Published: January 5, 2014
When soldiers in a Fort Carson brigade leave Colorado in a couple of months, they face a mission that's seemingly simple but infinitely complex.
End America's war in Afghanistan.
The 4th Brigade Combat Team troops will be one of the last combat units to leave Afghanistan when the war ends at the end of 2014.
"That's the spark behind getting this right and getting it right the first time," said Col. Robert Barney, who will lead troops from the brigade advising Afghan security forces. "It is fed by the fact that our success means the troops come home."
The brigade's 3,500 soldiers got an extended holiday break to prepare for the hard work ahead. Now, they're polishing their Afghan language skills and putting the final touches on months of training before they go to Kandahar and war.
The brigade's commander said while the war is winding to a close, his soldiers will face plenty of danger.
"There are still elements out there trying to disrupt any of retrograde and any type of advise-and-assist mission we might have," Col. Brian Pearl said. "There are still forces trying to hit us."
Retrograde is a word Americans will hear frequently in the next year. It's Army speak for withdrawal.
Fort Carson soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division headquarters are managing the downsizing of America's presence in southern Afghanistan now.
Dozens of small American bases are being shuttered, and the number of troops in Afghanistan has fallen to 60,000 as of Dec. 9, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011.
Pearl's brigade will take over the American region in an area once held by as many as five brigade-size units.
But the mission has changed since the height of the war, Pearl said. The work of defending Afghanistan and tracking down insurgents has been handed to units of the 200,000-member Afghan army.
American units will be there to assist and advise, but Afghans will lead the fighting, Pearl said.
Still, the war continues to claim American lives, and U.S. units will be ready to fight.
"Job No. 1 is warfighting," Pearl said. "Whatever their skill set is remains the priority. An infantryman is an infantryman a truck driver is a truck driver. At the end of the day, they have to be able to execute their wartime mission."
Advising Afghans is key, and that mission has changed, too. In past deployments, Fort Carson units took their Afghan counterparts through what amounted to basic training.
Advisers now, though, aren't running recruits through marksmanship.
"We're working at the strategic level," Barney said.
That means Barney and others will be working with bigger units talking about policy and strategy to ensure Afghan leaders can maintain and improve the Army that has been built.
"We are very focused on ensuring that our Afghan counterparts can carry on their mission with minimal support from us," he said.