Last Lewis-McChord Stryker Brigade to leave Afghanistan sees progress

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When Col. Michael Getchell got word last February of an Afghan village rebellion against insurgents, he pondered how the Stryker Brigade under his command should respond.

"Here's the question," Getchell said in a recent interview at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. "What do you do with the uprising? Because if I get my nose in it — guess whose uprising it becomes? It's not theirs."

Getchell said he ordered his soldiers of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, to stay out of the village. That appeared to be the right move. In the weeks that followed, the revolt spread to dozens of villages in southern Afghanistan's Panjwai district, long a Taliban stronghold.

Getchell's unit returned to Western Washington this summer after completing what is expected to be the last deployment of a JBLM Stryker Brigade to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through the course of the past decade, these brigades deployed 10 times to combat zones.

Their missions often involved the treacherous work of trying to secure cities and villages where insurgents booby-trapped roads and paths with bombs. The brigades lost more than 215 soldiers in the two conflicts, and many more were wounded.

Plenty of questions remain about the future of Iraq, where insurgents continued to wage a bloody bombing campaign, and in Afghanistan, where Taliban forces are expected to fight long after the last U.S. infantry troops are gone.

But in Panjwai, one of the most bitterly contested areas of Afghanistan, Getchell is encouraged by the strength of the village movement to boot out the Taliban.

The uprising against the Taliban began in Pishin Gan Sayedan, less than a mile from one of the compounds where Staff. Sgt. Robert Bales killed 16 unarmed civilians in March 2012, striking a serious blow to American soldiers' efforts to gain the trust of villagers.

But less than a year after these killings, the villagers in Pishin Gan Sayedan also were angered by the conduct of insurgent fighters.

Villagers wanted trees removed from an irrigation canal because they soaked up precious water used to grow crops. But the Taliban demanded the trees stay because they provided cover for their fighters.

Villagers were upset with other Taliban tactics, which included seizing locals accused of spying and planting dozens of improvised explosive devices that injured women and children in fields and along roads.

As the uprising took hold, families began to openly display the Afghan national flag as a sign of their support. In a March dispatch from Pishin Gan Sayedan, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall called the uprising "the most significant popular turning against the Islamist insurgents in recent years."

Getchell said the villagers' rebellion received strong support from the Afghan forces as U.S. forces pulled back. In May, he said, the Afghan forces found some 200 improvised explosive bombs as villagers offered intelligence about where they had been planted.

During the 2012-2013 deployment, the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, lost four soldiers, with 38 wounded, including four amputees. That's significantly less than previous JBLM Stryker brigades in Afghanistan.

But Getchell estimates for every one of his brigade's casualties, the Afghan police and army suffered 12 casualties. Despite their losses, Getchell said the Afghan forces through spring and summer stayed with the fight.

As Getchell's unit left Afghanistan this summer, much of the Panjwai District remained under control of the villages and Afghan forces, he said, despite Taliban efforts to regain lost ground.

"The last counterattack we saw was on the 15th of July," Getchell said. "Simultaneously, four attacks across 11 kilometers of distance. First time we'd seen that ... we were fascinated by all this."

Getchell said the Afghan security forces, largely without the benefit of U.S. air support and U.S. surveillance balloons, repelled the insurgent attacks while suffering no casualties.

By the end of July, the 4th Brigade had completed their tour of duty in Afghanistan, with the soldiers returning to a Western Washington base that had entered a new era of downsizing after a decade of dramatic growth.

That contraction will include the loss of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which, under one option, would be renamed and transferred to Fort Carson in Colorado.

JBLM leaders say they are refocusing their mission on the Pacific, with exercises in Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and other Asian nations.

'What I say to folks is that the Army continues to be relevant," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of the 7th Infantry Division at JBLM. "It continues to be a guarantor of the nation's security, and in the future one thing that I can predict is the unpredictability of what could happen ... We have to be trained and ready to answer our nation's call."Hal Bernton reported from Afghanistan on JBLM troops in Panjwai in 2012.