[Marxism] Imperialism losing hold in Afghanistan
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 27 07:31:47 MST 2007
Watching Afghanistan fall
Stationed with a battle-scarred U.S. Army troop in the mountain region
where Osama bin Laden supposedly hides, with the insurgency on the rise, I
witnessed why the other war is going to hell.
By Matthew Cole
Feb. 27, 2007 | At 9 p.m. on my first night at the U.S. Army base in
Kamdesh, I was shaken awake by a 105 mm howitzer round. Then a symphony of
incoming and outgoing fire sounded. BO-OM! BO-OM! BO-OM! Tat! Tat! Tat!
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! From the pine- and cedar-lined mountain slope that
loomed over the base, several insurgents were firing down on us with
rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. The line of Humvees ringing the base
spotted the insurgents and began shooting back. For 10 minutes U.S. forces
blanketed the ridgeline above with machine-gun and rifle fire and RPGs. A
soldier manning a $500,000 thermal-imaging device (LRAZ) the size of a
large microwave, spotted the silhouette of Afghans holding weapons and
radios -- the mark of a Taliban or al-Qaida insurgent, rather than just an
average Kalashnikov-toting Afghan civilian -- and began pulling the trigger
of his machine gun.
After the first round of fighting, the soldier yelled that he had confirmed
at least one death. "I saw that motherfucker through the LRAZ!" he
screamed, breathing heavily, his adrenaline high. "I saw him explode into a
bunch of pieces! Parts were everywhere!" He smiled.
As the volleys began to subside, Sgt. Matthew Netzel guessed aloud that
roughly five insurgents had been killed. "I think there are more up there,
but we're not certain yet, 'cause we don't know how many there were to
begin with," he said. As they fired, U.S. forces launched slow-falling
flares that lit up the wooded area they were firing upon, hoping to
illuminate the insurgents' positions. But there were no more insurgents to
be seen. The echo of automatic-weapons fire stopped bouncing through the
valley and most of the soldiers went back to sleep. It was just another
night in Kamdesh. The base averages three attacks per week.
The next morning, a group climbed up the mountainside to look for
casualties but found none. "They usually clean their bodies up before we
can get to them," Lt. Benjamin Keating, a 27-year-old from Maine, told me.
"They will pull the bodies, scrub bloodstains, and sometimes they pick the
shells up too. We never know how many we killed or who they were. They're
like ghosts." The inability to know how many and who was killed has made it
hard for U.S. forces to identify whom they are fighting -- Arabs, Afghans
or other groups. When they can, a confirmed kill requires a digital photo
of the dead man's face. But those are few and far between.
In November, I traveled with the Army's 10th Mountain Division to
Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces, the region where Osama bin
Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have been sighted over the past three years, to
see how American forces were fighting the "other" war. What I learned is
that the war in Afghanistan is going badly. Three years after U.S. forces
secured much of the country and helped 10 million Afghans vote in a
presidential election, the country has slid back into a dangerous power
vacuum, with the Taliban again competing for control of significant
sections of the country. Last November, a CIA analysis of the Karzai
government found it was losing control, and American ambassador to
Afghanistan Ronald Neumann warned then that the U.S. would "fail" if the
plan for action didn't include "multiple years and multiple billions." Our
gains, once held firmly, have been lost and the coming year may portend
Afghanistan's future, with ominous rumors about a spring offensive by
insurgents floating down from the mountains.
Last week, concerns about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan were finally
acknowledged in Washington. President Bush announced he would request $10.6
billion in extra aid for Afghanistan and increase the number of troops,
especially along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. "We face a thinking
enemy," said Bush. "And we face a tough enemy -- they watch our actions,
they adjust their tactics. And in 2006, this enemy struck back with a
vengeance." Bush's announcement came after repeated calls from U.S.
generals for more boots on the ground and repeated predictions of a spring
offensive, pleas for help the military had been making since last summer.
After a month along Afghanistan's northeast border with Pakistan, it is
clear the help is needed. The region is one of the most wild and ungoverned
areas of Afghanistan. The Americans pushed north last summer, part of
Operation Mountain Fury, trying to seal off the Pakistan border and find
al-Qaida's Arab forces. The border's invisible line, soldiers say, allows
high-value targets, like bin Laden, to find sanctuary and a base of
operations. What I saw was a skilled but unprepared U.S. force battling
literally uphill against an unidentified enemy. 2006 was the deadliest year
for coalition forces since the war began, with 191 dead. For the roughly
20,000 U.S. troops in the country, Afghanistan is only slightly less deadly
per soldier than Iraq. But while a lack of troops may help the undermanned
U.S. effort in the short term, it does not address a larger problem.
American forces don't have an adequate understanding of the culture, the
many languages or the formidable terrain.
The Kamdesh base is the northernmost American outpost in Afghanistan, in an
area of Nuristan so remote that local villagers asked American troops in
August, when they arrived, if they were Russian. The base itself is not
more than a quarter-mile wide, on a valley floor, next to a clear,
trout-filled river. Three-thousand-foot mountains rise above the base on
both sides of the river. The base is insecure, susceptible to rocket and
small-arms fire from nearly every direction. A row of Humvees, all mounted
with grenade-filled Mark-19 machine guns, face the closest mountain, which
nearly hangs over the front of the base. When I was there the soldiers
hadn't yet named the base, and had made up their own name, Warheight, for
the imposing peak. From Kamdesh, a small outpost near the Pakistani border,
to Naray, a larger base 25 miles south, to another border outpost called
Camp Lybert, the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry -- the
so-called 3-71 -- was supposed to control a 220-square-mile triangle of
The U.S. forces in Nuristan have a multipart mission. First, they are
supposed to seal the province's border with Pakistan, an invisible
1,500-mile line that crosses peaks topping 15,000 feet. Second, they are to
create security village by village by rooting out insurgents. Third, they
are supposed to provide Nuristan with potable water, electricity, schools,
passable roads and bridges. The lack of infrastructure in rural and
isolated regions has been a key factor in America's failure to date.
The base in Kamdesh was installed in August 2006 as a provincial
reconstruction team, one of 12 in Afghanistan. PRTs are supposed to supply
the missing infrastructure; thus the troops are nation building at a local
level. In Kamdesh, for example, contracts had been given out to engineers
and builders for road improvement, bridges, school construction, and
installation of micro-hydro turbines that can produce electricity to power
neighboring villages. But since their arrival, the team members have been
attacked on average of once every two days, with an especially heavy
onslaught the first month. No soldiers were killed, but the PRT's mission
was initially minimized to simply securing the base and making it safe
enough for troops to live there. The building of roads and schools has
begun. Lt. Col. Anthony Feagin, who commands the PRT, told me he was
cautiously optimistic about his team's work. "We are making gains," he
said. "But the gains are fragile." As soon as I arrived on the base, a
soldier warned me not to talk openly or loudly about incoming or outgoing
convoys. "The workers here are listening," he said. "They don't know much
English, but they're reporting troop movements."
Just before I got to Kamdesh, the insurgents had nearly killed several
soldiers at the base, including the commanding sergeant major from the
3-71's forward operating base in Naray. He had flown in by Chinook
helicopter. After a five-minute tour of the base, during which his Chinook
never slowed its rotors or refueled, the sergeant major got back on the
chopper. As soon as it lifted off the ground, a rocket erupted from a
nearby ridge and hit the spot where the helicopter had been idling. The air
shook, concrete and rock flew into the air, but the Chinook, after
wavering, didn't come down.
The attack injured no one, but was successful nonetheless. In a guerrilla
war, where the measure of victory can simply be preventing the occupiers
from winning, an attack like the one in Kamdesh can having far-reaching
effects on how the U.S. military operates. The near downing of the sergeant
major's helicopter was too close for the Army's comfort. The brass
immediately issued an order that helicopters would no longer be allowed to
land at the base. The supplies and equipment that the 100 soldiers in
Kamdesh needed would now have to travel the 25 miles from Naray via Humvee
and truck, a six-hour drive. The insurgents hadn't killed anybody with
their rocket, but they had further isolated an already isolated base,
limiting how quickly buildings could be built, money distributed and local
When I first arrived in Kamdesh, I came by Chinook, but I wasn't allowed to
land directly at the base either. Because of the rocket attack that nearly
took out the commanding officer, soldiers could travel by chopper only if
they were delivered to a nearby observation post -- which meant the top of
a 7,000-foot mountain, 3,000 feet above the PRT base -- and all trips had
to made at night. The base was an additional three-hour walk through the
darkness down dusty ravines.
The Americans believe the forces attacking the base are a combination of
local militias and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami fighters, estimated
at 300 strong. Hekmatyar, the CIA's leading recipient of mujahedin funds
during the 1980s, has since aligned himself with bin Laden and become a
"high-value target." The CIA and Army Special Forces, who have had some
presence in Nuristan since 2005, believed the attacks on the base were
being mounted and organized by Hezb-e-Islami cell leaders Abdul Rahman and
Abdul Haq. A few nights before I arrived, the CIA and Special Forces
planned and executed a raid in the neighboring village of Kamdesh, where
they killed Rahman and three others and captured Haq. The mission,
according to Army officers apprised of the operation, was a success. Some
CIA and Special Forces share Naray with the 10th Mountain, and there are
also CIA operatives in Kamdesh. They are the ones charged with hunting for
high-value targets like Hekmatyar, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.
Showing me around the Kamdesh base was Ben Keating, a blue-eyed tree trunk
of a young lieutenant on his first foreign deployment. Keating was proud of
the 3-71's mission, but thought time was not on the Americans' side. "We've
been up here for less than seven months," he told me. He held up a thick
book on Alexander the Great's travails in the Hindu Kush mountains. "We
have a couple of thousand years of history against us. You do the math."
Keating was a history and political science major in college. "I'm not
saying we're not doing any good -- we are -- but how long do we plan on
staying? And what is the 82nd [the 82nd Airborne replaced much of the 10th
Mountain Division this month] going to do with the progress we've made? How
do you maintain the successes we've achieved?"
On my first night came the attack that left no bodies. On my second night
in camp, half a dozen Afghans were preparing a rocket to fire at the base
when U.S. soldiers spotted them. The Americans fired at them for five
minutes, then the insurgents climbed the mountainside and retreated into
Kamdesh, a village of 20 homes and a mosque several thousand feet uphill.
The U.S. troops called for helicopter backup and an Apache arrived within
10 minutes. As the insurgents took cover in a village home, several women
and children fled the house, knowing the Americans would likely attack. The
Apache, nearly invisible against a starlit sky, flew toward the village,
its nose pointed downward a few degrees to get a better aim. For 45 seconds
the Apache fired several hundred 30 mm bullets into the house, a steady
barrage that lit up the darkened village. The shots killed all the
insurgents and also injured six of the fleeing women and children.
In a five-day span, U.S. forces had killed roughly 15 insurgents and
injured several more. Local villagers, however, including several I spoke
to, believed the Americans had killed an innocent man in the earlier Rahman
and Haq raid. "Ahmed was a good man," said a 30-year-old man named Khalil
Nuristani. "He was not al-Qaida." In Afghanistan's north, locals use
al-Qaida to refer to any anti-U.S. insurgent, a name that came to them by
way of the Americans. Nuristani said the innocent man had a childlike
intelligence and had been taken advantage of by the insurgents, followers
of Rahman and Haq who used his house for operational planning. They had
tried to hide there during the raid, which cost Ahmed his life. An
intelligence officer on the base disputed Ahmed's innocence, but declined
to give an explanation.
The villagers were further incensed when the second Apache raid injured
women and children. The afternoon after the raid, they called a shura, or
tribal council, with Lt. Col. Feagin and the CIA chief at the base to
discuss the security and operations conducted in the valley.
The Americans had been feeling good about their progress. But it was clear
that all the collateral damage had further strained a relationship with the
locals that was already tense. The shura, a collection of middle-aged men
from all the nearby villages, arrived complaining of the deteriorating
situation. Forty strong, in stained salwar kameez and flat hats, they sat
in rows of white plastic chairs inside an uncompleted building on the base.
One man after another stood up to direct his anger, through a translator,
at Feagin and the CIA chief. "You told us when you came here that you would
not hurt innocent and peaceful people," said a man with an ink-black beard
stretching to the middle of his chest. "You have big guns and helicopters
with good technology, surely you can tell the difference between those who
are innocent and those who are not. You told us if we helped you, the
Americans would not harm us. We are prisoners in our villages now!" Several
of the men nodded their heads as the man sat back down.
Lt. Col. Feagin, whose chest seemed to point upward, sat still on an
unfinished stone wall facing the shura. "There was no intent to target
anyone but our enemy," he told them. "If the enemy continues to fight us,
many more will die. I am certain." A few gunshots echoed in the valley.
Feagin pointed to the direction of the noise and said, "This is part of the
problem. The only thing the enemy can bring is fear, intimidation and
death." Feagin informed the shura that the injured villagers had been flown
to Bagram Air Base to get "the best medicine and treatment the Army has to
offer." He then offered to hire more fighting-age men for the Afghan army
unit that would soon be posted in the valley.
Lt. Dan Dillow, executive officer of the 3-71's Bravo Company, later told
me the counterinsurgency model was the only way to fight the war in
Afghanistan. "I don't like civil affairs" -- building roads and schools,
offering jobs -- "but you need it out here," he said. You have to give them
something. You can't defeat the Nuristanis. They know who is ambushing us
and when it's going to happen, but they won't tell us. They have us by the
balls and they know it."
Next to speak was the CIA base chief, a man I'll call Arnold. He was
dressed like a toy soldier, with black "Terminator"-style sunglasses and an
Under Armour T-shirt that even with elastic was stretched to its limits by
his muscle. He looked like he should have been lifting weights in a gym. He
told the Nuristanis a convoluted story about a wild dog he had killed near
his farm in the United States. He had asked the dog's owner, his neighbor,
to put the dog down. After several attempts to reason with the neighbor,
and with the dog still running amok, Arnold killed the animal. The
Nuristanis, he said, were his neighbors, and the Pakistani-trained
insurgents were the wild dogs. If the locals didn't take responsibility for
keeping insurgents out of their villages, he would be forced to kill the
insurgents in their midst. "These [fighters] only know war in their heart,"
he said, giving his left breast a double tap with a closed fist to make his
The shura members responded by looking at the translator quizzically. Later
I asked the translator what the villagers had thought of the CIA chief's
comments. "They didn't like it" was all he would say.
The 10th Mountain, meanwhile, has suffered its own losses to "wild dogs."
Thirty-nine soldiers from the 10th have died since May 2006, 25 by enemy
fire, making them the hardest hit U.S. division in the history of the
Afghan theater. Camp Lybert is named for Staff Sgt. Patrick Lybert, who
fell in combat.
But the troops in Nuristan have also suffered from sheer isolation and the
topography of the Hindu Kush. At Lybert (altitude 6,500 feet), the 3-71's
Charlie Company had gone 70 days without a hot shower or a hot meal. They
have sustained deaths and injuries from hiking and falling. Soldiers who
have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan before said their current living
conditions are much worse. "Leadership doesn't care about us," said one
officer, who requested that his name be withheld to avoid punishment for
his comments. "We've gone on mission after mission after mission where
we've gone black [run out] on food and water. They tell us, 'Pack light,
your mission will only be four days tops.' But then we end up stuck on a
mountaintop for two weeks. We didn't have anything, not even tents. If you
can't get us off a mountain, don't put us on there."
Several soldiers and officers I spoke with told me they were unprepared for
their mission in the north of Afghanistan. No one, it seems, told them they
would have to fight a Vietnam-style war at high altitudes. One officer told
me the 10th Mountain's limited resources and poor planning frustrated him.
(He also asked that his name be withheld for fear of retribution.)
"Leadership has failed us," he told me. "They don't give a shit about us.
We've been shorted everything we needed. Our training didn't prepare us for
this terrain or this mission. We're doing the best we can but we're not
getting support." He said the summer of 2006 had been filled with
air-assault missions in which Chinooks delivered 20 to 30 troops to a
ridgeline with little food or water, and no plan to pick them up.
Places like Gowardesh, the site of Camp Lybert, and Kamdesh are crucial in
America's war in Afghanistan. Their proximity to the areas of Pakistan
where U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden and al-Zawahiri travel
has created an instability U.S. forces are trying to counter. "Camp Lybert
was built to keep border infiltration routes closed off to the insurgents,"
said Spc. Timbo Harrell. "They bring weapons and men over from Pakistan and
then go back when fighting gets intense. We try to light 'em up if we can
see them carrying the weapons. But usually weapons are hidden on donkeys
and we're not allowed to engage."
And because U.S, soldiers are allowed to pursue insurgents only six miles
into Pakistan, the border acts as an invisible wall, the insurgents' best
Adding to Charlie Company's frustration, it cannot go on manned patrols in
the villages below. Capt. Mike Schmidt, the commanding officer, told me the
location of the base and size of his troop limited how much he could do.
"We depend a lot on locals walking up from the neighboring villages to give
us information," he said. "We can't leave the base and do patrols or visit
the villages. We don't have enough soldiers. We'd come back and there would
be nothing left -- the Afghans would steal everything and the insurgents
could take the base."
Again and again soldiers referred to insurgents as "the enemy" or "the bad
guys." But the lack of detailed knowledge about whom they were fighting,
and why their adversaries were fighting in turn, is troubling. In the
north, for instance, the Taliban are weak and unwelcome. And while al-Qaida
has local fighters in some valleys, their reach, according to U.S.
intelligence officials, has been diminished. Though Army officials quietly
say the insurgents are religious fighters, some evidence shows the disputes
are local and have little to do with jihad. A translator named Abdul who
has worked for the CIA and the Special Forces told me that the biggest
threat to American troops in the north, a man named Haji Usman, had been
nothing more than a rich timber smuggler before the war. "Now he's enemy
No. 1," Abdul said. "He was not a nice guy, but he was not fighting a
jihad. He wasn't fighting the Americans. But they took favor with his
biggest smuggling competitor, and now he's the No. 1 enemy. I do not
Back at Kamdesh, the base was gearing up for an incoming convoy. Humvees
and LMTVs (for light medium tactical vehicle, a 2.5-ton truck) would be
arriving from Naray, carrying ammunition, food, fuel and water along a
winding, rock-strewn dirt road. In 2006, insurgents had ambushed many
convoys with RPGs, light arms and improvised explosive devices, along a
stretch that 3-71 had come to call "Ambush Alley." Several supply trucks
driven by Afghans had been torched and pushed into the river. Some U.S.
soldiers had been killed, and dozens had been injured in a three-month
span. Sometimes security precautions meant it took nine hours, instead of
six, to cover the 25 miles between bases.
A listening post above the base began to catch radio communication between
insurgents. A man speaking the local Nuristani language began to yell
"Allahu akbar!" -- "God is great!" -- before directing his men to attack.
"Do not miss. Be accurate. Do not worry, they don't have any planes." He
was right. Close air support, the element that gives U.S. forces the
biggest advantage over the insurgents, didn't seem to be nearby, and even
if planes and choppers were on their way, the radio traffic didn't identify
where the insurgents would fire. One of the military intelligence officers
who helped relay the information to the convoy expressed frustration. "We
know they're going to try to fire, but we don't know from where, so we
can't help the convoy out much," he said.
Within a minute, the Americans were hit with several RPGs and rifle fire. A
Humvee flipped and was evacuated. A group of soldiers sat around the radio
at the Kamdesh control post, listening, hoping the platoon could make it
through the "kill zone" without taking casualties. They did. Hours later
the convoy reached camp, and there had been only a few minor injuries.
However, the convoy had lost another vehicle in addition to the Humvee, and
there were signs that the insurgents were trying new tactics. For the first
time, instead of one firing position, the ambush had come from three
positions on a mountainside, creating more fire of longer duration and
hitting more vehicles. The 3-71 decided convoys would now drive only at
night, with night-vision goggles for drivers and no headlights. The
insurgents had had another success, and had isolated the PRT base even
further. Lt. Ben Keating, for one, admitted a grudging admiration for his
adaptable foes. "They're smart. They keep low, never expose themselves for
more than 30 seconds to a minute, and then disperse. It's frustrating."
A few nights after I left Kamdesh, word came that a soldier had died in an
accident. A team was attempting a lights-out, nighttime convoy to return a
truck. The 2.5-ton truck flipped off of a cliff, tossing its two passengers
300 feet down to a riverbank covered with boulders. The Kamdesh soldiers
knew the drive would be dangerous. The truck was large and unstable going
over a poorly constructed road littered with rocks, boulders and craters.
It was the main section of Ambush Alley that Lt. Col. Feagin had ordered
rebuilt. But four months later, it was still in bad shape. By the time a
group of soldiers got the injured back up the cliff and to a medevac
helicopter, one of the passengers, Lt. Keating, had died from his fall, at
the age of 27. The men of the PRT base renamed it Camp Keating.
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