PSYOP Soldiers: Winning the War
One Friendship at a Time
By 1st Lt. Amy Abbott
Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team
Kunar Province, Afghanistan - Hajji Wazir Gul, an elder in the village of Kandaroo, located in the heart of the Pech Valley, in eastern Afghanistans Kunar province, slowly walked over to the approaching coalition forces. A distinguished, older man sporting a long white beard and bronzed skin reflecting many days spent under the gruelling Afghanistan sun, Gul smiled as he reached out his hand to the men. The Americans he greeted were not strangers, they were friends.
Having removed his gloves and sunglasses as a sign up respect, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Artez Briseno, tactical psychological operations team chief, 318th PSYOP Company out of St. Louis, Mo., returned the handshake.
The meeting was the culmination of many months in country where the three-man PSYOP team worked diligently to form lasting relations with the Afghan people. Wearing beards and making a continuous effort to show cultural awareness, the team has found success in one of the most daunting regions.
I explain to the Afghan people we meet that while a working relationship is important, before you can have a working relationship you have to have a personal relationship, a friendship, and with that comes credibility and trust, Briseno said. In the entire Pech Valley, one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, you can walk into a place and see what kind of relationships we have formed. With (Hajji Gul) we can now come in, sit down, and he has set up something within his village that is almost unheard of. Thats extremely rewarding to the team as a whole.
Kunar Province, Afghanistan U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Artez Briseno, tactical psychological operations team chief, 318th PSYOP Company out of St. Louis, Mo., left, and his interpreter, right, meet with Kandaroo Tribal Elder Hajji Wazir Gul at the Kandaroo School in eastern Afghanistans Kunar province, May 31. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nathan Lipscomb)
The ability to get to know the people and shape rewarding relationships is crucial to the counter insurgency operations coalition forces are conducting in Afghanistan.
An important part to stress is why we continue to make these attempts in some of the most dangerous parts of the country to form these relationships, said Briseno, who was born in Columbia, Mo., and now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz. By building connections with these elders and other Afghans we are denying the insurgents and terrorists places to hide. As we form bonds with the populace, the enemy is pushed out of their safe holds and left in the cold without any shelter. So, not only are coalition forces assisting in the progress and development of Afghanistan, but we are ridding it of the insurgency and denying anti-Afghan forces a place to operate from.
The team arrived in Kunar August 2009 and began working out of Forward Operating Base Wright. All Reserve Soldiers from the 318th PSYOP Company, 10th PSYOP Task Force, from St. Louis, Mo., their job encompasses many tasks; though they said one of the most crucial is forming bonds of trust with the Afghans in the surrounding villages.
If youre afraid to go out there and talk to them, then youre losing the battle on that front, said U.S. Army Sgt. Wayne Baker, tactical PYSOP assistant team leader from St. Louis, Mo.
The team is expected to be the subject matter experts in their area. In order to achieve that, they spend countless hours on missions getting to know the people.
One huge thing is just an awareness of the environment you are operating in, said Briseno. As we deploy we are often told not to even talk about religion, not to talk about politics, not to do a lot of this stuff. But if you dont take into account something as important as religion, especially in a culture like this, there is not a whole lot of ground youre going to make.
An obstacle the team has encountered is Taliban propaganda stating that the coalition forces are only in country to convert everyone to Christianity.
Some of them think we are here to change their religion, but we make sure to tell them we are not and explain to them there are also American Soldiers who are Muslim, said U.S. Army Spc. Chad Heidtman, a tactical PYSOP specialist from St. Louis, Mo.
The difference between saying and proving frequently requires thinking outside the box. Often times the team provides needed items for mosques or Qurans to give to the Mullahs they meet, to show their respect.
They were so taken back that an American would do such a thing, they told me, Muslim or not, by your acts today we are convinced that we will pray for and we know without a doubt that you will be granted passage into the paradise, said Briseno, after a particular instance where they provided much need supplies for one of the mosques. It was at that point I knew that we had covered some ground. My interpreter told me afterwards, that was by far the most promising engagement we have had with any elder this entire year.
Kunar Province, Afghanistan Soldiers stand guard as U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Artez Briseno, tactical psychological operations team chief, 318th PSYOP Company out of St. Louis, Mo., sits down with Kandaroo elder Hajji Wazir Gul at the Kandaroo School construction site in eastern Afghanistans Kunar province, May 31. By understanding the Afghan people, PSYOP is able to build trust between local leaders allowing coalition forces to safely rebuild schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, clinics and government buildings.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nathan Lipscomb)
As a tactical PSYOP team, they hit the ground daily convoying or foot patrolling to different places throughout their area of operation. One day it may consist of walking through the streets and conducting face to face engagements with the populace, while another day they may conduct a key leader engagement with elders, or they will go to a specified area to identify who the positive influencers are.
One of the other reasons we are a huge asset to the fight is the many capabilities that we bring; we can go out with civil affairs one day, meet up with a village elder and be a part of their engaging the populace where they may hand out humanitarian assistance, and on the other side we can spin up with the quick reaction force in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes and roll out, Briseno said. We can go any direction at any time and there is not a single operation conducted that PYOPS cannot be a part of in one way or another.
Creating the trust required to advance the needs of the Afghan people is not without risk. Often times the team finds themselves the target of anti-Afghan forces. But rather than let it be a discouragement to their progress, they see it as a sign they are doing something right.
(Taking hostile fire) in a way is almost a measure of effectiveness, a way to measure how well were doing, Briseno said. The enemy knows that when things start to go well between coalition forces and a village, one of their easiest things to revert to is terrorist style tactics. They cannot regain that trust with the people because the people are starting to understand that coalition forces are doing very positive things, so one of the enemys tactics they often revert to is attacks. So you know what, that tells me we are doing something right.
After talking to countless Afghans in the area, the team knows without a doubt that the majority of people simply want a better future for themselves and their families.
In the end they want their country to be better, the security to be improved, and the insurgency to be gone, said Heidtman, a recent graduate of St. Louis Community College who will be transferring to the University of Missouri, Columbia. They like the fact that were building roads, wells, and the infrastructure is being improved. They like the new schools and have all said they want their kids to be educated and want their children to grow up better.
Ive been here for almost a year now and Ive seen schools start out as nothing and be built up, Ive seen roads that were dirt and are now paved, and all kinds of mosques under construction. It definitely makes you feel good seeing their infrastructure being built and seeing them able to grow and prosper from working with the coalition forces.
Another aspect of their mission is to help foster trust between the local populace and the Afghan National Security Forces. To do so, they have held classes with the various ANSF organizations to teach them how to better interact with the people.
The team also uses their connection throughout the community to build atmospherics for the other military units they work with. They are able to get the pulse of the people, how they feel about different actions, personnel or events that have taken place, and provide is to the organizations conducting missions in that area.
Though each of the three-man team attended advanced individual training in the PYSOP career field, they all agreed that there are certain characteristics you have to have to be good at this job and some things you cannot learn from a book.
I learned so much more by actually getting over here and just doing it, Baker said, who is on his second deployment with his team chief Briseno.I like thinking outside the box. I like to go out and talk to people. Were not going to win this war without the support of the local populace.
As Briseno and his team prepared to return to the United States, they passed on their experiences and formed relationships to another PSYOP unit that has recently taken their place.
(Redeploying) is always a huge challenge, especially for a PSYOP team because our whole job is based around building credibility and rapport with the people, said Briseno. But I am very confident that when our replacements come in and I introduce them to a lot of these elders, the relationships will continue on.
100531-F-2669L-082: Kunar Province, Afghanistan U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Artez Briseno, tactical psychological operations team chief, 318th PSYOP Company out of St. Louis, Mo., left, and his interpreter, right, meet with Kandaroo Tribal Elder Hajji Wazir Gul at the Kandaroo School in eastern Afghanistans Kunar province, May 31.
100531-F-2669L-130: Kunar Province, Afghanistan Soldiers stand guard as U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Artez Briseno, tactical psychological operations team chief, 318th PSYOP Company out of St. Louis, Mo., sits down with Kandaroo elder Hajji Wazir Gul at the Kandaroo School construction site in eastern Afghanistans Kunar province, May 31. By understanding the Afghan people, PSYOP is able to build trust between local leaders allowing coalition forces to safely rebuild schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, clinics and government buildings.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nathan Lipscomb)(Released)
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