“No one could’ve predicted how this unfolded. The entire situation was surreal.”
Note: All Afghan names are monikers. Sensitive or classified information has been omitted. All accounts are true to the knowledge of the author.
It was mid-July when the 1st Combined Arms Battalion of the 194th Armor Regiment first sent soldiers to the Afghan capital in Kabul. Back in Kuwait Task Force 1-194, better known as ‘Task Force Bastard,’ was planning for contingencies if things went south at the embassy and airport, to include over-the-horizon support to aid in a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO). Together with our counterparts at 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division we wanted to get the lay of the land. So signal officer Capt. Vince Struble, plans officer Capt. Andrew Hanson, and Charlie Company 1st Sgt. Christopher O’Shea went to Hamid Karzai International Airport. With the exception of a stray rocket attack by ISIS-Khorasan, Chris, Drew and Vince had a relatively uneventful week. The State Department seemed content with embassy operations, Kabul appeared relatively peaceful, and the Turkish coffees they enjoyed made it seem like they were on a temperate vacation from Task Force Bastard in the desert.
Several days later I met with my intelligence colleagues at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. The situation in Afghanistan was worrisome. Among our chief concerns were the rate of districts falling to the Taliban and the Taliban’s superior use of information operations to drive a narrative of inevitable victory. We knew the Afghan National Army (ANA) was fragile, and Afghan air support was unreliable mostly due to maintenance and munitions constraints. ANA Special Operations Command (ANASOC), the most deadly counter to a Taliban advance, was being used for conventional operations after regular Army soldiers abandoned their posts or failed to engage with the enemy. ANASOC was fatigued and stretched too thin to sustain their current tempo.
At the time many of us thought Kabul, a city of four million, could hold out for at least two or three months, and possibly longer if the snows came and closed the mountain passes. Everyone in the room knew there was a real possibility of a rapid disintegration of the government based on what was happening across the country. Most of the districts and provincial capitals were taken without a shot being fired.
“Power brokers and government officials are making deals. Logistics lines are being cut off. The northern alliance is broken. The big challenge for the Taliban, who above all want and need international legitimacy in the event of a takeover, will be to govern, and to deal with ISIS-K,” said my friend and Task Force Spartan Analytic Control Element (ACE) intelligence chief Maj. Ravneet Puri, himself a veteran of the war.
Puri then looked at me and said, “Charlie, the Bastards need to be ready.”
We can confirm that the US embassy in Kabul was targeted with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED), and a secondary one-way drone attack at Hamid Karzai has struck the air traffic control tower and fuel depot. We assess that ISIS-K is responsible. If I can direct your attention to the imagery…
As the intelligence officer, I briefed this fictitious scenario to command and staff during an Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise, or EDRE, in July at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. As a part of our mission, we’d completed a number of EDREs since arriving in April and practiced a deliberate sequence of steps that would get us out the door in the event of a crisis. This process would not only ensure every soldier was ready but also that their weapons, equipment, and vehicles (to include our Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Abrams main battle tanks, if required) were staged to ship or fly anywhere in the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
We’d practiced and trained for the past two years. The task force did a combat training rotation exercise at Fort Hood, Texas in 2019 and executed a successful rotation (the first post-Covid) at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California in 2020. While drilling at Camp Ripley, Minnesota we completed numerous tabletop exercises and worked the Military Decision Making Process repeatedly until it became muscle memory. Our activation for State Active Duty for Covid response and the riots and civil unrest following the death of George Floyd contributed to our experience with crowd control and difficult humanitarian and peace-keeping situations. We had executed multiple iterations of gunnery tables and were continuing ongoing missions in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We were confident that as the CENTCOM Regional Response Force we’d be poised and prepared to project military power wherever it was needed to accomplish tactical and strategic goals.
‘No one will wait on us’
It’s a phrase we’d heard a hundred times from our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad. He drilled it into us as staff, and he’d mentored all the company commanders – armor, infantry, enablers, maintenance, medical, and support. Our efforts were all concentrated on the metrics of rapid and overwhelming response: managing facts and assumptions, assessing risk, and closely monitoring operational readiness.
When we received the order sending us to Kabul, years of training and a heightened readiness kicked into full action. Within six hours over 400 task force Soldiers were ready to load onto flights. We knew that when we arrived we would be tasked with securing vital sectors of Hamid Karzai International Airport and assisting with the evacuation of U.S. citizens, families, and allies under constant threat from both the Taliban and ISIS-K.
We met Lt. Col. Helgestad’s intent. No one had to wait on us.
The Minnesota National Guard did this alongside some of the most storied active-duty units in the military: the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, and a Marine Expeditionary Unit. Some in the 82nd couldn’t believe it. One captain I met from their brigade intelligence section told me he was under the impression that a senator had pulled some strings and got us deployed from Minnesota. When I told him about our task force and that we were already in the Middle East, postured for such a crisis event, he was speechless. Initially, there was an air of distrust, but we proved ourselves worthy partners, dispelling the myth about the perceived capability gap between the active duty and guard/reserve components.
Besides, we’ve got a lineage of our own, no less storied: The 194th Tank Battalion “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fighting valiantly on a doomed series of Philippine islands and the infamous death march with only half of the men surviving to return home to forests and fields of central Minnesota; the Red Bulls attacking in Africa and on the winter line in Italy during WWII for the first time since Carthaginian General Hannibal challenged Rome during the Second Punic War in ancient times; the 1/34th Armored Brigade Combat Team’s record-setting 22-month deployment to Iraq during the surge in 2007-2008, and the subsequent exit from Iraq in 2010-2011.
“You single-handedly changed my opinion of the National Guard,” commented the command sergeant major of the 1/82 Airborne Brigade. The only ones not surprised by our abilities were, well…us.
Capt. Charlie Anderson is the S2 for 1-194 AR (TF Bastard), and served as the XO Forward at HKIA. He is currently deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield. From 1998-2006 he served as a military policeman, completing a combat tour in Iraq 2003-2004. After a 7-year break-in-service, he re-enlisted and completed State officer candidate school, branching military intelligence (MI). As a member of the Minnesota National Guard, his previous assignments include 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion (AS2) and 334 BEB MICO (XO). In his civilian life, he is a Commander with the Saint Paul Police Department and a local elected official. He resides in Marine on St Croix, Minnesota with his wife (Betsy) and four children (Thorin, Ingrid, Kjersten, and Leif).
Part two in next week's edition.