The 504th Military Intelligence Brigade returned home to Fort Hood last week from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan.
Tasked with providing land and air intelligence support to U.S., Afghan and NATO troops participating in Operation Resolute Support, the soldiers completed more than 8,000 human and counterintelligence reports, more than 20,000 signals intelligence reports, had mission command of over 68,000 ground and aerial intelligence support requests and over 18,000 counterintelligence screenings — the details of which are mostly classified.
They also supported more than 900 Security Force Assistance Brigade and NATO operations to train, advise and assist Afghans outside the relative safety of an operating base, according to the brigade commander, Col. Deitra Trotter.
They also awarded 30 Combat Action Badges and two Purple Heart Medals to unit soldiers during the deployment, she said.
Following the homecoming, Trotter sat down with the Herald to discuss the current state of operations in Afghanistan.
Q: What was the working relationship like between the troops and the Resolute Support partner nations?
A: Our soldiers, and some airmen, were spread throughout the Resolute Support area of operations, out to about 14 different camps and (forward operating bases). Depending on where they were, it wasn’t always U.S. forces. It wasn’t always Afghan forces, sometimes it was a mix of Coalition forces. Our soldiers had the opportunity to work with Slovenians, Polish forces — whoever the Coalition force was at the location, that’s who they were supporting. It was really interesting. Sometimes a bit of a challenge, but I think we worked through really well. The soldiers themselves were usually assigned to a train, advise and assist command and then worked through that command. We developed a very good partnership in every instance I saw.
Q: What was the experience like for those soldiers, getting to work with partner NATO nations?
A: It’s a rare and unique opportunity for us. This opportunity in Afghanistan, under a NATO banner ... the last time I was in Afghanistan was more than 10 years ago, and it was a predominantly U.S. presence. I was struck by the change — I saw a lot of operations (this deployment) that were Coalition-partner led, Afghan-led and a lot more integration. It was an opportunity for our soldiers to get a lot more interaction with non-U.S. partners. It helped them grow as soldiers, as human beings — it broadened them in a lot of ways.
Q: What kind of differences have you seen in the Afghan forces compared to the last time you were there a decade ago?
A: A lot has changed, actually. Afghans in the lead is what struck me the most, and the number of U.S. troops. Just being on Bagram (Air Base) now compared to then ... Bagram was so empty compared to the last time I was there. Our presence is significantly smaller. The level of Afghan-led operations has markedly increased. There were a lot more U.S.-led operations, and they were much more offensively oriented on my first Afghan deployment. Our focus has shifted, and the purpose of our presence in Afghanistan has significantly changed. And the role of the (Afghan forces) and their leadership has completely changed from the last time I was there. I think there are some who might be a bit skeptical, but it does take time to grow, change and develop leaders, but I believe I’m seeing it. I visited our soldiers at multiple locations, and I saw Afghan forces conducting operations and I thought, wow, they are really growing. That takes a lot of time, a lot of courage and a lot of perseverance, but they are really doing it.
Q: Have you seen a better relationship between the Afghan and U.S. forces now because of the training we have been providing them?
A: Yes. Our relationship has been improving with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Our role — our unit specifically — has been working with the SFAB (Security Force Assistance Brigade), with their intel folks, and helping them build a training program for the ANDSF. That will take more time as (the ANDSF) grows their forces and gains experience. There is a lot of room for growth. The Afghan soldiers themselves want to learn, they want to do things for themselves, and they do want to be self-sufficient. That was my impression. There is still a lot of need there, a lot of things they don’t have as a military force, and there is still an adversary there that has to be fought. There is still a lot of training, advising and assisting that needs to be done by us and our Coalition partners. This is something that doesn’t happen overnight — it does take a deliberate approach and a little bit of strategic patience to build a credible force to secure a nation.
Q: What about the Afghan civilian population? How supportive are they of the Resolute Support mission and troops there?
A: I think it varies. There was a peace movement afoot while I was there that I think garnered some public opinion in different portions of the country. Certainly in places where there were U.S. forces there was a positive opinion, because we are doing things to help secure them. I’m sure in Taliban strongholds, wherever they were, we are probably still not liked. But I think the average Afghan is certainly interested in peace and security more so than anything, but wherever we go, public opinion seems to go favorably for us. In my experience, our soldiers tend to come back with favorable impressions of the places they visited. We didn’t really encounter any genuine hostility towards us.
Q: What is the current combat climate like when assisting the Afghan forces against the Taliban and hostile forces such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham-Khorasan?
A: If you think of the adversary in Afghanistan, it’s easier to describe them if you think in terms of (how they operated) in Iraq. They don’t operate the same way as ISIS (in Iraq), for instance. While ISIS was very determined to own (land) and have a caliphate, occupy territory and say ‘this is my land’ and plant a flag, they operate in a completely different way here. They learned really quickly that we like when you do that. They have reverted to counterinsurgency tactics and the thought that they can outlast us. They spread themselves amongst the population instead of having strongholds. They stick to hit-and-run attacks, strikes, to denying they conducted attacks against their own population, killing their own civilians — which, of course, they do. They focus, more than anything, on an information operations campaign and claim attacks which they may or may not have actually perpetrated. What we have seen is that what they are very good at is their information networks throughout the country. They try to be wherever Coalition forces aren’t (to conduct attacks), so they can say ‘hey, the government can’t be everywhere.’ If they can just overrun one checkpoint, anywhere, they will make a big deal about it to say ‘look, the government can’t protect you because we overran this one little police checkpoint’ in an entire nation and make huge deal of it all over the world. And if they’re lucky, news organizations half-way around the planet will pick up the story that the Taliban overran a police checkpoint so (they Taliban) can say, ‘see, the government can’t protect you.’ They’re very good at strategic communications, unfortunately, more so than anything. Estimates vary as to how many actual fighters are out there. More often than not, they use the money they get from selling drugs to hire three or four people to launch their rockets and conduct their small attacks. So it’s really hard to tell how many die-hard Taliban there are out there, but we estimate there aren’t very many left. For ISIS-K, there are small pockets — primarily in the northeastern portion of the country — that are in a fight for survival with the Taliban, really, for the same group of disaffected in the country. They are more focused on high-profile attacks and a fight for survival for primacy as to who has the better message for imposing their idea of what the right message is for the country. Their anti-American message is what resonates more than anything with the disaffected. And if nothing else, it’s like ‘we can give you money.’ They are able to solicit money through the drug trade and other criminals, because at least they are willing to fight the government (of Afghanistan) with arms, whereas the criminals are not willing to pick up a weapon and go against the Afghan government.
Q: What was it like for the soldiers of the 504th MI during the deployment?
A: Some of these soldiers were in some very austere conditions. It’s great when you’re situated at Bagram, where you have electricity, internet, a (post exchange), a Pizza Hut — it’s gross pizza, but it is pizza-like — but you’ve got most of the comforts of home at Bagram. But when you get out to some of the camps, it is very austere. Some of these folks are lucky if they’re going to get a hot meal, they’re lucky if they’re going to get a shower that day. They’ve come up with some fairly unique methods for getting hot water — I’ve watched them take their water bottles, set them out in the sun for x-number of hours to get some hot water going. We talked about the different ways to mix your (meals, ready to eat) to get a good meal. Where if the weather is not right, then the resupply helicopter is not going to come and you’re not going to get your meal. The challenges with their linguists and getting them to stay in some of those more austere places. But those units absolutely relied upon them. They are the ones who would catch the (vehicle-born improvised explosive devices) before they came in the camp; they were the ones who would get the tips about who should not be let in or hired. They saved lives, and I got to see it first-hand where that young (military intelligence) soldier realized that something they did made a tremendous difference in the lives of others. There’s nothing I can do to get a soldier to realize that, internalize that they are going to carry that with them for the rest of their lives. That’s something that they can be proud of forever.