- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

COMBAT OUTPOST KEATING, Afghanistan — | Entombed by steep faces of jagged rock, this coalition outpost deep in the Afghan borderlands plays a role as grim as it looks: drawing the attention of insurgents flocking from tribal areas in nearby Pakistan.

The machine-gun, mortar and rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) fire usually subsides in the winter, when the insurgents go home. These days, however, local militants stoke the fight. They find refuge in caves and villages whose fiercely independent residents say the presence of U.S.-led forces is the root of the problem.

“Right now, we´re like the ring of a boxing ring,” said Army Capt. Daniel Pecha, who took over command of Combat Outpost Keating after his predecessor was killed in late October.

In many ways, the scenario is emblematic of the war at large. Reconstruction efforts have stalled under a weak and corrupt central government that relies on foreign backers to do what it cannot. The Taliban and a host of other groups have filled the vacuum of public discontent, diverting critical Western resources and manpower into combat operations that grind on.

In the Kamdesh area, insurgents have shut down the supply road that connects the outpost to the poor mountain villages once serviced by a U.S. military Provincial Reconstruction Team. Projects have dried up, as have United Nations food and relief deliveries. The constant threat of enemy attack ensures that patrols do not range far.

According to Col. John Spiszer, commander of the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade in northeastern Afghanistan, the situation is still viable because it allows development to move forward in more strategic population centers. Over the past year, he points out, the United States has spent more than $80 million in an operations area that includes the provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman and Kunar, the most hostile in the country.

“It’s hard to maintain, but we can do it,” said the colonel, adding that the U.S. military can maintain forces in places like Kamdesh more easily than the enemy. “Part of the counterinsurgency is persistence, and it takes time. We’re making strides, but they’re very slow.”

At COP Keating, it´s literally an uphill battle.

Given their low-lying position at the base of a ravine carved by the Landay River, members of B Troop, 6-4 Cavalry train their weapons at a 45-degree angle during firefights, shooting up into the trees where insurgents creep almost unseen.

Some rock outcroppings used as firing points have been dynamited completely. On the southern flank, a line of red flags just outside the razor wire less than 30 yards away shows how close the insurgents have come.

The attacks average about one a week, often at nightfall. They last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, not counting harassment fire, at random times of day, meant to keep coalition forces off balance.

Last month, a pre-noon explosion drew puzzled looks from a group of soldiers relaxing indoors, unsure if it was a mortar training drill or an incoming RPG. Word of an attack sent them scrambling for their body armor and M-4 rifles. It was over by the time they got outside.

“Once we get to our battle stations, they know they’re going to get pounded, so they usually hit us and then back off, just to get us riled up,” said Sgt. Mark Putnam. “It’s really frustrating.”

Most of the insurgents operating in Kamdesh are locals affiliated with the Hezb-e-Islami of former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. While the locals are not as well-trained as other fighters, officers say the overall level of violence is steady because the insurgents don’t migrate back to rear bases beyond the Pakistani border, about 15 miles away, when the fighting season draws down.

So far, no coalition forces have been killed in engagements, but total exposure on all sides means ordinary activities, such as walking to the latrine or lifting weights in the rooftop gym, come with added risk.

On one occasion, an RPG crashed through the plywood roof of the dining hall between mealtimes, seriously wounding one of the Afghan cooks. Soldiers say the natural reflex to scan the heights for sniper fire is overcome with time, though many still prefer to exercise late at night.

The home comforts found at many other American bases — steak and lobster Fridays, general stores, satellite TV - are not available. Meals are served just twice a day, sometimes just once. Resupply arrives by Chinook helicopters that, weather permitting, sling-load the “need-to-haves” up through treacherous river valleys at night to avoid being shot down.

“It´s kind of like summer camp where you get shot at,” said Master Platoon Sgt. Shawn Worrall. “What we have on the ground here now is enough to just secure ourselves: food, water, fuel, ammunition.”

Sgt. Worrall has been at COP Keating since July, when he arrived for a yearlong deployment. Nicknamed “the Mayor,” he makes an extra effort to make life better for fellow soldiers, who spend months cramped inside stone bunkers waiting to be attacked. Recent additions include a mini snack bar and an Internet connection.

More than anything, he says, it’s the shared sense of purpose that gets them through. A sign posted inside greets newcomers: “Welcome to the forward edge of freedom.”

This extends to the 60 Afghan army soldiers also living on the premises. When one of them had his arm blown off in a firefight, an injury that would force him out of a job for good, a collection pot was passed around by U.S. troops that raised more than $1,000 to help support his family.

Relations with the Afghan police stationed outside the wire are more complicated.

A squad of U.S. military police rotates in every few months for training exercises. The local chief is well-respected, and most of his men are enthusiastic. However, basic things like guns and boots are not available to all, and a $100-a-month salary — rarely paid on time — to become a target on-duty and off has made recruitment a difficult proposition. Even food supplies depend on U.S. military transport, which frequently is delayed.

Some young recruits think officers question whether it´s worth staying in uniform. “They talk and talk, but we still have nothing,” said one recruit, who asked that his name not be used.

Aware of these doubts, Capt. Pecha nonetheless says that upgrading the local police force must remain a top priority because “a U.S. force is not going to solve the problem in Nuristan.” Known as the “land of the infidels,” Nuristan was the last corner of Afghanistan to embrace Islam and has a history of rejecting outsiders.

On Oct. 25, Capt. Rob Yllescas was killed by an improvised explosive device while crossing a wooden bridge within view of COP Keating and the police station. The bridge was rebuilt quickly but is now closed to the public, a symbol of the mutual distrust that exists.

At a shura, or council, held last month at a new meeting center inside the outpost, Capt. Pecha confronted the rows of bearded tribal elders in attendance, saying it was no secret that insurgents were transiting through some of their villages, getting food and medical care.

If that continued, he warned, plans to open a district center and security checkpoints along the embattled valley road could not proceed.

The shura leader, Abdul Rahan, at first denied the charge and complained that shura members themselves needed a private security detail. Later during the meeting, apparently contradicting himself, he said the men involved were the “brothers, cousins and neighbors” of those assembled in the room.

The captain, visibly upset, pressed on. Why wouldn’t the shura members play their traditional role as power brokers and take charge of their communities?

It was quiet until another elder, Abdul Qader, stood up in the back of the room and spoke. At one point, he said: “When you have a dog, you keep him in the house. Only you get to decide when he goes outside.”

The veiled insult was lost in the interpreter’s translation, perhaps intentionally. The gathering ended with no more than an agreement to hold another one in two weeks’ time.

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