistan and by far this event involves more national pride than any other single event I have seen.”

Howard said although the brigade has not jumped out of planes during the deployment, they bring the airborne élan to everything they do.

“We are an airborne brigade and we can jump out of airplanes but we can also do (helicopter) air assaults (and) drive around in MRAPs,” Howard explained. “This is a very versatile group of young men and women. If you ask this group...to put on a circus, you give them 24 hours and they would come back and give you Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. That’s what they bring to the fight.”

With seven months of deployment under their belt, Howard said the brigade is vigilant to finish out the remainder of the combat tour strong.

“There’s still a lot to do and there’s still a lot of challenges remaining,” Howard said. “There’s a lot of danger left to be faced, but be assured the paratroopers, your paratroopers, are up to it. They aren’t going to let you down, they’re not going to let themselves down and they’re certainly not going to let the nation down.”