Maryland Guard travels dangerous road in hopes of Afghan peace

Maj. Young with the Maryland National Guard’s 1297th CSSB in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Maj. Young with the Maryland National Guard’s 1297th CSSB in Kandahar, Afghanistan.(BALTIMORE SUN)

For the soldiers of Task Force Raven in Afghanistan, the tempo is high, the roads are rough, and the work is dangerous.

The Maryland National Guardsmen, members of the 1297th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, carry equipment through insurgent-infested territory to combat troops in southern and western Afghanistan.

Such work is helping to create the conditions for the coming handover of the country's security to Afghan forces, U.S. military officials say. As the United States winds down its decade-long conflict, Maryland soldiers and Marines who have served in Afghanistan say they hope their contributions will outlast the American military presence.

"I want to believe that we somehow had an impact," Maryland Guard Maj. Michael Young, executive officer of the 1297th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, said by telephone from Kandahar. "An impact either directly or indirectly, for as long as we've been here."

The United States brought the war in Iraq to an end last month, capping a years-long effort to train local security forces while drawing down U.S. troops.

Now the military is repeating the process in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal ordered by President Barack Obama last year has left 91,000 U.S. troops in the country, down from a peak of 101,000 last summer. He has ordered a complete pullout by 2014.

More than 3,100 Maryland National Guard members have served in the Afghan war since Sept. 11, 2001, some on multiple tours. Three have been killed. More than 180 Maryland Guard members are there now.

Many of the troops in Afghanistan, including some Maryland Guard members, are focused on training the Afghan army and police. Others are fighting insurgents, protecting civilians or guarding the government.

As the Obama administration pursues the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban, Afghanistan remains deadly.

Airman 1st Class Matthew Ryan Seidler, an explosive ordnance disposal apprentice from Westminster, was killed Jan. 5 when the vehicle in which he was traveling struck a roadside bomb in Helmand province. Marine Capt. Daniel B. Bartle, a 2006 graduate of the Naval Academy, died Jan. 19 in a helicopter crash in Helmand.

The number of improvised explosive devices cleared or detonated in the past year rose to a record 16,554, USA Today reported last week.

The U.S. service members still deployed are pursuing their mission under a deadline. During his State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama reiterated his timetable for withdrawal.

What American forces will leave behind is unclear. The latest U.S. intelligence estimate warns that the Taliban will grow stronger, using talks with the United States to gain credibility, running out the clock until U.S. troops leave and continuing to fight for more territory, officials who have read the classified document told the Associated Press.

The report says the government of President Hamid Karzai has largely failed to prove itself to the Afghan people and likely will continue to weaken, according to the AP. The document did suggest that eliminating Taliban leaders and continuing to build the Afghan government could improve the outcome.

In Iraq, violence has increased since the last U.S. troops left. In Afghanistan, Maryland soldiers say they are working to prevent that.

Young's Havre de Grace-based unit has 77 members in Kandahar supplying forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Forty members of the 175th Security Forces Squadron are providing security at a hospital staffed by Egyptians treating Afghan civilians at Bagram. A 16-member detachment of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment is operating unmanned aircraft in Helmand.

Other Maryland Guard members are with the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led mission in Kabul working alongside and training Afghan forces.

Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, commander of the Maryland National Guard, visited the units last month. He described a mission in transition.

"The primary focus with surge recovery — the president's message to reduce forces in Afghanistan — is to make sure the Afghan army and police are making tremendous progress in being able to take care of their own responsibilities here," Adkins said. "The quicker they stand up, the quicker we can hand off the mission."

While the emphasis on training grows, the fighting continues. Forty-five members of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, a Marine Reserve unit based in Baltimore, returned in December after seven months of clearing improvised explosive devices for Marine infantry in Helmand province.

Cpl. Bradley Putman was looking for such bombs at the entry to a suspected enemy compound last fall when he stepped on a pressure-plate IED. He took shrapnel in his ankle, earned a Purple Heart and stayed in Afghanistan until his unit came home last month.

Putman, on his first tour in Afghanistan, said he wasn't there long enough to see drastic change in the war. But he said the country is "definitely going in the right direction."

Repeat visitors report seeing gains over time. Adkins spoke of driving through the streets of the capital with "the normal Kabul traffic." Young, on his second tour, said fighting was "a great deal more intense" in 2008 and 2009.

Lt. Craig Bald, an officer with the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion who completed his first tour last month, said signs were positive. The unit arrived in June, during the fighting season, in an area that "had been a hot spot in the past."

"It has significantly slowed down as far as kinetic activity," Bald said. "As we were there longer, what we noticed was an extreme disruption of the [enemy] networks."

Of the possibility that Taliban fighters might simply be waiting out the U.S. withdrawal, Bald said he couldn't read minds, but didn't think so.

"From what we saw, the enemy is still out there, the enemy's still operating," he said. "We didn't necessarily see them hiding. They were fighting us while we were there and we were fighting them as a result."

Bald cautioned against comparing Afghanistan with Iraq.

"Iraq had an established government with a road network. It had commerce. It had a lot of things that Afghanistan doesn't have. Afghanistan is way behind in some of the technological and basic infrastructure, and that puts [the country] at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to any sort of stability," he said.

"The ultimate thing is, time will tell. We've invested a lot of time, a lot of manpower and a lot of effort into Afghanistan and Iraq for what I feel are the right reasons. It's just a matter of whether it works out or not."