US troops adjust to Afghan National Security Forces lead in combat ops

GORBUZ, Afghanistan — Underneath a moonless sky, a platoon of  Army Scouts prepared to roll out from Forward Operating Base Salerno in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning. 

The operation was straightforward — head into Gorbuz district of Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan and round up a suspected Taliban facilitator known for planting roadside bombs in the area. 

It was a mission that Lt. Steve Cummings, platoon leader with India Co., 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Division, and his troops had likely carried out numerous times during the course of the 12-year Afghan war. 

But just as U.S. forces exited Salerno's main gate, they made a stop they would not have normally made in those past dozen years of war. 

Waiting just outside the gate were local units from the Afghan National Police [ANP]. 

It would be the ANP, not American troops, that would lead this mission. 

These kinds of stops are the new reality for American forces in Afghanistan, ever since U.S. and allied commanders officially handed over control of combat operations to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in June. 

After briefing the ANP commander and units on the target of Thursday's mission, Cummings hopped back into his truck and U.S. troops headed off toward Gorbuz -- with the Afghan police in the lead. 

Since the security handover in June, Afghan forces have spearheaded combat operations against Taliban insurgents across the country, and paid a heavy toll for it. 

Joint combat patrols, planned, coordinated and led by Afghan and military and police are "now the norm" in Khost and all along eastern Afghanistan, Col. Val Keaveny, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) told The Hill. 

Khost and other volatile provinces in eastern Afghanistan that line the country's border with Pakistan were the last areas transitioned to Afghan control, as part of Washington's plan to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by next year. 

Those areas in eastern Afghanistan have also been the primary focus for U.S. and allied commanders for this year's fighting season, which will likely be the last for coalition forces in country.

During Thursday's mission, ANSF units backed by Army Scouts were again at the forefront as the troops moved on foot toward the suspect's compound in Gorbuz. 

Afghan police units began clearing the home as the morning call to prayer from the nearby mosque echoed off the mud-brick walls of the compound.

As ANP units moved in, Cummings's troops kept their distance, providing security overwatch while occasionally calling out orders to the police. 

From his position along a faint treeline near the compound, Cummings admitted feeling some frustration as the operation played out. 

"As Americans, you want to do [the mission] for them," he said as local police cleared the home, echoing concerns from other U.S. units in country as they hand the war off to the Afghans. 

That frustration was not uncommon as both Afghans and Americans grow into their new roles on the battlefield, Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Scott Kirkpatrick told The Hill in an interview after Thursday's mission. 

"That's just natural," he said of the growing pains being experienced by his troops. U.S. forces "have learned to adapt" while still completing the mission, according to Kirkpatrick. 

Despite that "natural friction" that comes with changing combat roles, American units have "figured it out," for the most part, the battalion commander added. 

But in Thursday's mission, as with others across Afghanistan, some mistakes were made by ANSF units as they continued to take the reins of security operations in country. 

ANP units initially raided the wrong house in their hunt for the Taliban facilitator, eventually finding the suspect in the compound next door. 

That slip up, according to Cummings, is part and parcel of some of the tradeoffs American forces have been forced with Afghans now in the lead. 

However, for Cummings and other U.S. commanders on the ground, those trade offs cannot mean sacrificing the safety of American forces. 

Ensuring the safety of his troops means that U.S. troops, not the ANP, ended up clearing the suspect's home once Afghan police detained the individual. 

"Every compound I go after, I clear," Cummings said as he directed his troops to move into the suspect's home and set up a security perimeter around the compound. 

But after that order, the mission was firmly back in the hands of the ANP, who eventually identified and led the interrogation of the suspected Taliban facilitator. 

A relative of the suspect, who was also in the compound,  was identified by Army Scouts as a "person of interest" after a check of his biometric data showed the man had been held for several months by U.S. forces and later released. 

In the end, however, ANP leaders opted to let the suspect and his relative go, after a search of the compound turned up no bomb making materials. 

In the past, American troops would have scooped up both men and sent then down to the U.S. detention facility at Bagram Air Force base, Cummings said after the mission. 

While that would have met the objectives of U.S. forces in Afghanistan two or three years ago, that kind of move does not match the U.S. mission now. 

"Just arresting them and sending them down to [Bagram] does not do much now," Cummings said, 

After a few months, he noted, there will be no place to send those individuals as U.S. support in Bagram, FOB Salerno, Khost province and the rest of Afghanistan shuts down. 

By then, for all intents and purposes, the Afghans will be on their own. By then, "their system has to work," Cummings said.