Sunday, March 2, 2008

Article: Pa. Guardsmen are proud of help to Afghan Army

March 2, 2008
(*Note: There are audio clips on the original site. Please visit The Morning Call to listen)

The Panjeer and Kunar Valleys of Afghanistan have been replaced by the Delaware and Wyoming Valleys of Pennsylvania. Fourteen of the original 16-man Pennsylvania National Guard Embedded Tactical Training Team, deployed to train and mentor the Afghan National Army, have returned home. Two members of the team returned in late summer 2007, also to their hometowns -- but Master Sgt. Scott Ball and Sgt. Jan Argonish died in the line of duty while defending their convoy from an enemy ambush.

When I first met the ETT Team at Camp Darulaman outside Kabul, they were one month into their mission. The energy, optimism and humor with which they were facing the coming 11 months were admirable. Seeing team leader Lt. Col. George Schwartz and Operations Officer Lt. Col. Judah Whitney for the first time since that cold spring day last March, I found the same energy and optimism. The loss of two comrades has tempered the humor.

Cols. Schwartz and Whitney agreed to be interviewed not only as an opportunity to honor their fallen friends, but also as a way to tell what they believe is the important story of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and the contribution their team made to that effort.

Schwartz describes their primary objective as helping the Afghan National Army perform to high military standards, from supply issues to combat. The Afghans aren't afraid to fight. Historically they are fierce warriors. But, they would engage the enemy and run out of bullets; they didn't carry enough ammunition to sustain the battle. Putting systems in place that allow for supply chains, regular vehicle maintenance and accurate personnel records are crucial functions for any fighting force.

The mission's success depended on building relationships and establishing trust. Whitney says he knew he could trust his Afghan counterparts with his life the day his Humvee became disabled in a ditch in dangerous territory. The Afghans in the unit moved immediately to high ground to protect the Americans, exposing themselves to great risk. That blood brotherhood developed not only between the Americans and the Afghans, it took hold among the tribal factions within the Afghan National Army itself. In a country famous since the days of Marco Polo for its territorial chieftains and warlords, modern Afghanistan faces the challenge of bringing its ethnic groups together under federal jurisdiction.

Schwartz says the Afghan national organization that has best accomplished that goal is the army. A deliberate effort has been made to ensure that the structure of each unit reflects a cultural diversity. If a brigade commander is Pashtun, his direct reports will be Tajik and Hazara. Within the context of Afghan history, this is a major step forward.

Continuing that momentum to build a stable, independent nation will take courage and determination by Afghans and their partners. For the United States a strong dose of political will is also going to be required. Whitney refers to himself as frustrated by a lack of interest in the conflict that he has found since returning home. ''We're fighting a major war. Most people act like they just want it over with. It won't be any time soon.

''Both men think it is important to remind the country that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were planned and launched from Afghanistan. They emphasize that the United States must not disengage. We are not fighting a traditional enemy; Schwartz calls them ''anti-coalition militias'' fueled by foreign fighters and neighboring governments.

There is no denying that the security situation has deteriorated in the past year. ''We took our eye off the ball. We gave the enemy a chance to regroup,'' says Schwartz. ''We relied too much on NATO. But, we are still making a huge difference in the country.

''Schwartz and Whitney are proud of their team's contribution. By bringing an ANA Brigade close to independent operation, they are enabling the Afghans to own and control their battle space, and drive out the insurgents without assistance from coalition advisers. The mission will have achieved success when they no longer are needed.

It's a measure of loyalty and dedication that both men say they would willingly return to Afghanistan if called.

My thanks to Lt. Col. George Schwartz of Phoenixville and Lt. Col. Judah Whitney of Gouldsboro, for their service.

Pamela Varkony is a freelance writer and commentator in Allentown.. She traveled to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. Her e-mail address is and her blog is .'

Copyright © 2008, The Morning Call

No comments: