Nebraska soldiers battle for control of Afghanistan valley

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June 21, 2011 - 7:00pm

The Musahi Valley sits just south of Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul. With sharp rocky mountains on either side, a river runs through the fairly narrow valley floor, a place that's lush with green orchids and farm fields this time of year. A serene facade for a dangerous place.

Staff Sgt. Mike Belleci launches the Raven, a remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle, to help provide security for Musahi Valley patrols. (Nebraska Army National Guard photo)

"It's almost like the highway that takes the insurgent activities from Pakistan up into Kabul City," said Staff Sgt. Mike Belleci, a Nebraska Army National Guard soldier from Grand Island, serving in Afghanistan with Troop A of the 1-134th Cavalry. "Just because it's so rural and it's out of the way and it is enclosed on both sides by mountain ranges, it kind of gives them the secret passageway up into the southeast corner of Kabul City."

Belleci and Troop A are battling insurgents for control of this strategically important area by trying to win over the locals who live in extreme poverty in small Musahi Valley villages - places often without electricity, heat or enough food.

"The fact that they don't have a whole lot means that they're up for the highest bidder," Belleci said. "Who can offer them what helps them survive, whether it's the hot summers or the extremely cold winters."

For Troop A soldiers, the weapon of choice becomes deliveries of medical supplies and simply the basics that villagers need to survive.

"So a lot of things that we brought down to them were blankets, clothing, oil to cook their food, rice, flour, the necessities to get them through the winter," Belleci said. "So that when the insurgents come in and try to persuade them by saying 'Hey, we'll offer you this and that,' the people are able to say, 'We already have that.'"


Nebraska soldiers in action in the Musahi Valley

NET News

"Before the Battle," NET's 2010 Emmy Award-nominated documentary that follows how these soldiers and their families prepared for this mission.

NET News

"On the Frontline," NET's 2007 Emmy Award-winning documentary that follows Troop A's previous deployment to Iraq and the challenges soldiers faced after returning home.

Troop A soldiers are doing this side-by-side with Afghan security forces, teaching them how to be a presence in the valley, said Capt. Zach Labrayere of Lincoln, Troop A's commander.

"By establishing the police and getting those police out into the local communities, those communities recognize the face of the local police and have that secure feeling, knowing that not only is the insurgency a presence in their communities but the police are there, too," Labrayere said. "This creates kind of a change of mind, that maybe when somebody new comes in the village and has that influence over them, they can call the police and something will be done about it. I think that change is already starting to swing in that direction."

Troop A soldiers recently teamed with Afghan security forces for a Musahi Valley mission called Operation United Front II. For several weeks, soldiers went door-to-door through the valley on what was termed a "village clearing" mission.

"We took a softer approach to it," Labrayere said. "It was almost treated like a census in a lot of ways; (we) met homeowners, met elders. As we worked through the village, there were a series of questions that we asked them. We interacted with many of the kids and it was really a great chance for us to gauge the atmosphere of the local populace.

"At the same time, the police had an opportunity to work with those homeowners to discuss the security situations in the area," he continued. "Things that were out of place. Then obviously they acted upon them once they got a tip or information."

LaBrayere and Belleci both said they believe Nebraska soldiers have made progress in the Musahi Valley. They said locals have warmed-up to the combined U.S. and Afghan presence, and Afghan security forces are learning the concept of community policing; of being out, active and visible in local villages. But an April truck bomb attack on the local government compound was a reminder that it's still a dangerous area, and at some point, U.S. forces will no longer be at the side of local police. Without that support, can change be sustained in Musahi Valley?

"That's something that as leaders, we've gotten together and talked about," Belleci said. "I think they're still a long way off from where they need to be, I really do. Because it's easy to go into that dangerous neighborhood when you got your big brother with you. If they go unmentored, which I hope they don't and I don't see that happening, they're still a little ways off from where they need to be. But they're definitely leaps and bounds from where they were."

The several hundred Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers from the 1-134th Cavalry are scheduled to come home in a month or so. Many are soldiers who saw combat previously in Iraq, and Belleci said they've embraced their mostly non-combat role in Afghanistan - so much so that he says it would be heartbreaking to see the Musahi Valley battle lost after Troop A leaves.



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