The next Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade to fight in Afghanistan plans to leave 1,000 of its soldiers at home as a “readiness reserve” in case its mission advising Afghan partners changes during its deployment.
“I don’t need everyone for this mission” at first, said Col. Mike Getchell, commander of more than 4,000 soldiers in the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. “They’ll continue to train so they’re ready to serve when they’re called to do it.”
Getchell is heading into Kandahar Province over the next two months with his most seasoned soldiers. He’s drawing on veterans and high-ranking leaders initially because they have the most experience working in complex environments. Their work will center on training Afghans in the end stages of a war rather than in traditional combat.
“We are the experts; we have to pass our expertise on to our Afghan partners,” Getchell said in an interview this week with The News Tribune.
His deployed group of more than 3,000 South Sound soldiers will replace another Lewis-McChord Stryker team, the 3,500 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Getchell’s troops head to Afghanistan as the nation turns its attention to ending the 11-year-old conflict by 2014 no matter which candidate wins the White House next month.
With that goal in mind, the deploying soldiers are planning to “advise and assist” Afghan security forces in carrying out campaigns against insurgents.
The 4th Brigade troops largely will not lead independent U.S. patrols, and they will not shell out millions of dollars in reconstruction money to prop up local governments. Instead, they will steer requests for assistance to Afghan leaders and support Afghan forces planning their own missions.
“Let’s let our Afghan partners solve their problems,” Getchell said.
His soldiers plan to live in varying conditions. Some will serve in large forward bases. Other high-ranking officers and noncommissioned officers likely will be embedded within small Afghan outposts to train their allies.
He said the 4th Brigade could wind up closing down the U.S. presence in some areas and turning them over completely to Afghan forces.
“It is less fighting for us and more training of Afghan security forces,” he said.
This plan marks a somewhat lighter touch than what other Stryker brigades from the base south of Tacoma have used in Afghanistan.
The first to deploy was the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which lost 37 soldiers in 2009-10 clearing remote parts of Kandahar Province neglected for years by NATO forces.
Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade deployed in December for a mixed mission calling on some soldiers to advise advanced Afghan units and other American troops to partner on combat patrols with Afghans in volatile districts of Kandahar Province. It has lost 14 soldiers in combat.
Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (formerly the 5th Brigade) returned to Afghanistan with about 4,000 soldiers in the spring. Its goals are similar to the 3rd Brigade’s, and it has lost eight soldiers in Afghanistan this year.
Getchell turned to wounded veterans from the 3rd Brigade to teach his soldiers about the enemy’s latest tactics using buried mines against U.S. and Afghan patrols. Those combat-wounded soldiers left strong impressions on the deploying troops.
“There’s nothing more powerful than seeing a wounded company commander teaching soldiers who are on their way to replace his guys,” Getchell said.
Dangers to Getchell’s soldiers could come not only in the buried mines, but also from within the ranks of their Afghan counterparts. More than 50 Western soldiers have been killed this year by Afghan police or soldiers.
The Defense Department attributes most of these killings to emotional disagreements between Western and Afghan service members, such as the visceral reaction many Afghans had to the February burning of Islamic holy books at the NATO-run detention center at Bagram Airfield.
Both U.S. and Afghan forces have recently launched cultural awareness programs aiming to bridge differences between the allies. Getchell focused on some of that training as the 4th Brigade prepared to leave.
“We taught our cultural training in terms of the Golden Rule. If you want to be treated well, treat others well,” he said.
The 4th Brigade will arrive in Afghanistan as the fighting season ends and insurgents retreat to their winter hideaways. Getchell’s forces likely will be tested in April and May when the Taliban launches its annual spring offensive.
By then, the brigade commander expects his soldiers to have the lay of the land, and to have a handle on any strategic changes that might come down from NATO after the U.S. election.
His brigade is known as the last combat unit to fight in Iraq from its most recent deployment in 2009-10. Likewise, he thinks his soldiers might have an opportunity to define how the U.S. views the end stage of the Afghanistan War.
Ties with the 3rd Brigade helped drive home the significance of this deployment, Getchell said. He described his soldiers as accountable to the Lewis-McChord troops they’re replacing, and to the civilian leaders who consider the assignment an important one in the broader scheme of a drawdown of Western forces.
“Those who have gone before us made (the mission) important,” he said.