BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) ― The first troops to leave Afghanistan as part of the U.S. drawdown handed over their slice of battlefield Wednesday to a unit less than half their size and started packing for home.
When the 650 members of the Iowa National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment arrived in Afghanistan in November 2010, bases didn’t have enough housing, translators were in short supply and chow halls were packed.
Commanders were using a buildup of 33,000 extra troops for a major push that they said would turn the tide of the war against the Taliban insurgency.Nine months later, it’s still unclear if that push has succeeded, but the pullback has begun.
Although major combat units are not expected to start leaving until late fall, two National Guard regiments comprising about 1,000 soldiers in all are withdrawing this month - the Iowa soldiers from Parwan province in eastern Afghanistan, and the other group from the capital, Kabul.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced last month that he would pull 10,000 of the extra troops out in 2011 and the remaining 23,000 by the summer of 2012.
Three hundred soldiers will take over from the 650 departing troops who oversaw security in Parwan, including the area outside the main U.S. military base at Bagram.
In a ceremony at Bagram marking the transfer, a speaker read out a list of the 113th’s accomplishments: 14 high-value targets killed or captured, the largest homemade explosives lab in Parwan discovered and dismantled, 52 consecutive days of keeping insurgent fire out of the Bagram base, 3,800 combat missions completed, 400 Afghan police officers trained and a coordination center built. She also read out the cost: One soldier died when a team helicoptered into a firefight to aid a downed pilot.
The commander of the outgoing unit said he expects his successors will be able to build on their accomplishments.
“They may not be as robust as us, or have as many as us, but they certainly will have the ability to secure the Bagram security zone,” said Lt. Col. David Updegraff. He said he felt he could have completed his mission with a smaller force, but that the extra numbers made it significantly easier.
“I was very happy to have the size of task force that I had because it allowed me a lot of flexibility,” Updegraff said.
Some in the 113th said 650 soldiers were barely enough.
“Most of our platoons were short-manned quite often. We were running with the minimum amount that we safely can. And they were running long missions, long days,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Pals, 34, of Hartley, Iowa.
Outgoing soldiers said they needed all their numbers to do the type of intensive training and mentoring called for by a strategy focused on building up the Afghan forces.
They had to spend extra time demonstrating techniques to Afghan police officers who were illiterate and had to teach Afghan soldiers basic map-reading skills, said Staff Sgt. Doug Stanger, 42, of Urbandale, Iowa.
“It takes a lot more of us to mentor them,” Stanger said. The 113th also spend a lot of time working with local communities - building wells, schools or other infrastructure projects.
Though commanders have said their mission in Afghanistan has not changed, manpower-intensive activities such as these are likely to lessen with smaller forces. The current push appears to be for more quick-strike missions that eliminate insurgent leaders while the Afghan security forces are left to keep the peace.
And while the Afghan army and police have improved drastically, there’s still a long way to go.
“You’ve got to pull teeth to get the ANP to do anything,” said Pfc. Scott Silverblatt, 22, of McHenry, Illinois.
As the soldiers go back, they all say they’re prepared for the same question: Should we be over there? Pals says yes, because the training is helping. Stanger also says yes, because most Afghans really want the help. Silverblatt agrees, because a too-quick departure could throw the Afghan economy built up around bases like Bagram into a tailspin.
“If we leave, we’ve just messed up the whole country all over again,” Silverblatt said.
A fourth soldier ― Staff Sgt. Jesse Ross of Des Moines ― says he isn’t sure given the strong words coming from Afghan President Hamid Karzai about how Americans risk becoming occupiers.
“Does Afghanistan need help? Yes. Do they necessarily want it from us? I don’t know,” Ross said.
The troops that were originally slated to replace the 113th in Afghanistan have been reassigned to Kuwait. The guardsmen just found out a few weeks ago and had to scramble to find units to take the extra guns and equipment they were suddenly leaving behind.
The ceremony marking the handover was held in a tented-over basketball court that sometimes serves as a film-screening site. Soldiers in camouflage sat in metal folding chairs as their successes were read out.
A color guard raised the flags of both units and then stowed the Iowa flag away in a camouflage sack for the journey home. As the troops stood to sing the Army song, a jet buzzed overhead, drowning out the chorus of soldiers below.