Air Force Maj. J. Scott Sanford is the Security Forces Squadron commander at Bagram Airfield, the largest base in Afghanistan. Sanford has an excellent vantage point of U.S. military operations against the Taliban, progress of the country’s new government and its challenges as a fledgling democracy.
With 16 years in service, he’s deployed out of Eielson, Alaska, and has an 11-year-old son. He has family in Arkansas and locally in Riverview and Brandon. Sanford spoke recently with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.
Tell us about your unit and its mission. We provide a wide variety of air power support to coalition forces in active combat against the Taliban and other insurgents throughout the country. My primary job is to provide security, base defense, anti-terrorist services for all the airport personnel in Bagram. We’re located about an hour north of Kabul, near Bagram village, and very centrally located with respect to what’s going on in the theater.
We operate very much like a police department. We have shift workers, assignments and sectors; you have a command center, like a 911 dispatch center. Then you have your staff running day-to-day operations such as administrative issues, supplies. On a day-to-day basis, it’s very routine.
The unit’s responsible for the flying mission, and we are flying on the aircraft to provide ground security and in-flight security when they go to remote operating locations.
What progress are you seeing? I’ve seen a lot of U.S. support for the Afghan government, not only fighting the Taliban, but directly supporting the government so they can take over and sustain themselves. Teams from Bagram called provincial reconstruction teams, PRTs, go into the various provinces to support local government from the ground up with infrastructure, services, water supply, food, schools.
The seat of power’s in Kabul. In the outlying areas, it’s very difficult to get good government. They’re coming along, but it’s going to be many more years before they have solid, stable government systems that provide police protection and support for their local populace.
There’s a lot of corruption still in the Afghan governmental agencies. That impacts us because we have joint operations. It’s disappointing. It’s difficult to overcome the attitudes that the Afghans have with regard to bribery.
The amazing thing to see is all these thousands of people working together from different countries. There are 14 other nations at Bagram. They do everything from demining for expansion of the airfield to reconstruction.
Most of the combat operations are happening in the mountainous areas in the south near Kandahar, but the mission is active all over the country with respect to building up support for the government. Outside the base, when you interact with Afghan people, they are very supportive of American forces. It’s a good relationship. Yet sometimes they can be mistrusting because of their [experience] with the Soviets.
Have you seen much of the insurgency? I personally have not been fired at, thankfully. This has been the worst year since 9/11, when we occupied Afghanistan shortly thereafter and kicked the Taliban out. It’s worst with respect to the number of attacks from Taliban and the number of American and coalition casualties. Unfortunately, we have to see that because we transport human remains from Bagram and observe ceremonies to mark that.
To what do you attribute the resurgence of the Taliban? It’s a culmination of time and safe haven to hide where we can’t find them. They use that to develop more planning and fortify their forces. They’re very fragmented, not a huge, large force as an army. I think they’re trying to take advantage of the instability of the new government. It’s trying to get on its feet and they’re trying to take any opportunity they can to weaken it.
It’s very dangerous as you go off the base. There are land mines. Afghan locals step on land mines just about once a day, and little girls and boys lose legs or arms and have to be transported to our hospital at Bagram for treatment. You see a wide range of things, from enemy contact to land mine accidents.
Some of our troops have been very close to danger. We captured a Taliban terrorist off base. We knew of his plan and we were able to set up an ambush. We interdicted this individual driving from Kabul north to Bagram to conduct his attack. Luckily nobody was hurt and he was incarcerated. It was a suicide bomber.
It’s very rewarding to take a terrorist off the street. There are plenty of them out there. But to be able to get one safely and take that threat away from Americans is rewarding.
How your unit’s morale? After a while it becomes Groundhog Day; everything looks the same. See the same people, eat in the chow hall every day. They’re looking forward to going home but very proud. Morale is high.
As for living accommodations, I live in a plywood box called a B-Hut. They’re building better accommodations, but it’s a plywood building that has an 8-by-8 cubicle for about six people,. You have a curtain you draw for privacy, and that’s your little cubicle. Live in that for six months and check your morale. [He laughs heartily.]
I reserve part of the day for physical training, PT. If you don’t really work out and try to keep your mind fresh, it really gets to you pretty fast. It’s close to 100 degrees, 5,000 feet elevation and surrounded by mountains. Very hot and the dust will come in. We got rain last week, which was nice. It will cool down in the winter, get snow on the ground. It’s kind of like Denver.
What’s the best part of this deployment? The reconstruction. It’s very nice to see American/coalition forces going out and helping the locals who live in that area. There’s tremendous good work [being done] to make that happen.
The most rewarding event is we got a known terrorist and captured him. I’m very proud of my guys. Without them, none of that would have happened.