Maj. Gen. James McConville, front left, speaks to troops from the 101st Airborne Division on Feb. 19 as they prepare to leave Fort Campbell, Ky., for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. McConville said the division has to be agile and adaptive as it sets the stage for the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. (Kristin M. Hall / AP)
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Troops at Fort Campbell, Ky., board a plane on Feb. 20 to depart for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. The division is leaving for its third deployment in the last five years. (Kristin M. Hall / AP)
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — The 101st Airborne Division is headed to Afghanistan for the third time in five years, but the division's commanding general, Maj. Gen. James McConville, says his forces have to be more adaptive and agile as they set the stage for the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
About 600 of McConville's top staff are leaving now to command NATO troops east of the capital of Kabul to join more than 5,000 troops from Fort Campbell already serving there. Unlike the division's previous two tours, McConville told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday, this isn't a return to the same deadly fights with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan that marked the last deployment in 2010 through 2011.
"We have to be careful that we are not trying to fight the last fight better," he said. "We want to advise and assist the Afghans so they fight the present fight."
A week after President Obama announced plans to bring home half the American troops currently engaged in war, troops from the installation on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line are anxiously awaiting their flights to Afghanistan. In addition to the division headquarters, another 2,800 troops from 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, will join them in Afghanistan in the coming months.
But this deployment is different than previous deployments.
Units from the division have been deploying since last fall as smaller security force assistance units, which included mostly senior noncommissioned officer and officers, while many other troops stayed behind. And the division won't see the same troop surge levels of American forces spread across numerous bases in eastern Afghanistan.
"If you talk to the advisers that are coming back, the Afghans are doing most of the fighting, and we want to get to the point where they are doing all the fighting," McConville said. "That is the transition that we are getting ready to make. We want to advise and assist the Afghans so they can secure their country."
Preparing for this kind of deployment has required a focus on the basics of what makes this airborne division unique, McConville said. He's been sending his troops to air assault school, which teaches them how to quickly rappel from helicopters and transport troops and equipment by air, vital skills in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan that make ground travel difficult and dangerous.
While many of the division's leaders know the terrain of Afghanistan, they've also been learning cultural and language skills. McConville has spent the last year learning Dari, and many other soldiers have been learning Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan.
"When I speak Dari to some of the Afghan officers that came over here to visit during our training exercise, you can see in their eyes the appreciation that we were taking the time to learn their language and learn their culture," he said.
Since his arrival at Fort Campbell in 2011, McConville has emphasized training, discipline and fitness among his troops. As an Army helicopter pilot, he knows the division brings an advantage with its helicopter-borne troops who can be quickly dropped into combat missions. He says this mastery of these key skills is what has prepared them for being adaptive to the quickly changing conditions on the ground in Afghanistan — and more importantly — what will prepare them for future missions after Afghanistan.
"What we will do is we will adapt to the situation," he said. "I think what makes the 101st often the unit of choice is really the agility in the organization."
McConville spoke with more than 100 troops leaving Wednesday morning on a flight bound for Afghanistan and singled out Master Sgt. Paul Bratcher, from Eagle River, Alaska, who was leaving for his eighth deployment in his Army career.
"In my opinion, this one is more important because we are at such a higher level," Bratcher said. "We have such a bigger goal to do on this deployment."
Bratcher spent most of his career as a civil affairs soldier with the Army's Special Forces units, whose role is to coordinate civil-military operations, such as road- or well-building projects, that support local populations.
"It's not about whether they are capable of doing it; they want to take care of their own country," Bratcher said of Afghans. "They are happy that we are there, but they still want to run their own country."