KANDAHAR , AFGHANISTAN — As the exit strategy for America's ten-plus year war in Afghanistan begins to gain traction, commanders on the ground are surging ahead and ensuring Afghan security forces take the lead on all aspects of operations.
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Wolfton, a battalion commander in southern Kandahar, believes that his groundbreaking methods are the secret to success in the wartorn nation.
"It's really simple," says LTC Wolfton. "For example, when we issue out two truckloads of supplies to the ten Afghan soldiers we have here at the base, we just have the Afghans grab the boxes first and hand them to the Americans, who load their truck for them. Then we send up a storyboard with a picture and a caption that reads: Afghans issue supplies to US troops."
Many of the photos of Afghan forces leading the way end up making their way onto Facebook and other social media sites.
"It's actually quite easy. We do that for everything around here. Ammunition, fuel, clothing. Whatever they need. We even had a US soldier get hit by a mortar, and after our Medics had bandaged him up, a couple Afghan contractors came over and squatted next to him for pictures. We put that one up on the ISAF page with 'Afghan partners evacuate wounded Americans!' for a caption."
Wolfton says that the Afghans really love his "aggressive public relations strategy."
"It really makes them feel like they're taking ownership of the fight," says Wolfton with a smile. "Every two days their squad comes back for a few more weeks of supplies, and we get great pictures to send to higher. It's really a win-win."
The commander grins as he thumbs through an impressive pile of over 200 storyboards on his desk.
"Regional Command South has really focused on our area as well. The status bubble on our unit's PowerPoint slide has been green every night for the last 4 months during the General's update brief, and people have really taken notice. The General likes seeing green on his slides. Just this morning I was talking to an old Academy friend of mine who's a commander in RC East. He was tired of getting his ass chewed for not having a green bubble, and was real excited to learn how we do business down here."
Wolfton also has other examples of successful strategies he's implemented.
"The guidance we had when we first got in theater was that we wouldn't patrol without ANSF partners, but even that didn't seem to get the job done. Villagers were still complaining that they didn't like to see Americans with the Afghan troops. Now we just follow them in our Strykers, weapons unloaded of course."
Captain Derek Freedman, a company commander in the battalion, says LTC Wolfton "knows how to get the job done."
"We had a negligent discharge about a month ago, and even though it didn't hit anyone, a little girl playing nearby was scared, and the Colonel said we definitely couldn't have that. Since he instituted the 'unloaded' weapons status outside the wire we've heard nothing but good things from the locals. To avoid any confusion the platoons now have to call up to the TOC and get permission before they load their weapons."
LTC Wolfton says his new weapons procedures are "working out great" along with his further guidance to troops in the field.
"We've also gotten rid of the controversial compound searches. Before, we'd have to let the ANSF search buildings, but we would always send in US troops to watch them. This obviously sent the wrong message, so now they go it alone. I really think we've come a long way. Last week my PSD [Personal Security Detail] took fire from a grape hut about 100 meters east of the road. I told my men to get down in their vehicles and try to avoid looking threatening, since their seemed to be lots of villagers on the hilltops with radios and binoculars. The ANA bravely went right up to the building and cleared it. Their commander came back and personally assured me that there was no one in the grape hut."
"And he would know! The commander actually lives in that village."
Wolfton says his trust in his Afghan partners' is "unbreakable."
"Next week we're planning a big battalion operation. We're even going to have an ANA led rehearsal. The S-3 shop has already written their scripts for them, and we're translating the operational CONOP into Dari and Pashtu, along with our timelines. Two days before the operation we're going to airdrop them over our entire AO, to ensure that civilians have the maximum amount of time to get ready for our mission. We don't want them to feel surprised or threatened in any way."
Unfortunately, the interview ended abruptly when the Afghan Kandak commander came into the office to take a picture sitting at the Colonel's desk signing American award forms.