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Lewis-McChord unit enters Taliban 'homeground' in Afghanistan

The 3,500 soldiers in a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade are taking on new territory in Afghanistan this week, absorbing one of the war’s most challenging corners as they cover more ground than they’ve ever covered on this or their three Iraq combat tours.

The new territory is Kandahar province’s Panjwai District. It includes the volatile area where one of the brigade’s soldiers set back the war effort by allegedly slaying 17 Afghan civilians last month.

It’s ground near where Mullah Mohammad Omar grew up, and where he later started the Taliban movement. It has been the scene of difficult fighting for years.

“It’s almost homeground to the Taliban,” said Col. Charles Webster, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, in a phone interview from his new headquarters.

“The last true fight the Taliban wants to have is here.”

Webster’s brigade deployed from the base in stages starting in December and will be in Afghanistan through late this year.

Taking control of Panjwai is the latest in a long series of changes to the brigade’s mission, which has been shaped and reshaped by shifting circumstances in Afghanistan this year.

More changes likely are in store for the Army’s original Stryker brigade as U.S. forces draw down their numbers by another 23,000 service members before the end of September.

“Because of the transition we’re going through, the 3-2 is going to be constantly adjusting its battle space,” said Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the war’s operational commander and the senior leader of Lewis-McChord’s I Corps. He is based in the capital city of Kabul.

Webster over the past few weeks moved his 3rd Brigade headquarters from Qalat, the capital of generally stable Zabul province, to a base in Panjwai. He took formal control of Panjwai on Thursday. His brigade is still responsible for Zabul.

That means his soldiers are covering about triple the territory the 3rd Brigade would have managed on its three previous tours to Iraq.

Panjwai has symbolic significance in the U.S. because it was the scene of the March 11 massacre of civilians, allegedly at the hands of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a infantryman who’d been with 3rd Brigade for a decade. But Bales was not in the brigade’s chain of command at the time of the deaths; his unit is reporting directly to the Special Forces.

Webster called the killings tragic, but said they had not changed the security situation his soldiers face in Panjwai. He could not speak about Bales because the soldier is under investigation and faces criminal charges and a possible death sentence.

For a time after the Panjwai killings, Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, speculated that more than one soldier was responsible for the massacre. Confusion, disinformation and mistrust have been sown among villagers.

But the Stryker commander said he has solid relationships with Afghan civilian, military and law enforcement leaders.

“I haven’t seen a significant amount of change in our interactions with our partners or with the local people,” Webster said. “It is very sensitive and we take that into account in everything we do.”

Webster’s brigade is the Army’s most deployed Stryker brigade. Lewis-McChord leaders two years ago anticipated that it would be stationed in the states as a Pacific reserve unit with probable missions partnering with Asian allies coming off of its 2009-10 tour of Iraq.

Instead, it was selected to fight in Afghanistan during a period of rapid change as NATO forces reduce their footprint and turn over security to Afghans.

The 3rd Brigade left the states in December with about half its soldiers, and without its namesake eight-wheeled Stryker infantry vehicles. Normally, Stryker brigades are deployed in whole. They come equipped with three 700-soldier infantry battalions, cavalry scouts, artillery and a support battalion. This time, 3rd Brigade left its artillery, support battalion and one infantry battalion at home.

“I don’t think that’s ever happened with a Stryker brigade and I don’t think we were ready for it. Nobody’s ever done it before,” said the brigade’s executive officer, Lt. Col. Robert Halvorson.

The entire brigade is now in Afghanistan, and most soldiers are riding in Strykers.

“We’ve been cobbled together, and it’s been all right,” Halvorson said.

Both of the brigade’s two fatal casualties to this point have taken place in Kandahar. Thirty-one other soldiers have been injured. Of those, 12 were sent home for medical care while 19 returned to duty.

The expanded territory means commanders have to prioritize missions and be ready for constant changes.

Capt. Brian Rieser leads a 3rd Brigade cavalry troop in Zabul province in an area where Americans had not stationed ground units recently. He leans on aerial surveillance to manage his terrain, and carefully selects where he wants to send out foot patrols.

“You have to pick your targets,” the Lacey resident said.

Webster said the additional territory evens out somewhat because of the difference in population density between Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq is generally urban; Afghanistan is more rural.

The colonel said the 3rd Brigade is managing a similar population to what it had in the past, just over a larger territory. Also, the brigade can leverage its partnerships with Afghan security forces to extend its reach.

Webster said Afghan forces are succeeding as they take on insurgent networks. Webster said the local knowledge brought by the Afghans helps soldiers find homemade bombs before they explode.

He noted that insurgents are initiating fewer attacks on U.S. forces this year in Zabul and Panjwai. Enemy attacks overall are down 13 percent in the first four months of this year compared with the same period of 2011 in the 3rd Brigade’s area. Attacks with improvised explosives have declined 25 percent.

Attacks with indirect fire, such as rockets and mortars, are up 40 percent. That tells Webster insurgents are reluctant to challenge American and Afghan forces directly.

The transition is ramping up over the next few months as high-ranking U.S. security force assistance teams mix in with the Afghan ranks. They’ll be responsible for coaching Afghan forces and calling in NATO assets, such as surveillance or casualty evacuations, when they’re needed.

“Right now it’s sufficient,” Halvorson said in an interview last month at the brigade’s former headquarters in Qalat. “Does that mean that’s where we’re going to leave it? No. If you leave something at the tipping point, it doesn’t take much to push it over.”

Webster declined to say if he expects another move for his headquarters and his brigade. Soldiers from the last Stryker brigade to fight here said they moved four times during their tour before recently heading home to Alaska.

“We’re ready to continue to change, to morph, to support this mission,” Webster said.

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