The Army’s first active-duty civil affairs battalion to deploy hopes to bring stability to the Afghan people. During the 81st Civil Affairs Battalion, 85th Civil Affairs Brigade’s first four months in Afghanistan, soldiers worked with locals to help the country sustain itself.
“That’s the whole point, so we can disengage,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Barker during a phone interview Friday from Camp Phoenix, Kabul, Afghanistan.
Their ultimate goal is to assist the country in functioning on its own — one that is an important part of the U.S. and NATO exit next year.
The unit deployed in mid-December and has more than 140 soldiers spread across 33 camps in support of five of the country’s six regional commands, including the east, where they mostly advise and assist the Afghan National Army’s 203rd Corps and 201st Corps in order to create an enduring capacity for the Afghan National Security Forces; the north, west and capital, where they’re primarily working on projects; and the south, where they focus on consequence management, such as processing claims from local villages. Regional Command-Southwest is controlled by the Marine Corps.
“The best way to define success in a counterinsurgency is to determine how the local people trust their host nation government officials and whether the government officials can meet their needs and expectations,” said Lt. Col. Joshua Potter, battalion commander.
The unit is almost halfway through its nine-month deployment, where soldiers work in four-person teams directly with the Afghan people as they listen to what their concerns are and strive to bring stability to the region through sustainable solutions.
The Afghans are making “bold” moves toward leading their people.
“These soldiers are energetic, enthusiastic and passionate about solidifying this coalition’s resolve and to provide meaningful, sustainable solutions,” Potter said. “They are bridging the gap between the essential needs of the people while augmenting the current (Afghan government’s) capacity.”
The command leadership has physically visited 80 percent of the civil affairs teams at various regional command centers since their deployment to check up on the soldiers in addition to receiving daily reports from each team, Barker said. “We have constant communication. We know what they did today, what they did yesterday and what they’re going to do tomorrow.”
Working with Afghans
As the International Security Assistance Force transitions toward removing its footprint from Afghan soil, U.S. soldiers have made substantial progress across the nation, including increasing the number of schools from 1,000 during the Taliban era to 14,600 schools as of October.
The number of teachers has increased from 20,000 to 192,000, the number of students has increased from 1 million male students to 8.4 million students, including 3 million females, and the percentage of Afghans with access to health care has increased from 8 to 85 percent, Potter said. Additionally, there are 103 women in government — there were none during the Taliban era.
“(These) hard numbers speak volumes of the path our forces have blazed to set Afghanistan along the road to prosperity,” Potter said. “Our soldiers from the 81st Civil Affairs Battalion are proud to share responsibilities in this transition. We recognize that our success is based upon the Afghans capacity to stand firm to meet the needs of their people.”
The soldiers work alongside their Afghan counterparts to develop lasting connections between the security forces, the government and the people, by providing them with humanitarian assistance and by developing strong relationships between the Afghan National Army’s 190,000 soldiers and the Afghan National Police’s 147,000 members.
“A lot of times, with the things they’re trying to accomplish, they’d rather work for us because we work quicker than their new government does and they’re not really educated on their (own) government systems,” Barker said.
Progress on projects
Upon the unit’s arrival in December, Potter discovered 330 projects started but not completed by regional commands, which were conducted to counter problems in each region. They were only expecting 100. About 35 of the unit’s soldiers are tasked with primarily focusing on those projects, which Potter called “daunting.”
While several of the projects are completed, they were not properly closed, which means the soldiers were tasked with inspecting the project sites, contacting the original contractor to sign closure agreements and pushing paperwork through the contracting command, legal representatives, finance and appropriate commanders.
Their goal is to reduce the total number of projects they are responsible for by 80 percent so it’s more manageable when they return to Fort Hood and transfer their operations to their sister battalion, the 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C., at the end of summer.
“That is a very tough goal to have, but I think it’s achievable,” Potter said.
Work with other nations
At their various camps, soldiers are working with a variety of nationalities that are part of the International Security Assistance Force mission, including Canada, Australia, Romania, Bulgaria, France, Columbia, Jordan and Croatia.
“We have very specialized smaller teams that are culturally sensitive, that understand how to work with the local people because we’ve gone through weeks of training to deal directly with the Afghan people,” Potter said. “It’s easier for us to go out in smaller teams with a small security presence and actually directly interact with the local people.”
Potter said the unit has built solid relationships that reinforce their strategic partnership with the region. “We will reduce our overall presence in Afghanistan steadily, as the Afghans have stepped into the lead both operationally and tactically,” he said.
Barker said the soldiers are handing their unique mission well.
“They have a large job facilitating and trying to pull all those characters together, but the system is really in place for the Afghans,” he said. “It’s just getting the local leaders to utilize it and make it work.”