Monday afternoon, June 20, we caught an operational briefing with Combined Joint Task Force-76 at Bagram Air Base then flew back to Kabul to spend the night. After take-off, our first CH-47 developed an engine problem so we made the long bank and returned to Bagram. It took twenty minutes to transfer to a second CH-47. The second night flight to Kabul went quickly. I spoke with one of the door gunners, though it’s difficult to speak with anyone on a CH-47. The door gunner wore a pair of the “new” binocular night vision scopes, but the moon light was so bright he flipped them back up on his helmet. The full moon put a definite edge on the mountains and we could see trucks moving on the main highway. The Ch-47 is well named: the Chinook. The twin-rotored giant chopper is a big wind. When it lands on a dry Afghan landing zone the chopper raises an instant dust storm– a sustained storm that turns dirt into pumice. Turn around and lean away, and if you don’t have goggles, cover your eyes.
Tuesday morning (June 21) we attended a couple of informal operations briefings (one discussing training Afghan military units) before flying on to Pol-e-charki, the headquarters of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 201st Corps. The 201st Corps’ Third Brigade is also stationed there. (At the moment the ANA has five corps.) Third Brigade is –or perhaps I should say, will be– the ANA’s mechanized strike force. The unit has an interesting amalgam of weapons: ex-Soviet T-55 and T-62 tanks, ex-Soviet BMP armored personnel carriers, and some US M-113 armored personnel carriers. We saw a mechanized infantry platoon demonstrate debarking from M-113s, forming a battle-line, launching an assault, then withdrawing to their personnel carriers. The ANA is focusing on building battalions –”kandaks” they’re called– of about 600 troops each. After the demonstration we got the chance to talk about training the ANA with the US commander in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry. The September 18 Afghan provincial and national assembly elections also loom large in Eikenberry’s current plans. Eikenberry says the ANA will assume a major role in providing security for those elections. The elections will be protected with “three rings” — Afghan police, Afghan military, and then coalition forces, with the Afghan police providing the first line of security at polling stations. (The Afghans say there will be over 3600 polling places open on September 18.) Eikenberry’s troops also work closely with PRTs– Provincial Reconstruction Teams– that are rebuilding Afghanistan. After the short chat with LTG Eikenberry we returned to the helicopters for a flight to Kabul. In Kabul Sally Donnelly of Time Magazine, Mike Hedges of The Houston Chronicle (Hearst), and I got a quick interview wit GEN Abizaid, then we split-off from his command group and returned to Bagram. I asked GEN Abizaid one question: “This is a long war. The military has played the central role in this war. What can the American people do to get involved and stay involved in this war?” (See my post “Iraqi Whirlwind” for some background on this question.) I’ll get his complete answer up when we get the transcript (tomorrow?), but the gist of his reply was this: Americans need to understand the stakes. Some time early tomorrow morning we go out on patrol with an MP unit from the Alaska National Guard.
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