Talking Proud Archives --- Military

FOB Kalagush: "The Dark Side of the Moon"

By Ed Marek, editor

June 6, 2018

"FOB Kalagush is a microcosm of the entire Afghan War”

Michael Forsyth, Colonel, USA

FOBKlagushfmguardtowerHQ3-319AFAR05070708TFKing
FOB Kalagush

Introduction

This report focuses on US Forward Operating Base (FOB) Kalagush in Nuristan Province. Not a lot is known about Nuristan and less about FOB Kalagush. I had never heard about it until I started doing this research. Colonel Michael Forsyth, USA, commanded an artillery battalion that deployed forces to FOB Kalagush and elsewhere throughout northeast Afghanistan. I learned from him that FOB Kalagush was a “microcosm of the entire Afghan War,” all the way from the conspicuous valor of and sacrifices made by US forces stationed there to the debilitating corruption that dogged and often crippled the government, inhibited it from caring for its citizens, and impeded the ability of US forces to do what needed to be done.

So here is my take.

NuristanMap

This is an important map. Nuristan Province is colored red. Note it is in far northeastern Afghanistan. Kabul Province, the home of Afghanistan's capital city, is colored brown. The “N2KL” sector has been the scene of steady insurgent activity over many years. It is shorthand for Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar, and Laghman provinces. Note that Nuristan, Kunar and Nangahar provinces are on the border with Pakistan. Others refer to the “Nuristan-Kunar Corridor” straight into Kabul, the capital, through Laghman Province. The sector of Pakistan bordering the three Afghan provinces is known as the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous tribal region, frankly, an outlaw region.

Plenty of daring and courageous people, military and civilian, have gone to the N2KL and served there, many beyond the call of duty. Some have chosen to document what they saw, and present their analyses. I’ve drawn from as many of those as I could find.

I published a detailed story about the region in which Nuristan lies, “
Special Forces ODA 3336 deep in the Hindu Kush, gallantry and courage.” There is a lot of information there about this area. I commend it to your attention, especially the section, “Target area, Nuristan.” I will not repeat too much from that story.

FOBKalagushTownNangaresh

FOB Kalagush is in the Nurgaram District of Nuristan Province. This district is located in southern Nuristan on the border with Laghman Province. Nangaresh is a small village to the south of Kalagush, visited often by members of FOB Kalagush.

The FOB was built in 2006 and US forces left in 2011-2012. Quite a bit happened in between. I'll highlight some of that later. Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) may still be using it. I am not sure.

The website SOFREP, in an article “
Nuristan: Kipling and American Valor,” noted this:

MedalofHonor
Of the ten Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for engagements in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the war in Afghanistan, five have been for actions in Nuristan.”

Those five were:

Spc. Ty M. Carter, USA, B/3-61st Cavalry
SFC Jared C. Monti, USA, HQ Co/10th Mountain Division, posthumous
SSgt. Clinton L. Romesha, USA, 3-61st Cavalry
Sgt. Kyle J. White, USA, C/2-503rd Infantry
Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts, USA, 2-503rd Infantry (There seems to be some debate as to whether Wanat, the location of the fighting that applies, was in Kunar or Nuristan province)

Background

USinvasion

The US and Britain invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, a response to the 9-11 air attacks against the US. The intelligence said the terrorist-insurgent group al-Qaeda planned the attacks from safe-haven areas of northeast Afghanistan. The invasion was dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom,” or OEF.

BushAnnouncesAfghanInvasion

On October 7, 2001, President G. W. Bush described the missions to the American public as follows:

  • Attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.
  • Disrupt use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and drive Al-Qaeda out.

The president underlined for US military members:

“Your mission is defined. Your objectives are clear. Your goal is just ... You have my full confidence, and you will have every tool you need to carry out your duty.”

Angie_Holan_small_photo_1
I am compelled to insert here that the US did not provide every tool US forces needed to carry out their duty in Afghanistan. In March 2003, two years after the US invaded Afghanistan, the US invaded Iraq. I don’t want to go deeply into this. Others have. Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact, remarked on comments made on TV by Paul Krugman, an American economist, in an article, “Number deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan show one war got a lot more troops.” She said:

“(Krugman’s) right on the substantive point that the U.S. was waging war in two countries with limited resources, and Iraq got the bulk of those resources. And experts said that key assets including intelligence operations and Special Forces units were pulled away from Afghanistan for the Iraq invasion.”

She presented the numbers and I encourage you to go through them. It’s a fast read.

Let’s return to the invasion of Afghanistan.

NorthernAllianceEntersKabul
Northern Alliance Forces, the US partner, enter Kabul November 13, 2001

The Northern Alliance was a united military front formed in 1996 employing fighters from Afghanistan and some neighboring countries. It fought a defensive war against the Taliban government, and then, with British and American military support, took the offensive. The US and Britain used the Northern Alliance to form the bulk of the ground forces. They began entering Kabul on November 13, 2001 despite US and British urgings not to go into the city. The Taliban took a beating from the alliance on the grounds and US and British forces mostly from the air. As a result, the Taliban moved out of the city, headed toward Kandahar in southeast Afghanistan. Kandahar had served as a de facto capital for the Taliban. US air forces attacked the city in November 2001 forcing the Taliban there to surrender while those who could escape went eastward.

KarzaiJan2013
Some Taliban in Kabul engaged in a rear guard action. US and British soldiers advanced from Bagram, north of Kabul, but stopped their offensive because of the rear guard action. I'll not go into the details of what happened, except to say that by December 17, 2001 Afghan groups meeting in Bonn, Germany agreed to set up an interim government, led by Hamid Karzai, shown here. That meant the Taliban government had been deposed and a new government was forming. In January 2002 the first contingent of foreign peacekeepers, primarily the British, entered Kabul.

ToraBora

As a result of the invasion, the Taliban and al-Qaeda retreated to the mountains in northeast Afghanistan, to the area of Tora Bora, in Nangahar province, south of Jalalabad and about 6-9 miles straight-line north of the border with Pakistan.

American-led Coalition forces attacked that region in December 2001 and searched for what was thought to be the al-Qaeda underground headquarters. Despite many press reports to the contrary, no such headquarters or fortress was found. Instead the troops found a system of small natural caves, some supported by wood, probably used by insurgent fighters to hide, rest and store some small amounts of ammunition.

The Allied attacks against Tora Bora were furious. Many al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, including Osama bin Laden, fled into northwestern Pakistan. In March 2002, the US and NATO launched “Operation Anaconda” to destroy any Taliban and al-Qaeda forces remaining in northeastern Afghanistan. Intelligence said the Taliban evacuated the area, dissolving into Pakistan.

Broadly speaking, it appeared the Taliban were gone. A new interim Afghan administration could get to work.

BritishTroopsBagramApril2002

On December 20, 2001 the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1386 that established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to help the interim authority maintain security in and around Kabul. The British agreed to command the force which was to have from 3,000 - 5,000 troops, with some 1,500 coming from Britain. NATO took command of ISAF on August 11, 2003 and the rest of that is history I'll not address. The photo shows British Royal Marines marching to a briefing at Bagram in April 2002.

BushVMI2002
From where I sit, President George W. Bush could have said “mission accomplished” some time in early 2002. However he allowed the US military missions in Afghanistan to expand. Arguably the greatest mission expansion was announced by President Bush as early as April 2002 when he told students and faculty at Virginia Military Institute:

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.”

He noted in his memoirs:

“Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission.  We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.  We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society (because) a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.”

So nation-building was now on the table. One result of that is the US military is still there, its members are still exposed to combat, and Afghanistan is plodding along. It’s 2018, seventeen years later.

The Taliban generally did leave Afghanistan and hid in Pakistan. While there, they regrouped, re-fitted, recruited and re-emerged in Afghanistan, as an insurgency, not a national government, starting in 2003. Their main point of entry was through the northeast provinces where they established an intricate network of supply routes through some of the toughest geography in the world.

That is one reason why FOB Kalagush was built. It and others were meant to stop or hinder that flow.

The Durand Line

By giving the Durand Line even a cursory look, you will find quickly why this region of the world is politically troubled.

Durand-Line-Final-615x300@2x-1

Abdur_rahman
The Durand Line is a 1,510 mile long border between eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The Emir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901 was Abdur Rahman Khan. He agreed to this border in 1896 with the British. Some say the British demanded he agree to it. I should mention that between 1839 and 1919 the British invaded Afghanistan three times from India to extend their control over it and oppose Russian influence.

The British wanted this line to be the official border between India and Afghanistan so Britain could control the northern part of India (now modern-day Pakistan). Pakistan at the time was part of the British colony of India.

Durand-Line-Final-615x300@2x-1

Most significantly, the Durand Line cuts through the Pashtun tribal areas. Pakistan accepted the line when it achieved independence in 1947. Afghanistan’s leaders had originally accepted the line as the border. However, the Afghans demanded the Pashtuns living in the Pakistan side have the right of self-determination. Indeed the Afghans until the 1970s sought recognition of "Pashtunistan." That threatened Pakistan's territorial integrity. Britain and Pakistan refused.

Nonetheless, Pashtuns travel back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistan border virtually at will. Afghanistan has ignored the line and asserted claims over territories between the line and the Indus River. The recent Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reiterated that Afghanistan does not recognize the line as the official border.

physical-map-of-afghanistan-1-large

The issue of Pashtunistan is not a trivial one. There are about 40-50 million Pashtuns. They live primarily in the mountains regions of northern and eastern Afghanistan and northern and western Pakistan. Many Pashtuns see themselves as "stateless."

Jayshree Bajoria, Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in 2007:

“Afghanistan shares borders with six countries, but the approximate 1500-mile-long Durand Line along Pakistan remains the most dangerous.”

Pashtunistan Baluchistan

Bajoria said Afghanistan has claimed the Pashtun territories in Pakistan as part of Afghanistan. As a result, militants have been able to operate rather freely in that area. He wrote:

“Many Pashtun nationalists on both sides of the Durand Line continue to demand an independent state of Pashtunistan. In Balochistan too, several organizations demand an independent state.”

In fact, each state has offered sanctuary to the other state’s opponents. As you can see, the envisioned Pashtunistan and Baluchistan overlap. Furthermore the southern part of Baluchistan extends into Iran. The ethnic Baloch seek their own state as well and separate themselves from the Pashtuns.

Border smuggling is intensive. Military networks, extremism and insurgencies have flourished on both sides of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result.

No one has yet been able to come to terms with this issue.

Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan

fata

Nuristan, along with Kunar, Nangahar, Paktiya, Khost and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan border on what has been known as the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. FATA consists of seven tribal districts and six frontier regions. The Pakistani government governs them through a special set of Frontier Crimes Regulations. The FATA is occupied almost exclusively by the Pashtun.

British colonialists were never able to fully control or subdue the area. There were many battles that resulted. The British were able to maintain only weak control. When Pakistan became independent in 1948, it granted the tribal areas a special administrative status. Pakistan oddly has benefitted from the lawlessness there. One reason is this has kept the Pashtun weak. The Taliban have used the area as a shelter.

pakistanprovinces

Since 2001 FATA has become militant and a haven for terrorists. Just recently, on May 18, 2018, Pakistan voted to merge FATA with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, formerly the North-West Frontier. As of this writing, this is official but has not yet been completely settled, obstructed by the FATA Grand Alliance.

The Durand Line plus the FATA make this entire area a political shambles.

The Taliban

Now we come to the Taliban, ostensibly an an enemy of the West and many of the Islamic faith in the region. The Taliban are a recent evolution, stemming principally from religious students known as the talib. They emerged from the Pashtun areas of eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban can be described as a religiously motivated political movement, people educated in traditional Islamic schools of Pakistan. Speaking broadly, they believe Afghans have been suffering mainly because of power struggles between those not adhering to the moral code of Islam.

AfghanistanPakistanMap

This is a pretty good map to highlight Taliban threat areas, highlighted in orange, the darker orange reflecting the core area of Taliban influence..

  • Al-Qaeda has found safe haven primarily in North and South Waziristan in Pakistan’s FATA and cross the border at will.
  • After the US deposed the Taliban government in Kabul, al-Qaida found safe haven to the south in and around the city of Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province.
  • Some Taliban remained in Afghanistan, primarily in Uruzgan and Kandahar Provinces, also heavily populated by the Pashtun.

The Taliban essentially refitted and waited to attack after being overthrown in 2001. Geographically, Kabul is very vulnerable from Pakistan. I should also highlight that Kandahar, Afghanistan is culturally very significant, it is strategic with regard to trade, it has served terrorist groups well, and from 1996-2001 was the Taliban capital.

Pakistan’s policy has been to keep its western border with Afghanistan in turmoil. The Pakistani military has promoted this turmoil. It did not want Afghanistan to become too close to Pakistan’s arch-rival, India. The regional politics deserve their own study. I will simply say Pakistan has been apprehensive about Indian, Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

The Pashtuns were the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second largest in Pakistan, so it was easy for Pakistan to sew discontent. The Taliban are largely Sunni Muslims. As such, they attracted Pakistanis and Saudi Arabians. The net result was Pakistan would pursue al-Qaeda but preferred to leave the Taliban alone.

There is no way around it. Animosity between Afghanistan and Pakistan is alive and well.

Nuristan Province - “Dark side of the moon”

Nuristan-province

US forces returning from Afghanistan have often referred to Nuristan Province as “the dark side of the moon." {pierce Kelley, in his book, To Vahalia, said it was poor, underpopulated, "in the most remote parts of the Hindu Kush mountains, more like life on another planet."

The Division of the Chief of Staff, Army Headquarters, India, published a book in 1906,
The Military Report on Afghanistan, that aptly describes the situation in northern Afghanistan to this day:

“From time to time spasmodic efforts are made to improve the (lines of) communications between Kabul and Northern Afghanistan, but so numerous are the natural obstacles to road-making and so intermittent the exertions of the Afghans that few permanent improvements are effected …

“There may be said to be three main routes leading from Kabul to the north, but a study of lateral communications between the routes and of the alternatives to different portions of them furnishes a choice of numerous combinations … No road appears to possess a combination of a sufficient number of advantages to make it universally popular …

“One route may be easier for wheeled artillery, though impassable at the time of the year on account of snow. Another route is more direct, but the gradient more severe. A third route may be temporarily unfit for traffic owing to the melting of the snows which render fording of rivers difficult.”

A Taliban objective to control Nuristan is in part based on the fact that the province provides numerous ways to get to Kabul from the north. And, of course, it and Kunar Province present numerous infiltration routes. These are among the notable reasons for building FOB Kalagush.

First, let’s briefly get acquainted with Nuristan Province.

EasternNuristanhBeauty
NuristanMountainScene

Nuristan is remote. The terrain is rugged at best, mountainous with many streams, there are few roads, governance is minimal and largely corrupt, the Taliban are ever present, and tribal feuds are many. It is volatile and inaccessible, virtually cut-off from the rest of Afghanistan.

BeautifulNuristan

Nuristan is characterized by rocky, deep, narrow and steep-sided valleys, and rugged, high mountain ridges. The highest peak is about 20,700 ft. and most of the mountain passes are about 15,400 ft., usually closed during the winter, completely isolating the province.

nuristanrivers

For our purposes here, important rivers are the Alingar/Ramgbal in the west, the Pech in the center and the Kunar in the east. The Kunar rises in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, and eastern Afghanistan. The Alingar and Pech rise in northern Nuristan. The Alingar, Pech and Kunar rivers are part of the Indus River Basin which encompasses parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China. Keep the Alingar in mind: FOB Kalagush was located on the Alingar.

The three main valleys are the Bashgal (in the east), the Waigal (in the south/center) and the Ramgal (in the west). They are separated by high mountain passes of from 13,000 to 15,000 ft. The more southern valleys are lower in altitude. Keep the Bashgal Valley in mind as the largest town in the valley is Kamdesh, once the location of Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, about which I will talk later.

nuristaninfiltrate

The province is sparsely populated. Most are Muslims, though that was not the case earlier in its history. Most are illiterate. It is one of the major areas of infiltration by insurgents crossing from Pakistan. I have marked the districts of Nuristan in red.

ISAF_image_Insurgent_Routes

This is a busy map. I ask you to focus on the blue ovals. They roughly designate hotly contested areas of eastern Afghanistan. The red arrows roughly designate the insurgent infiltration routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan toward Kabul, despite the terrain. The Taliban has used these to assault Kabul, and has made much of Nuristan a staging area and safe haven. These fighters travel between Pakistan and Nuristan with ease.

Parun
The provincial capital is Parun, population about 1,600, shown here. There is a provincial government operating there. However, Mujib Mashal, writing “Afghan Province Tucked in Mountains Lies Beyond Reach of Aid and Time,” said:

ParunDowntown

“The provincial capital, Parun, has a government presence, but it is disconnected from six of its seven districts, and one of them, Barg-e Matal, has remained under Taliban siege for years now.”

ParunGeography

The capital is virtually impossible to get to except by air. Security is tenuous at best, and it is hard to tell who in government is dealing with whom, friend or foe.The province has not had a credible government. The government has been mostly influenced by powerful illegal groups, opium traffickers, and criminal elements. Crime and lawlessness are widespread.

As a result, the central government has very little strength in the province. Many people have little to no faith in that government, or their provincial government for that matter. Regional institutions are also lacking. Officials and foreigners have tended to stay away because of this. Non-government organizations (NGOs) that often help people have generally stayed away as well. The place is simply too dangerous. That in turn has enabled local insurgents to thrive, though it is arguable how many are tied to the Taliban and how many are not. That said, it has been a breeding ground for radical Islam.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, for the "
Human Rights Watch World Report, 2004," wrote:

“There is widespread agreement among Afghans and international observers that there can be no reconstruction without security, and there can be no security without reconstruction. In Afghanistan, as in other post-conflict situations, construction crews cannot build roads, clinics, or schools if they face threatening forces; armed groups will not give up the way of the gun unless they can make a living and protect their families and livelihood without it.”

I'd like to highlight the term "post-conflict." This is usually the last stage of conflict, one where tensions have declined and more normal relationships exist. Most experts agree Nuristan Province has not reached this stage.

In sum, Nuristan’s environment is hostile from almost every angle.

The matter of artillery in Afghanistan

M777LightTowedHowitzer

Once I get into US bases set up in Nuristan, and most especially FOB Kalagush, I will tell you that all these bases and positions in outlying areas employed field artillery. I confess I am new to field artillery other than I understand how devastating it can be for the recipients of its wrath. I therefore want to highlight a few points about this subject that struck me.

Since the end of the Cold War, field artillery has been struggling organizationally and operationally. There have been questions about its relevance. Artillery was sent to Operation Iraqi Freedom, bu its force levels were surprisingly low. That was in part due to the strategy: maneuver quickly and easily, at high speed. The same requirement was set for Afghanistan. Attendant to all this were questions about whether field artillery could provide close support to maneuver operations. At the same time, systems were coming on line geared toward deep strike interdiction, raising questions about whether artillery would concentrate con deep interdiction and perhaps not even focus on supporting maneuver forces. Furthermore, artillery was considered by many to be "heavy," logistically difficult because of its size, weight and supporting equipment, and fixed in position.

JamesMattisBrigadier
Then Brigadier General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, felt in the early stages of planning for Afghanistan that air fires would dominate fire support for Afghanistan and artillery would be brought in only if necessary. That view prevailed.

Early in the Afghan war, when the US was employing mainly regional Northern Alliance militias and US special forces on the ground, it was reluctant to put artillery into Afghanistan. Instead, US officials preferred employing air in a close air support (CAS) role. At the time, the US had only 8,000 troops there. However sole use of air power for CAS created a problem: the enemy was lobbing mortars at US forces and then running, not enough time to get air power to the scene.

Major Joseph A. Jackson, USA, a field artillery officer, wrote, "
Moving artillery forward: A concept for the fight in Afghanistan," published in the Small Wars Journal.

"Presently, the United States Army has implemented self-limiting measures in Afghanistan. This formidable institution refuses to commit its full spectrum of ground combat capabilities to overwhelm the enemy forces of the Taliban and Al Qaida. Instead, it continues to deploy its weapons in piece-meal fashion, arriving with a force that is too little too late. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the employment of the United States Field Artillery."

HackenbeckFranklin
In March 2002, the US and NATO launched “Operation Anaconda” to destroy any Taliban and al-Qaeda forces remaining in northeastern Afghanistan. Major General Franklin Hackenback, commander, 10th Mountain Division, did not bring his 105 mm howitzers to Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. First, he did not want to invest in the required logistics to get the units there and move them around the country. Second, he felt he could get the job done without them. Instead he relied on CAS and mortars.

Major Lance Boothe, USA (Ret.), wrote "
King no more," published in Military Review May-June 2013, wrote:

"Denying artillery fires to troops-in-contact is egregious, but failing to bring artillery to the fight is a greater blunder. This is the infamy of 'Operation Anaconda' (March 2002) … Conventional forces that should have known better left their howitzers in garrison (far away from the Shah-i-Kot Valley) and attempted to conduct combat operations relying wholly on tactical air support and mortars. As is typical in mountainous areas, the weather turned poor and helicopters proved of limited capability at high altitudes … The fog prevented aircraft from dropping ordnance on al-Qaeda fighters dug into cave entrances … (Furthermore) the Air Force could not be everywhere at once."

Major Jackson underscored this point made by Major Boothe. Jackson said:

"During Operation Anaconda, 1-18 March 2002, unlike the previous Soviet intervention, no artillery was present for the coalition and American troops. This absence of artillery created a noticeable capability gap that placed an increased burden on other
weapons platforms such as mortars, helicopters, and an array of fixed-wing aircraft … The real value of Operation Anaconda to the artillery is that it illustrated how unprepared the U.S. artillery arsenal was to fight an expeditionary war in Afghanistan’s rugged landscape."

In 2008, Colonels Sean McFarland, Michael Shields, and Jeffrey Snow prepared a White Paper entitled, "
The Kind and I: The Impending Crisis in Field Artillery's Ability to provide Support to Maneuver Commanders." It was published by NPR. Each was a BCT commander. They wrote:

"As BCT commanders we have watched the deterioration of the Field Artillery branch with growing alarm. We are former maneuver commanders who recognize the importance of having reliable, fast, and accurate fire support … No branch of the Army has suffered a greater identity crisis than Field Artillery, as a result of transformation, COIN-centric operations and the non-standard manpower demands of OIF/OEF. The once-mighty 'King of Battle' has been described by one of its own officers as a 'dead branch walking.'"

One result of their complaint and the complaints of others was for the Army to develop a new Fires Strategy. The Association of the United States Army published a
Torchbearer National Security Report in October 2009 that outlines the new strategy. I commend it to you.

StamelGeorge1:3129AFAR

According to the Vernon Loeb of The Washington Post, in his article "US deploys artillery to Afghanistan for the first time," the US deployed six 105 mm howitzers in Kandahar from the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment (AFAR), 82nd Airborne Division in September 2002. He said that was the first artillery to come to Afghanistan. I believe its was the 1-319 AFAR that deployed. Batteries A and B of 1-319 AFAR manned M120 120mm mortars, while Battery C, 1-319 AFAR manned M119 105mm howitzers. This photo shows Sgt. George Stamel, 1-391 AFAR, calibrating his sights on a M119A1 105 mm Lightweight Towed Howitzer during an artillery range exercise at Kandahar in September 2002.

US presence in Nuristan

2006 - US focuses more on "The East"

OperationMountainLion2006

David Tate, writing “Afghanistan: the jihad within a jihad” published in 2007 by FDD’s Long War Journal, pointed out that during the summer 2006, Britain and Canada took on greater responsibilities in southern Afghanistan. In turn that enabled US leaders to focus greater attention on “one region: The East.”

N2KL

He highlighted that within the eastern area of Afghanistan, known as Regional Command East (RC-E), the “N2KL” sector which included Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar, and Laghman provinces had been the scene of relatively steady insurgent activity. Others refer to the “Nuristan-Kunar Corridor” straight into Kabul, the capital.

OperationalEmphasisMap2001-2005

You can see from this map that from 2001-2005 the areas of operational emphasis were in the east. But by 2006, there would be a bit of a twist. Tate wrote:

10thMountainOperationMountainLionCH47

“In February 2006, more than four years after the invasion, the US made a firm push north into this secluded, rugged part of Afghanistan (known as the N2KL). The 10th Mountain Division pushed deep into Nuristan in preparation for soon-to-be-built forward operating bases; the operation lasted three months.

“Called ‘Operation Mountain Lion,’ the units spread out through the narrow valleys and high altitudes of Kunar and Nuristan, chasing an elusive enemy.

“‘Operation Mountain Lion’ was an airborne assault conducted by the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 10th Mountain Division, the 1st Battalion 3rd Marine Regiment (1-3 Marines) and the 3rd Brigade 203rd Corps Afghan National Army (ANA) forces, about 2,500 troops all together. They were organized as Task Force Spartan (TF Spartan). USAF and RAF air provided air support. Air support was conducted mostly in Kunar Province, located along the southern border of Nuristan, not far from the location of Kamdesh and Kalagush, and the western border of Pakistan.

“In Nuristan in August 2006, the operation allowed the US to set up FOB Kamdish (Kamdesh) — now called Camp Keating … Since August 2006, the US and its Afghan allies established joint camps in Kalagush, Parun, Aranas, and Gowerdesh.”

A Special Forces Sgt. Major commented:

“Nuristan was absolutely an al-Qaeda stronghold because of its remoteness, access to Pakistan, and nearby refugee camps."

Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and NATO’s ISAF

NuristanPRT

I promise not to strangle you in the organizational quagmire known as US-NATO in Afghanistan, but I do have to introduce you to a few points.

Following the 9-11 air attacks against the US, President G.W. Bush made two promises:

  • Wage a war against terrorism in Afghanistan, which he predicted would “take a while.” This would be the major US focus.
  • Reconstruct Afghanistan. The US established Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) mainly to work the second promise.

He made the reconstruction promise about six months (April 2002) after he made the first (October 2001).

Recall he couched the first as:

  • Attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.
  • Disrupt use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and drive Al-Qaeda out.

Recall he couched the second as:

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.”

And in his memoirs:

“Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission.”

I have underscored this point a few times because the mission expanded and changed markedly from 2001 to 2002. Initial planning did not include the second, expanded mission. In my opinion the US was not prepared for the second mission. It did not know the Afghan people, Afghan politics, did not understand the tribal and ethnic conflicts, and knew little about the history, some of which I have covered here.

The Center for Humanitarian Cooperation wrote a report entitled, “
The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan and its role in reconstruction.” It said the US began attempts at military reconstruction in November 2002 by sending six-person civilian affairs teams throughout Afghanistan. Then the US put forth a new plan called “Joint Regional Teams (JRT).” These were to “coordinate the reconstruction process, identify reconstruction projects, conduct village assessments and liaise with regional commanders.” In January 2003, the Afghan government asked the US to change the name to Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). That name was replaced shortly thereafter by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

Wikipedia has said:

“The overall PRT concept in Afghanistan was to use relatively small joint civil-military units to achieve three objectives:”

  • Improve security
  • Extend the authority of the Afghan central government
  • Facilitate reconstruction.

They were commanded by a military officer supported by a team of various military and civilian specialties, and would grow in composition to 60-100 people. The US set them up as part of OEF, which was a US military combat operation. They were to “win the hearts and minds in Afghanistan.” Initially Afghans generally appreciated the US. As time went by, they began to v new the US with contempt.

Setting up PRTs began with three teams in early 2003 and expanded over time. In 2003 the PRT in Jalalabad was responsible for four provinces, one of which was Nuristan.

NuristanPRTMeeting

This photo shows Muhammad Osman, the sub-governor of the Waygul District of Nuristan province, and shura members during a meeting to discuss ongoing projects in the area.

Frank Light, writing “
Land of Light,” working as a State Department representative with the Jalalabad PRT, noted that in those days the PRTs were “experimental” and “Washington had decided to do Afghanistan on the cheap. That’s where PRTs fit in.” He added:

“Administratively the (Nuristan) province made no sense. It (Nuristan) had no government infrastructure, and its only two roads — the one to Kamdesh in the east, and another in the west — ran north-south. None connected east to west. The capital lay somewhere in the middle. Nobody we talked to had been there or knew anybody who had. An American in Jalalabad who had done research in Kamdesh many years before thought it was accessible only on foot.”

NurgaramNuristanPRT

The Nuristan PRT made its debut inside Nuristan in 2004 at Nurgaram in western Nuristan. Nurgaram is the name of a then newly established Nuristan Provincial District. This photo shows Mr. Waikil Sakhi, district elder for the Nurgaram District, explaining how an irrigation proposal would help feed 7,000 people in the Wadawu valley, Nuristan Province.

I have not found a town named Nurgaram. However, my research indicates the Nuristan PRT was located at the same place where FOB Kalagush would be set up two years later in 2006. The Nuristan PRT would eventually become part of but separate from FOB Kalagush. I'll explain what I mean by that more in moment.

NATO-Afghanistan

The US saw the PRT as a means to share burdens in Afghanistan with other countries, such as Britain and Germany, though other countries would participate as well. Each country organized their PRT differently, and signed up for different responsibilities. The US Institute for Peace (USIP) published “The US Experience with Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan,” written by Robert Perito.

Perito wrote, and I find this to be important, “The US stressed force protection and quick impact assistance projects … US PRTs were co-located with Coalition combat units that conducted counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”

Differentiating between PRT force protection infantry platoons and combat units whose mission was to conduct counterinsurgency combat operations against the enemy can get confusing. Many Afghans found it confusing as well. The PRTs in their minds were there to make Afghan lives better. The Afghans understood and accepted some soldiers were required to provide security for the PRT specialists. However, they could not discriminate between military combat forces associated with the PRT and those separate from the PRT out on a counterterrorism mission. I’ve had the same problem.

I'll add that Perito's use of the term "quick impact" is typically American: do it in a hurry, even if it is Afghanistan and little is done in Afghanistan in a hurry.

US-led PRTs were commanded by a lieutenant colonel or Navy commander. They normally had people versed in civil affairs, psychological operations, exploding ordnance, intelligence, medics and administration.

NuristanPRTSecurityPRTNuristanvisitNugram District

As I said, PRTs had a force protection infantry platoon, usually a National Guard unit. These would consist of from 16 to 44 soldiers led by a lieutenant and senior non-commissioned officer (NCO). Each platoon would normally have three to four squads or sections, equipped with limited arms. It was US policy that the PRT provide its own force protection with this small unit augmented by ANA forces. This photo shows a PRT member talking with a local Afghan and a member of the force protection team standing behind in case needed.

Perito wrote, “PRTs were extremely vulnerable if they were not co-located with larger, more capable Coalition combat units. He wrote further:

“Relations between PRTs and combat units depended … on personalities and attitudes of the individual officers. In cases where combat unit commanders regarded the PRTs as important, they were able to provide visible military ‘cover’ that enabled PRT elements to operate more widely.”

He added this was not always the case. Combat units might look down on the National Guard units and in some cases not cooperate at all.

All this said, the PRT protection force was able to call in air if it got into trouble, and they did so frequently. The point I want to make is that the Nuristan PRT was located at FOB Kalagush, but was not controlled by the FOB Kalagush commander, with one exception. The FOB Kalagush commander was the base commander, so the PRT would have to mind its Ps and Qs while on the base.

Prior to discussing FOB Kalagush, I must talk about Combat Outpost Keating, located at Kamdesh in Nuristan. Colonel Michael Forsyth, who would command an artillery battalion at FOB Kalagush, has opined that the attack against COP Keating, which I am about to describe, was a precursor to a major attack that would later occur against FOB Kalagush.

COP Keating - OP Fritsche: The enemy's hammer falls, 2009

KorengalValleyMap

Recall I said earlier the 3rd BCT of the 10th Mountain, established in 2004, deployed to the mountainous and high threat region of the Afghanistan border with Pakistan in February 2006, along with US Marines and ANA forces. This was their first deployment to this location. Together they launched “Operation Mountain Lion” in early March 2006, pushing into Kunar Province, mainly focused on the Korengal Valley, the northern tip of which is in southern Nuristan, and not very far from where FOB Kalagush would be built. Depending on how you measure geography, the Korengal Valley was about 30 miles straight-line east of FOB Kalagush. I've shown you where FOB Kalagush would be built to serve as a frame of reference.

Special Forces had operated in the desolate areas of Nuristan, but US conventional forces had not operated here so this was a bold move into what was a thoroughfare for insurgent supply and drug runs and force movements in and out of Pakistan.

NicholsonJohnCol
Colonel “Mick” Nicholson commanded the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd BCT “Spartans” at the time. He positioned two US battalions in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. They were the 1-32 Infantry (750 men) and 1-35 Cav (500 men). These units were dispersed in company and platoon size detachments along the rivers and in a few remote mountain valleys.

While “Mountain Lion” focused on the Korengal Valley in Kunar Province, it was part of an effort to set up American forward operating bases bases in the northeast to include a push deep into Nuristan. The extremely rough terrain made travel up here very difficult. On a map, this is a fairly compact neighborhood, and a nasty neighborhood as well.

KorengalValley

The Korengal Valley came to be known as “The Valley of Death.”

KamdeshKalagush

“Operation Mountain Lion” enabled the US to set up a base in Kamdesh, Nuristan in August 2006. It was called Combat Outpost (COP) Kamdesh. I’ll talk more about FOB Kalagush later, but troops started building FOB Kalagush roughly 60 miles straight-line to the southwest of Kamdesh in spring 2006. For my purposes, they were going up at about the same time. Furthermore, they were both in Nuristan, one of the very tough neighborhoods.

KeatingBenjamin FritscheWilliam

The Kamdesh base name was changed to COP Keating in honor of Captain Benjamin Keating (left), USA, A/3-71st Cav, Task Force Spartan, killed at FOB Naray in Kunar Province on November 26, 2006. There was an Observation Post (OP) on a hill above Keating. It was named OP Fritsche. It was named after SSgt. William Fritsche (right), USA, 1-91st Cav, 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was killed near Kamu, east of Kamdesh in Nuristan, on July 29, 2007.

COP Keating was established by the Kamdesh PRT in July 2006.

KeatingandFritsche

On July 20, 2006, CH-47 Chinooks airlifted the entire C/3-71 Cav and one platoon from A/3-71 Cav into a cornfield near Kamdesh and constructed COP Keating. Once done, A/3-71 remained behind to man the COP. COP Keating and OP Fritsche were set up at about the same time.

COP Keating was surrounded on three sides by mountains and inhabited by American forces not enthusiastically welcomed by the locals. Many have described the COP as sitting in a “fishbowl.” High ground overlooked the road to the base, making traffic vulnerable to ambush virtually at any time. Most supplies were brought in by helicopter which in turn were vulnerable to hostile fire from the high ground.

Fritsche was a platoon-sized OP about 2.2 kms or 1.3 miles straight-line distance from COP Keating. However, they were not in line-of-sight of each other. The OP was at a much higher elevation but was still vulnerable to higher elevations nearby.

OPFritsche

The OP observed insurgent activity on the ground below, provided indirect fire support to COP Keating using its own 120 mm mortars, and provided logistics support to the COP.

The original intent was to use Keating as a Kamdesh District PRT. That was at a time when US decision-makers felt the time had come to emphasize the counter-insurgency (COIN) mission up here as a way to combat insurgency.

COP_Keating,_in_Nurestan

But that would not work. The area was too hostile. COP Keating was placed near where several river valley systems from Pakistan converged. Two rivers, the Landay-Sin and Darreh Ye Kushtoz, converged right where COP Keating was placed.

The base was set up to be a PRT, called PRT Kamdesh. But there was simply too much fighting in the area. The net result was the base had to be viewed as a fire combat base. Winning hearts and minds remained important, but COP Keating’s job was to stop or seriously impede the flow of weapons and troops from Pakistan. The insurgents understood that and were not about to let that happen free of charge.

Katzdavid
David Katz was the State Department’s member of the Nuristan PRT. As a frame of reference, and slightly off topic, Mujib Mashal quoted him saying:

“I think the Nuristan PRT was probably the last one stood up, and one of the first to close.”

Seth Jones reviewed the book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, written by Jake Tapper. Jones said:

COPKeating

“Soldiers from 3-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division (Lt. Colonel Michael Howard, USA in command) constructed (COP Keating) in the summer of 2006. COP Keating has the feel of a U.S. Army fort in the American West in the 1800s — spartan, isolated and utterly exposed … From the beginning, some U.S. soldiers questioned the wisdom of building an outpost at the base of a mountain peak where insurgents could shoot down into it.”

Kamdesh

Kamdesh Village was typically Nuristan, steep slopes of very large granite boulders, fast moving and narrow streams, rugged mountains and volatile mountains. Kamdesh is just a few miles from the Pakistan border and the Pakistani administrative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, itself known as a site of militancy and terrorism. Following the Soviet-Afghan War, insurgents were able to capitalize on decaying schools, non-existent healthcare and virtually no infrastructure. Residents could see the central government was not paying them attention.

Complicating all this, Afghanistan refused to recognize the Durand Line. Instead it advocated a Pashtun movement that sought secession from Pakistan and creation of a sovereign state of Pashtuns.

Since a PRT was not established at Keating, the question of COIN vs counter-terrorism arose. While Keating had its hands full with counter-terrorism, it was also to be involved COIN. I mentioned elements of the 3-71 Cav constructed Keating and Fritsche. Wikipedia addressed comments made by the 3-71 commander at the time:

HowardMichael
“Lieutenant Colonel Mike Howard, (3-71 Cav commander) saw COIN as a process of providing three services in the Kamdesh region: provide clean water by installing gravity fed pipelines in all the local villages, repair the hydroelectric plants in Urmul and Kamdesh, and set up new plants in Mirdesh and Gawardesh.”

I watched him in a C-SPAN interview, part of an overall video about a “
Patrol in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.” He said something that struck me as quite thoughtful:

“The enemy of tomorrow are the children of today.”

While I found his comments thoughtful, I also could see that it was going to be difficult to conduct COIN and counter-terrorism operations at the same time, especially without a PRT to handle the former. You'll see what mean in a moment.

I said Kamdesh was placed in a volatile position.

An estimated 30 insurgents attacked COP Keating from three directions on August 9, 2006, just three weeks after the PRT arrived. The battle lasted two hours and was described as ferocious. Neighboring units could not quickly reinforce the camp. Apache attack helicopters were located at Jalalabad, about 90 miles to the southwest, more than a 30 minute flight. Chinooks were scarce and in high demand throughout this mountainous region; Chinooks were able to operate at higher altitudes. Air support was always hounded by bad weather. That said, it took air support to repel the attack, dropping 500 lb. bombs on the insurgents.

At that time, there were hundreds of soldiers there who returned fire with mortars and small arms. C.J. Chivers, reporting “
Strategic Plans Spawned Bitter End for a Lonely Outpost” for the New York Times, commented:

“The outpost’s troops were charged with finding allies among local residents and connecting them to the central government in Kabul, stopping illegal cross-border movement and deterring the insurgency … There were so few troops that the outpost, like others of its kind, could barely defend its bunkers and patrol at the same time, much less disrupt a growing insurgency.

“But the outpost’s fate, chronicled in unusually detailed glimpses of a base over nearly three years, illustrates many of the frustrations of the allied effort: low troop levels, unreliable Afghan partners and an insurgency that has grown in skill, determination and its ability to menace … The area, near the border with Pakistan, was suspected of being an insurgent corridor.”

This would be the insurgent approach to COP Keating for several years, attacking weekly. The attacks might last just a few minutes or go for an hour or so.

Convoys from nearby stations were frequently ambushed and the roads fell victim to heavy rains. Several instances of this occurred in 2007. On February 17, 2007, three convoy trucks were ambushed. The insurgents let the drivers live, though one was injured by shrapnel. The insurgents cut off the ears of the other driver. On April 29, 2007, insurgents posted letters in the mosques chastising anyone who was helping the American infidels, and listing those Afghans who worked at the COP as security guards.

The insurgents killed Fazakl Ahad, a leader of the local council. The net result was that the local residents were caught between a rock and a hard place.

COPKeatingMap

The reality was COP Keating was indefensible and extremely difficult to resupply. Fighting between US forces and the Taliban became intense against Keating and other bases starting in 2008.

I believe Lt. Colonel Chris Kolenda commanded the 1-91st Cavalry that deployed to Keating in Nuristan, Lunar, Nangahar and Pakita Provinces in 2007-2008, part of Task Force Saber.

McChrystalStanley
In the summer of 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, USA, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, felt it futile to spread small numbers of forces to so many remote outposts and ordered they be closed in favor of concentrating troops in more populated locations. A Ministry of the Interior map of August 2009 showed the western part of Nuristan under complete enemy control. My tentative count is the US held four outposts in Nuristan at the time.

B/3-61st Cavalry relieved the 1-91st Cav troops in May 2009. Some Latvian troops were also there to work with the ANA and US force. These units experienced over 45 engagements with the enemy since assuming responsibility between then and October.

COP Keating and OP Fritsche were scheduled to be closed. However there were delays. The
San Diego Union-Tribune noted an AP report by Richard Lardner that said:

“Keating’s closure was delayed after equipment and supplies needed to move the troops and their equipment were diverted to support operations in another area.”

The
Military Times was a bit more specific, saying:

“The withdrawal was delayed when the assets required to move base supplies were diverted to support ‘intense brigade-level operations’ in Barge-e-Matal, also (in eastern) Nuristan Province.”

On October 3, 2009, the hammer fell on COP Keating and OP Fritsche.

KeatingAttack

The Taliban employed about 300 - 400 fighters and assaulted both locations from five points in the mountains. The men at Keating and Fritsche had only about 15 minutes warning. Only 53 soldiers from B/3-61st Cavalry and 20 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops occupied Keating. There were 19 B/3-61 troops and 10 ANA soldiers at Fritsche.

The Taliban timed their attacks to coincide roughly with the planned closure of them both. The insurgents attacked both COP Keating and OP Fritsche at about the same time. Fritsche was not able to provide Keating with fire support. Its men had to defend themselves from this separate attack. However, they managed to defeat the enemy attack and then provided indirect fire support to Keating following that.

The US soldiers fought fiercely and received close air support from USAF F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Viper, A-10 Warthog close air support (CAS) fighters, a B-1 Lancer bomber, AC-130 gunship, and Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Furthermore, Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk surveillance aircraft helped out.

Apacheattack

Two Apache helicopters were hit, one had to return to base while the other was able to continue in the fight. Then a third Apache was hit and had to return to base as well.

A10Warthog

After a weather delay, helicopters brought in a quick reaction force (QRF) and inserted it at Fritsche. It then proceeded downhill to Keating. After a tough trek downhill the QRF spotted the enemy firing from the slope, called in USAF A-10 Warthog CAS and together they destroyed the enemy there.

The QRF reached Keating about 13 hours after the attacks began. Medevac helicopters were finally able to get in to extract the wounded. The last medevac aircraft left Keating about 16 hours after the attack started.

Nine US soldiers were killed in action including one who died from his wounds after the battle. Twenty three more were wounded though 20 were able to return to duty. One ANA soldier was killed with nine wounded. Keating was virtually destroyed.

HillJonathanSFC
SFC Jonathan Hill, a platoon first sergeant, asked rhetorically:

“Why did we make it through that day? It couldn’t have gone any worse. The only thing worse than what we went through is if somebody would have dropped a nuclear warhead and we were ground zero. What we went through and how we escaped death is beyond me.”

SFC Hill would receive the Silver Star for his valor in this attack.

RomeshaClinton TyCarter1

Two soldiers in the battle received the Medal of Honor for their valor in this battle: Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha (left), USA, and Staff Sgt. Ty Carter (right).

The U.S. Army Joint Training Counter IED Operations Integration Center, (JTCOIC) produced a video re-creation of the attack against Keating and Fritsche, entitled, “Complex Attack on COP Keating." I thought this re-creation was extremely well done and commend it to you. I used it to assemble the summary of this attack just provided.

The US had planned to close the base, so given the severity of this attack and the fact that the COP was just about destroyed, the US abandoned COB Keating, two days after the battle. However, they were not able to take all their ammunition with them, so USAF aircraft bombed the site. three days after the battle.

resizedGuy-Swan2007
Lt. General Guy Swan, USA lauded the soldiers of B/3-61st Cav for their actions. He wrote:

"[The soldiers] repelled an enemy force of 300 Anti-Afghan fighters, preserving their combat outpost and killing approximately 150 of the enemy fighters … The soldiers distinguished themselves with conspicuous gallantry, courage and bravery under the heavy enemy fire that surrounded them.”

However, several officers received non-judicial punishment for their failures to assure COP Keating was better secured. The reasons included:

  • The insurgents conducted several probing attacks prior to the main attack
  • The insurgents were able to pinpoint their targets
  • Intelligence had indicated an attack was coming but would not consist of very many insurgents even though the insurgents had shown a capability to mount large attacks
  • Artillery from other bases was slow to respond
  • Air support responded too slowly
  • A multitude of previous small attacks lulled the base
  • Improvements were not made to the base because the word was out it would be soon closing

That said, General Swan further wrote:

“[Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets that could have given the soldiers of COP Keating better situational awareness of their operational environment were reprioritized to support (COP) Barge-e-Matal as well as the search for a missing U.S. soldier in the south.”

Observers have been critical of the punishment action. General McChrystal relented to requests from the local governor to keep the COP open, despite his commanders at most levels urging it be closed as indefensible, of little to no value, and not worth the effort.

COB Keating was closed and destroyed in October 2009.

I have seen some reports that say US forces left Nuristan after Keating and Fritsche were closed. That is not true. FOB Kalagush was still up and running. It was the only US base left in Nuristan.

I spent a lot of time addressing COP Keating in this, a Kalagush story. Recall i mentioned earlier Colonel Michael Forsyth, who would command an artillery battalion at FOB Kalagush, has opined that the attack against COP Keating was a precursor to a major attack that would later occur against FOB Kalagush.

Let’s step back to 2006 and focus in on COP Kalagush.

2006 - FOB Kalagush is built

In 2003 PRT Jalalabad was responsible for Nuristan along with three other provinces. The Nuristan PRT set up in Nuristan in 2006 at Nurgaram. Nuristan no longer was the responsibility of the Jalalabad PRT. Nurgaram is the location where the US built FOB Kalagush. The PRT then integrated into FOB Kalagush. Recall that Kalagush and Keating were built at roughly the same time.

Two major units built FOB Kalagush.

HescoBarrier

One was the 4-25th FAR which at the time was assigned to the 10th Mountain. Elements from the 4-25th had deployed to FOB Salerno near the city of Khost in Khost Province. They redeployed to West Nuristan between March and April 2006 and ended up at the location for FOB Kalagush. Among many other things, they built and installed Hesco Barriers for the FOB, such as shown in this photo example.

The second element was a team from the USAF’s 577th Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force Squadron, long-hand for 577th Prime BEEF. The photos below are video grabs from building up at Kalagush.

BuildKalagushA

BuildKalagushB

BuildKalagushC

KalagushBaseA

KalagushBaseB

These were light troop laborers, experienced in structures, heating, air conditioning and ventilation, utilities. They also came with heavy equipment operators and electrical technicians. The squadron was assigned to USAF Central Command (USAFCENT) and was responsible for eastern Afghanistan.

155mmArtilleryFire
155mm artillery unit preparing to fire

When under construction and during its first year in operation starting in 2006, FOB Kalagush was manned mainly by infantry. From that point forward, the main operating unit at Kalagush would be artillery.

2006 - Kalagush is manned

ArtilleryBattalionHQKalagush

It's 2006 and artillery was sent to Kalagush and surrounding areas. These artillery units usually set up their battalion headquarters at Kalagush along with a subordinate artillery platoon, usually with two guns and mortars. That headquarters in Army parlance is known as the Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion (HHB). The artillery platoon at Kalagush would support ground forces out in the field. The battalion would also disperse its other platoon artillery elements to other locations in the region to conduct the same mission.

From where I sit, operating FOB Kalagush was a complex task, even after you set the realities of war aside.

FOBKalagushFromaMountain
FOB Kalagush

The artillery battalion commander was in charge of the entire Kalagush base, a base commander as it were. He was responsible for the Kalagush-stationed artillery platoon providing support to ground units out in the field and was also responsible for his subordinate artillery platoons located at remote locations throughout the region. The battalion commander would travel to visit his other platoons to check on his people and work with the platoon commander in charge. However he often had to leave these distributed platoons largely on their own.

You can see there is an open space to the right of the photo, set up as a helicopter landing zone to pickup and discharge personnel.

CH47uploadpaxKalagush

The CH-47 Chinook was the workhorse in this neck of the woods, because it could operate at the higher altitudes and carry a lot of passengers and/or equipment-supplies. Here you see one picking cup some troops at FOB Kalagush.

I am not sure when Observation Post (OP) Loyalty was established, and I am not exactly not sure of its location. OP Loyalty was on a mountain protecting FOB Kalagush. I do know that OP Loyalty was attacked in 2008. "
The Wikileaks Afghanistan Papers. Part Eight: Enemy Actions" had this entry for August 2, 2008:

"At 1627Z OP Loyalty observed 4 AAF (Anti-Afghanistan Forces) armed with AK-47s trying to crawl underneath the perimeter wire. OP Loyalty responded with SAF (small arms fire), and the AAF fled down the mountain."

Finally, Colonel Forsyth, there 2009-2010, told me he reinforced it in preparation for being attacked. Beyond that, I have not found references to when it was established though I suspect in the neighborhood of 2006-2007.

OPLoyalty

The entry in Wikileaks provided this as the location: Latitude: 34.97849655 Longitude: 70.38537598. Google Earth plotted that point as shown on the image. Google Earth measures that at about 1.3 miles straight line north of FOB Kalagush. I'll stick with that until someone can provide me better data. I'll mention OP Loyalty again later.

NuristanPRTprepare to leaveKalagush

The PRT was housed at Kalagush but was a separate entity, somewhat like what I know as a tenant unit. It had its own US Army infantry platoon to protect its people when they visited villages, and ANA troops might go along. This photo shows Cmdr. Russell McCormack, USN, left, and Petty Officer 1st Class Jordan Parker (SEABEE construction), far right, posing for a photo before flying off to Barg-e Mata. I believe the other two men are from the PRT's infantry unit to provide protection at the site to be visited. I will add the PRT also operated a medical clinic at the FOB to support the forces and Afghan civilians from neighboring villages.

C:1-158InfrestOPovervillageoutsidekalagush0

The ANA had infantry at the FOB to protect the base. Sometimes the US would deploy a small infantry unit to the FOB to help protect the base and to patrol outside the fence. Sometimes the artillery battalion headquarters would have to draw from its own people to help protect the base and go out on patrols as well. For example, here you see three from the 1-158 Infantry resting in a overwatch position near FOB Kalagush.

People in small lots from other agencies and organizations including embedded journalists were also there.

MaribeObservesANAFireArtilleryKalagush

Finally the USMC placed Embedded Training Teams (ETT) at Kalagush. They provided follow-up basic training to ANA troops, which would also include some limited artillery training. Usually the host artillery unit would provide the bulk of the artillery training. As an aside, Cpl. Dakota Meyer, USMC, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, was with ETT 2-8 in Kunar Province. The enemy attacked his team of three Marines and a Navy corpsman. Meyer was the only one from the team to survive. Two other members of his team received the Navy Cross posthumous.

I think I’ve got them all. Lots of units and people in a small and vulnerable place.

While the FAR battalion commander served as the base commander, he did not have command and control authority over the PRT. The two would have to coordinate security matters. The level of coordination would depend on the attitudes of each commander, both of whom were of identical rank.

Enemy insurgents didn’t take long to recognize FOB Kalagush. They attacked it on November 30, 2006, firing three to four 107mm rockets that struck the FOB. Four more impacted east of the FOB. They also attacked with one rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and small arms fire. That kind of thing would continue until the FOB was closed.

FOB Kalagush, the base

FOBKalagushTownNangaresh
FOB Kalagush

FOB Kalagush in terms of real estate and structures was small. It was at an intersection of multiple Taliban infiltration, exfiltration, smuggling and supply routes. It is surrounded by rugged mountains. It was about 1.5 miles north of the town of Nangaresh, Like Nangaresh, FOB Kalagush was located on the Alingar River which flows roughly in a north to south direction out of the Hindu Kush and empties into the Kabul River. The Alingar is one of the major tributaries of the Kabul River. The Kabul River rises west of Kabul and flows generally from west to east until it meets the Indus River in Pakistan near Attock.

ForsytheMichael
Michael Forsyth, at the time a lieutenant colonel in command of the 2-77th Field Artillery Regiment (FAR), and now a colonel, wrote a book entitled, A Year in Command in Afghanistan: Journal of a United States Army Battalion Commander. Elements of his battalion deployed to FOB Kalagush. I will refer to his work several times. I have spoken to him by phone as well.

AlingarRiverPhoto

Forsyth described the Alingar River as “a whitewater river fed by snow melt from the Nuristani mountains to the north. The runoff provides the water that has turned the Alingar River Valley into a vast green zone … The valley cut through the center of our operational area.”

There are
You Tube videos in which Col. Forsyth gives a bit of a tour of the FOB. I've taken some video grabs to show you parts of it:

PartialKalagush copy

PartofFOBKalabush

FOBKalagush copy

FOBKalagush

Kalagush

KalagushBase

Kalagush: At the end of the world

AylwardRory
Andrew Klavan, an author, screenwriter and news-writer, went to Afghanistan in 2008. He had befriended Major Rory “Hawkeye” Aylward, USA Reserve, shown here in 2011, a civil affairs officer in Nuristan and later Kunduz. Aylward invited Klavan to visit and embed with a unit in Nuristan. He talked about his experiences in an article, “Five Days at the End of the World,” published by City Journal in Autumn 2008.

Major Aylward was deployed to the PRT at FOB Kalagush. Aylward and commented in an e-mail to Klavan, “I’m more likely to get hit by a bus in Santa Monica than get killed over here.” However, while on a USAF C-17 bound for Bagram AB, Afghanistan, he received another e-mail from Aylward saying he and his people had just been ambushed!

Aylward’s team was in a convoy of six Humvees with five men in each, bound for the Pashagar Valley a bit to the west of Kalagush to check on some road construction. Two Humvees positioned along the way to stand watch and operate as a radio relay, given the high mountains. All went well on the way in, but the enemy attacked the convoy on the way out. First Sgt. Willie Mitchell, USA, was the most experienced soldier in the crowd and had told Klavan, “The enemy is known to hit you on the exfil (exfiltration).”

HumveeGunner
Aylward had expected air cover for that reason, but none came. The gunners on the Humvees opened fire and the drivers drove as rapidly as they could given the winding road and sheer drop-offs. The entire convoy made it back to Kalagush without injury or loss.

Klavan described Kalagush as “a cluster of huts and tents nestled among stark, gray, featureless hills.” Klavan had imagined several movie scenarios to depict what he had experienced. And then, he commented in a very serious way:

“Leftist movies portraying our troops as reprobates and fools may not make it to the wilds of Nuristan. But you can bet they make it to the headquarters of our enemies and gave them encouragement, not to mention ideas. They make our soldiers’ mission harder and increase the danger to their lives. And here’s a funny thing some people in LA may not understand about those lives: they’re real. Commander Perez and Rory and First Sergeant Mitchell and all the rest—they’re not characters played by actors. They’re real Americans who left real parents and wives and children at home and opted to fight our enemies in dangerous places far away. I don’t think De Palma and Robert Redford and Paul Haggis are bad men. They’re certainly entitled to believe what they want. But when they make these movies during wartime, when they endanger these soldiers and their mission, I think they’re doing something bad—something wicked, really. They are aiding and abetting the enemy’s Information operations. And they ought to stop.”

Klavan then left and returned to Bagram for the trip home. Again in a very serious way, he talked about what he saw after hearing an announcement about a Fallen Comrade Ceremony to honor a soldier recently killed in theater. He wrote:

“At midnight, a Humvee pulled out of a driveway across the street. It carried a flag-draped coffin bound for transport home. Flanked by two trucks, it began its journey across the airfield. The soldiers saluted. I put my hand over my heart. The Humvee passed slowly by.

“When it was gone, the soldiers silently dispersed, the glowing green stripes of their reflectors fading, and finally vanishing into the mist.”

SpozhmaeA
Spozhmae, an Afghan, in her book, God, Love and War, visited FOB Kalagush and described it as she saw it in May 2007. Now remember she is a civilian, an Afghan, but she has seen plenty of war and its associated tragedies.

She said Kalagush was small, “set up over the edge of a cliff surrounded by high mountains. Only one narrow dirt road perched on the edge of the mountain connected the FOB with the rest of Afghanistan.”

When she saw the FOB from a helicopter, she thought:

“I am not going to have a good experience here. This place looked horrible. It looked very unsafe and terrifying. There weren’t many soldiers there … Those high mountains looked horrifying. I was picturing the Taliban shooting down on us.”

KalagushClinic

Her job at the FOB was “to work with the Tactical Human Intelligence Team (THT) and help Afghan female patients in the clinic. That made her happy, as that was what she wanted to do, help Afghan women. This photo shows her with some Afghans at the Kalagush clinic.

Let’s switch gears a bit. I have tried to identify the main units served at FOB Kalagush, arrange them in chronological order, and where I could, convey some of their experiences. I will acknowledge I found it very hard to identify US Army infantry units that may have deployed to Kalagush.

2007: 4-319th Airborne FAR (AFAR)

1stHowitzer,A:4-319AbnFAR155mmKalagish06:2007
1st Howitzer, A/4-319 AFAR firing 155 mm howitzer, FOB Kalagush

Army Chaplain Don Williamson, writing "Bringing Courage to the Courageous," traveled with the 4-319th Airborne FAR (AFAR) throughout the N2KL for 15 months starting in May 2007, replacing the 4-25th FAR.

MaranianStephenKalagush
It was the main element of “Task Force King” (TF King) also known as “King of the Herd.” Lt. Colonel Steve Maranian, USA, shown here, commanded the 4-319th at the time and served as the TF King commander as well.

The 4-319th AFAR was established in June 2006, less than a year before it went to Kalagush. It arrived in 2007 and remained until July 22, 2008.

Chaplain Williamson said A Battery was located at FOB Kalagush while he was there. The actual unit was known as the 1st Howitzer/A Battery/4-319th, a platoon.

The 4-319 was in Germany and scheduled to go to Iraq. However, almost at the last minute it was ordered in early 2007 to go to Afghanistan to serve with the 3 BCT of the 10th Mountain. The 3 BCT in turn had been instructed to shift its focus to the N2KL.

The 4-319 served as a Direct Support artillery unit, responsible for supporting the 3 BCT. I believe most of the artillery battalions assigned to Kalagush were Direct Support. I want to touch on this point here as it will apply through the rest of the report.

Direct support meant the artillery unit was responsible for providing fires to support a specific unit out in the field, the 3 BCT in the case of the 4-391. Colonel Forsyth said they would have a secondary mission to control their Area of Operations (AO) in their assigned area. If an infantry unit were not assigned to the FOB, then the artillery’s HHB would convert some of its people to infantry duties and send them outside the fence on patrols.

Some artillery units elsewhere were known as General Support, which meant they would go wherever required to support additional fires to units in need.

M198155mmhowitzer 105mmhowitzer

The 4-319’s deployment location from Iraq to Afghanistan was not all that changed. It had been training as a maneuver element for Iraq, but now would shift focus to delivery of fires. Furthermore, several firing platoons would employ the M198 155 mm howitzer (left) instead of their organic 105 mm weapons (right), as you can see, quite a difference.

Fire120mmMortarfmKalagush.jpg

I should also highlight that all the artillery units, in addition to the big guns, brought mortars such as this 120 mm one being fired in this photo. I am not sure of the base. It was used mostly to defend the base or troops in contact near the base.

Colonel Maranian wrote an article on the subject entitled, “
Field Artillery Fires in the Mountains of Afghanistan” published in the July - September 2008 Fires Magazine.

All in all, Maranian said the 4-319 was now required “to provide six firing platoons (two more than authorized), field an infantry platoon, and train and verify on the M198.” It would have to deploy across the breadth of the N2KL and provide fires for five maneuver task forces. The mission in the N2KL would also require firing from mountains at “high angle and ranges greater than 20 km (12 mi).”

These changes and others demanded Maranian and his staff organize differently. Those of you interested and versed in artillery organization and tasking might enjoy Maranian’s article to get the full impact of the reorganization effort.

Maranian said:

Kiowa

“The 4-319 AFAR fired more than 15,000 rounds during the deployment, well over 60 percent of which were in support of Troops in Contact (TIC) situations. He noted how important it was to synchronize field artillery, mortars, Apaches and Kiowas (shown here), and close air support,” a choreography that “requires practice and skill.”

Furthermore, Maranian outlined the major challenges when firing from the mountains:

  • Position howitzers to support simultaneous operations with overlapping coverage
  • Firing at high angles at long ranges increases the probability of error (PE). Observers and maneuver commanders need to know this.
  • Integration of the M777A2 howitzer and C/3-321 AFAR placed tremendous demands on reliable power generation.

2008: 1-6 Field Artillery (FA) to Kalagush

1:6TestFireHowitzerKalagush

The 1-6 FA deployed to Afghanistan in June 2008, assigned to the 3 BCT, 1st Infantry Division. It replaced the 4-319 AFAR on July 20, 2008. Again the HHB set up shop at Kalagush. Two artillery teams worked 24/7. The photo shows 1-6 FA soldiers test firing a howitzer at Kalagush.

PetroviaSalvatore
The 1-6 FA was part of TF Centaur, Lt. Colonel Salvatore Petrovia, USA, shown here, in command. I understand an Illinois Army National Guard (ANG) infantry platoon was there as well, in addition to the Nuristan PRT.

On March 29, 2009, a convoy of 16 Humvees and four Afghan trucks filled with Afghan police officers left FOB Kalagush for an overnight road convoy to the Do Ab District Center, upstream from Kalagush. Phillip Smucker, reporting for
McClatchy Newspapers, said there was a drone overhead the convoy to provide overwatch.

The “Hellstorm” platoon of the 1-6 FA and another platoon from the Illinois ANG led the convoy. Lt. Colonel Petrovia was on this mission. Commander Caleb Kerr, USN, the commander of PRT Nuristan at Kalagush, was with the team as well in what was to be a development assistance mission to discuss building roads and schools.

It was well known at the time that the Taliban and al-Qaeda traveled through Nuristan at will. Do Ab lies on one of the main infiltration routes from Pakistan.

Commander Kerr wanted to meet with officials in Do Ab, north of Kalagush. During the late evening hours translators monitoring the radio heard references to a possible Taliban ambush. Apparently all was well through the night. The PRT members met with Do Ab officials in the morning and left the village at about noon.

Efforts had been underway to build a six mile road from Nurgaram District Center to Gondalabuk, and thence on to the Do Ab District Center, yet another 14 miles to the north. As a reminder, FOB Kalagush is in the Nurgaram District.

Insurgents estimated “in the dozens” had moved into a neighboring valley undetected. By about 1100 hours March 30, 2009, the PRT had finished its business in Do Ab and prepared to return to Kalagush. The overwatch drone left the area to refuel according to Smucker.

HumveesASrrangedbeforeGondalabukattack

By that time the insurgents had moved into bunkers and just after the drone left, attacked the convoy with rockets, mortar and machine-gun fire. Two soldiers were wounded immediately. Then the attack came from the opposite mountain.

USAfghanTroopsBattleofDoAb

A five hour battle ensued against an estimated six dozen insurgents. The Americans firmly believed the police officials and others in Do Ab knew the attack was coming and failed to warn the convoy team. This is a photo of the 1-6 FA .The convoy was attacked shortly after this photo was taken. It stopped on its way to Gondalabuk. Note how vulnerable the soldiers are to hostile fire from the rising landscape in the background.

MedevaccominginatGopnmdalabuk

The convoy moved down the road to a designated landing zone under heavy fire. The road was blocked, so it had to move into a large wheatfield to enable a medevac helicopter to come in. Enemy fire continued. A medevac helicopter arrived but had to move back. Smucker said medics covered the wounded with their own bodies to protect them. The convoy was partially crippled with blown-out tires and having to drag disabled vehicles. At that point, Petrovia called in Apache attack helicopters. The photo shows a medevac helicopter coming in after the aforementioned attack at Gondalabuk. Insurgents were hiding in the mountains above.

A drone arrived and fired a Hellfire missile at the enemy. An Apache was told to destroy the disabled Humvee. By 2000 hours the convoy returned to FOB Kalagush.

PickettLarry
The message drawn by the Americans from this attack, and others, was that the insurgents aimed to stop the US from advancing any farther north into the heart of insurgent infiltration and supply routes. Lt. Colonel Larry Pickett, USA, shown here, was in the convoy and commented:

“The north of the (Nuristan) province is wide open and there is nothing there to stop them.”

Commenting on what it's like to be deployed to Kalagush, Pfc. Thom as Brooks, USA, said:

"Well, for anybody that's coming to Afghanistan make sure you bring a hobby with you because the mountains start closing in on you after a while … It gets pretty small so you have to keep yourself occupied. Just keep an open mind and just trust everybody that's around you."

A1-6FAFiresFOBGoshta

The Alpha Battery 1-6 FAR was deployed to FOB Goshta. This photo shows a crew member conducting direct fire calibration during crew certification. FOB Goshta was located in the northeast section of Nangahar Province, which lies on the Pakistan border.

2009: 2-77th FAR goes to Kalagush

2-77FABCOPMontiKunarfiring

Soldiers from B/2-77 FAB fire during training at COP Monti, Kunar Province

The 2-77th FAR was the next to go to Nuristan, Lt. Colonel Michael Forsyth, USA in command.

Kenneth Matwiczak gives us a sense for the environment by 2009. He led a team at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs to produce a “
A Comprehensive Database of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.” It was published in April 2009. The study said the Nuristan PRT had only been operational in that province since 2006. Within that three year span of time it had endured 66 insurgent attacks. Matwiczak’s report said, “US troops abandoned areas of Nuristan due to insurgent activity in 2008.” And separately we know COP Keating and OP Fritsche, both also built in 2006, were abandoned in October 2009.

The 2-77th FAR deployed to FOB Kalagush in June 2009, so it was entering a hornet's nest. FOB Kalagush was the only FOB operating in Nuristan for most of the 2-77th's tour.

ForsytheMichael
We are fortunate because Forsyth wrote a book about his time in command of the 2-77th FAR in Nuristan, at Kalagush. His book includes training up for the deployment. It is entitled, A Year in Command in Afghanistan, Journal of a United States Army Battalion Commander, 2009-2010.

He provides the best look I had available at what it takes to get ready to deploy on such a mission and what is involved once he and the battalion got there. I shall draw from his work, and knowledge. I have talked to him twice by phone. He is now a full colonel. I was not as familiar with artillery units as I was infantry. He was very kind to bear with me and my questions.

The 2-77 was known as the “Steel Warrior” battalion. It became known as “Task Force Steel,” part of the 4th Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, with which it trained at Ft. Carson, Colorado.

The 2-77 was a light artillery battalion, employing towed howitzers rather than self-propelled howitzers. That was a change. The battalion previously had self-propelled howitzers. It had a direct support mission, tasked to support elements of the 4th Brigade operating in the field. It had two gun batteries of eight howitzers each, a headquarters battery and a support company, with about 400 soldiers in all.

It is eye-opening for the uninitiated like me to read about the training that needs to be done prior to an artillery deployment to a place like Afghanistan. The battalion returned from Iraq in January 2008 and began training for a deployment to Afghanistan in April 2008, just three months later. I want to spend a few moments on this subject.

Forsyth received advance notice in early 2007 that he would be placed in command of the 2-77. He knew it would deploy to Afghanistan in May 2009. He also knew the insurgency there had intensified during the course of 2008. Forsyth assumed command of the 2-77 in April 2008.

While in Iraq, the battalion had conducted mostly infantry duties. Forsyth said the 2-77 operated “in the violent Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City. The experience had hardened the soldiers to the reality of combat, but many important artillery skills had atrophied.”

As an aside, I published an article about operations in Sadr City in 2004, “
Black Sunday in Sadr City, Iraq.” Sadr City was a nasty neighborhood and remained that way for quite a while.

Forsyth pointed out that Army schedules are rigorous. That is especially true given the Iraq and Afghan Wars. While the battalion returned from Iraq in January 2008, it did not go on long vacations prior to deploying to Afghanistan in 2009.

From the time the battalion came home to the time it re-deployed, it was training, which demanded the soldiers be away from home frequently, out in the exercise areas working and honing its artillery skills. Furthermore, when the battalion came home from Iraq, soldiers left the Army to become civilians, and went off to other career specialities, schools and units. In effect, Colonel Forsyth and his soldiers had to reassemble the battalion and get it ready to go back to war as a professional team. Then, it’s time to get ready to deploy, then deploy, get placed into position with camps set up and operational, and then, ready, set, fire. In the case of the 2-77, all that took some 25 months of demanding work. A tough schedule for anyone.

Forsyth commented the battalion had 13 months to prepare for its artillery deployment to Afghanistan. Among many challenges, several of which I have already mentioned, Forsyth’s vision for operations in Afghanistan would have to be sewn into the fabric of the battalion. Not only that, but he would have to meet and acquaint himself with the battalion’s leaders and men.

Forsyth wrote:

"Today's generation has its own unique set of challenges to overcome. These include: a cycle of multiple one-year deployments; hard training between each deployment; and combat in extreme environments in Asia. The young people who volunteer to do this are certainly special because they do so with the knowledge that such hardships are part of their immediate future."

Once done, the bulk of the battalion deployed on June 2, 2009. Forsyth arrived at Kalagush on June 7, 2009. I believe all three batteries came to Afghanistan, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. The 2-77 arrived back at Ft. Carson, Colorado, on May 31, 2010, about 12 months in Afghanistan, most of which was in Nuristan.

2-77thFARAORForsythe

The battalion as a whole had a large area of operations as shown on this map drawn from Forsyth’s book. Only a small platoon size element would be placed at Kalagush. If you stare long enough, you can see white provincial lines. And that's the point to be made with this map. Major Hammer, USA, assigned to the 2-77 FAR, said,” We are spread across 13 fire bases and FOBs.” The overall area of operations (AO) was called “AO Steel,” about 1,200 square miles. He said he had about 60 people to patrol that area, and all artillery capabilities except that placed at Kalagush were located within that 1,200 square miles.

N2KL

The 2-77th FAR had two-gun platoons scattered over what Forsyth referred to as the “N2KL." As a reminder, that translated to Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar and Laghman Provinces. One was at Goshta in the northeast corner of Nangahar, about 100 miles from Kalagush. Another was at Khogyani in the southwestern corner of Nangahar. Another at Mehtar Lam, and there were others.

For his part at Kalagush, the location of the 2-77 Battalion Headquarters, Forsyth was responsible for western Nuristan and northern Laghman provinces. His other platoons covered the rest of the N2KL. The platoon commanders at these other locations were largely on their own, though Forsyth visited as much as he could. The
Army's Fires Bulletin, March-April; 2010, said the 2-77 was tasked with "a dual mission of providing accurate and timely fires for maneuver units of the 4th Infantry BCT and securing (its AO)."

The original thinking was to push the enemy as far north as possible. Forsyth said push them “into the hinterland (to allow) the Afghan government to build capacity while we held the enemy at bay.”

But Forsyth would then conclude that was not a good counterinsurgency plan. Instead, he adjusted his plan to secure the population, most of which was in the south. The reality ended up as a modified two-fold mission: secure the population as best as possible and train the Afghans.

HammarGeorge
Lt. Colonel Forsyth, Major George L. Hammar shown here, his executive officer, and Major Billy D. Siekman, the battalion operations officer wrote an article for that edition of Fires, entitled, "Afghanistan: The first six months." They said,

"Obviously our training prepared the platoon for metal combat operations. However, our staff and Soldiers realized victory does not come through destruction of there enemy or by dominating the terrain in counter-insurgency operations. Rather, success is quantified in the way you dominate the human terrain. This realization allowed the staff to develop courses of action for the maneuver element that focused on support for the local population and government."

General Petraeus, USA said something similar about Iraq: "The key terrain is the human terrain" when testifying before the Senate.

I'll mention here the Army established a Human Terrain System As a formal program.

HumanTerrainSamplePhoto

Christopher Sims, writing "Academics in Foxholes: The life and death of the Human Terrain System," said this program "was one of the most ambitious and innovative efforts of the post-9/11 ere to help warfighters make sense of conflict's inherent chaos … The program marked a significant wartime experiment for the US Army: More than 1,000 personnel were deployed during its duration, from 2007 to 2-14 at a total c cost of $750 million, making the Human Terrain System the largest inbfvestmentg inn a single social science project inn US government history … And yet for all its promise, the Human Terrain System failed to deliver. The program sought to make the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan smarter, more culturally astute, and more self-aware—but what resulted was a clash of cultures, ideologies, and egos that contributed to the end of the Human Terrain System in September 2014." The photo shows Ted Callahan, an Army Human Terrain Team social scientist, talking to local residents to investigate a tribal dispute.

You may wish to read the article. There were multiple reasons why the program failed as a formal program. It remains controversial. While the program failed and was stopped, as program, it sensitized many Army officers to the idea that the human terrain in a counter-insurgency was very important.

Many academics strongly opposed the concept, asserting it violated their ethical studies. That is, they felt the program exploited people who were faced with harm from those working with them. Furthermore, many lived in an anti-military culture and could not fathom being embedded with combat forces.especially ones part of "an occupying army." To get a taste for this attitude, you might wish to browse through the article, "
The Murder of the Human Terrain System: How the academic Left shut down a crucial US military program." There are many other such articles available.

I read what Forsyth
et al wrote in their article. I walked away believing, as they inferred, the 2-77 did not set aside its responsibilities to support maneuver units in the field. Rather their intent was to be smarter, employ fewer rounds through more accurate targeting, and avoid mass fires. They commented,"The tyranny of the terrain tested our gunnery skills and maneuver elements … Further, maneuver operations must incorporate elements of an indirect approach to leverage all available resources and remain true to the spirit of counter-insurgency operations."

By indirect, the authors, I believe, meant aiming and firing a projectile without relying on a direct line of sight between the gun and its target. Rather, aiming is done by calculating azimuth and elevation angles, and could include correcting aim by observing the fall of the shot and calculating new angles. Furthermore they felt they could reduce fires expenditures. That is, fire more accurately and therefore fire less.

Let's return to Kalagush.

Forsyth’s first impressions of FOB Kalagush were not positive:

“When I first arrived at Kalagush (on June 7, 2009) I was appalled by what I saw. In my mind the security of the base was weak and the outgoing unit was not enforcing uniform and discipline standards. The observation post, known as OP Loyalty was located about a half a mile away on the Kalagush Gar (or mountain) 1,000 ft. above the firebase.”

Forsyth made it a point to fix the security and discipline issues and also decided to focus on economic development of the local area. He commented that local men were hired by the enemy to observe US force movements, dig holes for IEDs, and move weapons. So his objective would be to hire those men to work for the 2-77 instead of the insurgents.


The 2-77th was partnered with an Afghan field artillery battery. As I mentioned earlier, a four-man Marine Corps embedded training team (ETT) was there to mentor the leadership. The Marines were good at that, but untrained in artillery. The 2-77 helped out teaching good gunnery techniques.

AfghanArtilleryTraining

The authors of the Fires article said, "The assessment of the Marine Corps embedded training team and our leadership, upon arrival at FOB Kalagush, was the (ANA) artillery battery was incapable of providing artillery fires or comprehending its role as the Afghanistan National Security Force element responsible for security inn western Nuristan … As artillerymen, it was a sobering realization that our focus in western Nuristan must include partnering with the ANA artillery battery to increase its competency."

There were also two civilian police officers to work with the Afghan National Police (ANP). And of course the Nuristan PRT was there. Initially the 2-77 had to contend with infiltrators as well.

HHBPatrol

FAR units required infantry support from other units to run patrols and provide security. The 2-77 had just enough people in the artillery platoons to operate the artillery weapons. It had to use people from its HHB to run patrols and provide security along with the ANA. This photo shows SFC Kyle Riley and 1st Lt Anthony Great of the HHB 2-77 on patrol in northern Laghman Province.

I mentioned Firebase Fortress earlier. An enemy mortar team tried to fire on that firebase. Kalagush’s howitzers were tasked to attack that enemy team, which it did with success. So after 18 days, the 2-77 at Kalagush was fully engaged in combat operations.

PfcMatthewBirr
As we know, war is not without costs, Pfc Mathew Birr, USA, shown here after being severely wounded, Bravo Battery, 2-77th FAR, was sitting in a Morale Welfare and Recreation tent. He was shot through the head at Firebase Fortress in August 2009 and lost a good part of one side of his skull in the process, as you can see in this photo. He was sitting in the tent when a bullet went through the back of his skull and out the front. The bullet lodged in a computer at which he was sitting after going through his head. Incredibly he retrieved it. Forsyth said it was shrapnel from a RPG that had exploded, not a bullet. Either way the damage to Birr was horrific.

BirrMatthew
By the grace of God, as you can see here, surgery teams were able to rebuild his skull with man-made materials. This photo shows Birr attending a flag pole dedication ceremony at the Anoka-Blaine Airport, Minnesota in 2010. He had been a cadet in the civil air patrol there prior to entering the Army. During one of his visits after returning home he asked where the flag pole was. It had been hit and damaged and removed. He immediately started a fund-raising campaign to get another pole. That was successful and Birr obtained a flag that had flown over Afghanistan. It was hoisted up the flagpole. He’s one helluva American to be sure.
Forsyth’s time was eaten up quite a bit meeting with government officials and mullahs (religious leaders) at multiple levels. This usually required him to travel. The idea was to gain their trust, acquire intelligence, and assess how well the Afghan leadership was doing with regard to caring for the people instead of their pocketbooks. Forsyth would mention frequently that achieving the latter goal was no easy chore. Convincing the leadership of good American intentions also was no easy chore.

Allied forces throughout Afghanistan worked hard to assure the presidential election of August 20, 2009 would be held successfully. US and Afghan forces committed a great deal of effort to assure the elections came off. Hamid Karzai won. The elections went well in Nuristan.

2:12InfantryPatrolPechValley

The 2-77th and ANA-ANP in Forsyth’s AO, like so many other units, were mightily involved in strengthening security there in preparation for the election. Patrols such as the example shown here of men from the 2-12 Infantry pushed out prior to the election to pre-designated points to enable them to respond to calls for help which would come mostly from the ANP. ANA patrols did much the same. There were a few enemy attacks but they were inconsequential.

The Mandol District was the only district not to hold the election in the province. It is located in the eastern part of Nuristan. Forsyth said district field coordinators accepted bribes to abandon their posts. As a result, the election there could not go forward. This would be no surprise, as the district frequently operated without any leadership from the government. Sadullah Paindazoi, at the time the head of the Nuristan provincial council, said in 2017 Mandol officials operated from inside the district for only one year since the US invasion of 2001. The Nurgaram district managed most of Mandol’s affairs. It has been hard to even pin down the district’s population. Some say 20,000, some say 60,000.

FOBFentyJalalabad

In late August 2009, Forsyth was notified his force would move in spring 2010 and the ANA would take over Kalagush. The 2-77 would partner with an Afghan infantry brigade. Forsyth had advocated this. Their destination would be Jalalabad, FOB Feat, shown in part here.

In the mean time, the 2-77 focused on building the capabilities of the government and its security forces. Doing this with any measure of success was problematic largely because of the massive corruption and incompetence of officials.

RaoElijah
In December 2009, Sergeant Elijah John-Miles Rao, USA, HHB 2-77th FAR, was killed when he stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The enemy apparently controlled the IED, watched him step on it and then detonated it by wire. This attack rocked the 2-77, and it affected attitudes toward the Afghans. The unit still had its mission to conduct, and it did that, but the soldiers placed a greater burden to run local affairs on Afghan officials.

From November 2009 through October 2010 the 1-102 Infantry of the Connecticut National Guard deployed to Kalagush as part of Vermont’s 86th Brigade Combat Team (86 BCT)./ It was replaced by Iowa’s 2nd BCT, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division.

ObamaAnnounceTroopsSurge
I want to insert here that President Obama ordered a troop surge to Afghanistan in December 2009, adding 30,000 more by mid-December 2009. General McChrystal had provided the president three options:

  • 80,000 more troops to conduct a robust counterinsurgency campaign throughout the country
  • 40,000 troops to reinforce the southern and eastern areas where the Taliban were strongest
  • 10,000 to 15,000 troops mainly to train Afghan forces.

President Obama decided on the 30,000 number, quite arbitrarily I think, though it was close to the 40,000 option recommended by McChrystal. Obama had a proviso, however. He wanted to get the troops over there as quickly as possible, and start withdrawing forces by July 2011. The military had a problem: it would take time to get the added troops over there. That annoyed the president, who said, "What I'm looking for is a surge. This has to be a surge." He announced his decision at West Point in December 2009. US force levels reached 100,000 in 2010. But Obama's idea was “escalate-then-exit.”

It is hard to grasp exactly what number really got over there. Some observers say only about 20,000 of the 30, 000. At any rate, by September 2012 troop drawdowns had caused the troop level to be back near 68,000. Troop levels thereafter declined significantly to about 8,400 in 2017.

That said, let's return to the 2-77 FAR.

Forsyth noted they enjoyed some successes, but there was a “threefold spike IEDs in the area, as well as a tragedy of several Afghan schoolgirls getting caught in a blast meant for us.” Many IEDs were being placed under the battalion’s main supply route. Furthermore, corruption remained rampant and the 2-77 discovered the Afghan cook was actually an enemy informant. As a result, Forsyth concluded the Afghans were not ready to assume responsibility for the AO once the 2-77 moved out.

National Geographic published “Eyewitness War, Mountain Top Revenge,” depicted actions by a platoon of the 1-102 Infantry that came to Kalagush The enemy had been harassing the FOB in nighttime attacks, so in May 2010 the platoon went out in a small convoy to find the enemy. The platoon went to the hillside from which the enemy had been firing.

Once it got to the hillside, it stopped.

FinneganMichael.jpg.
A team led by Sgt. Finnegan climbed up the hillside while the men in the convoy provided security outside their vehicles. The enemy began firing on the armored trucks from three elevated positions.

SchiprittKyle

Spc. Kyle Schipritt, USA, was outside his vehicle when a rocket propelled grenade hit, wounding him. He ran back to his vehicle and drove, despite being hit in the right side of his knee. It was painful but he drove anyway. A piece of shrapnel also ripped through two of his toes.

GonzalesErnesto

Spc. Ernesto Gonzalez, USA engaged the enemy using the truck’s remotely operated gun system. Fire was so intensive they had to get out of there. Schipritt started driving. Then Gonzales started running low on ammunition.

In the mean time, Sgt. Michael Finnegan and his team were still outside. They tried to get back to the vehicles, but the fire was so intensive they could not get back, so as Gonzales put it, “They were stuck.”

Finnegan, however, would later comment that he and his team were lucky because they could hide behind rocks. The trucks below had no such cover. He said, “They were sittin’ ducks.” Schipritt kept driving, and at the same time tried to pull some of the shrapnel from his leg. The vehicles kept moving toward FOB Kalagush, while Finnegan and his team had to walk along a ridge-line back to the FOB. It took the team seven hours. Finnegan said, “It was exhausting.”

The vehicles made it back and medics came to Schipritt’s vehicle. Schipritt got out of the vehicle, took off his helmet, and noticed his helmet had been hit. The helmet saved his life. Gonzales said Schipritt had been hit in the helmet once before, and commented, “His helmet saved his life, twice!.”

Schipritt has pointed out:

“Two other Sergeants were wounded as well. Their names; Rez Onde, and Daniel Bergan. I had assisted in their wounds while wounded myself until the medic could get to us. While I treated their wounds, Pvt. Joe Case laid down heavy fire along with the vehicle’s heavy weapons. Once (the wounded) where treated, we executed a maneuver to get back to trucks to get (me), and the two other seriously wounded soldiers a medevac from the FOB … (There were other) heroes of that day. Their names: Joe Case, Daniel Bergan, Raul Martinez, Rez Onde along with others that went above an beyond to help their wounded brothers.”

Relevant to this attack, Forsyth wrote that Kalagush had received reports in March and April 2010 that the Taliban intended to come down from Do Ab “again.” In fact the Taliban did come from Do Ab on March 24, 2010 and attacked OP Loyalty hoping to suppress fire from the FOB. He said they came out of Shemgal as they had done in November 2009 and were promptly repelled. The enemy regrouped, FOB Kalagush fired at the insurgents with its artillery causing them to withdraw. Forsyth exercised control over the ANA force. He said he sent the ANA out in “pursuit with a maneuver platoon to block the enemy.”

Forsyth said, “It seems likely they will attack again, and they will also get hammered again. It is all utterly ridiculous. They are coming down to ‘liberate’ Nuristan, and it only means that more of them are going to die.” That said, Forsyth had labeled the enemy at Do Ab as a “thorn in our side.” He had wanted to establish a presence in the Do Ab District in order to cut northern infiltration routes leading to the Kabul region.

Interestingly, illegal gem miners worked in the Do Ab area and Forsyth said the “Nurgaram chief of police allowed a shipment of explosives to move north for use by the illegal gem miners. Forsyth became concerned those explosives could easily fall into the hands of the Taliban.

Forsyth mentioned to me that the had three outposts on higher ground near Kalagush, one manned by the US (OP Loyalty), two by the ANA. He said he had reinforced them prior to the attacks just described.

The 2-77 left on April 10, 2010 and moved to Jalalabad as planned. That left the Nuristan PRT in charge for a bit of time, augmented by D/1-102 Infantry. I have read that the 2-320th FA “Balls of the Eagles” came in to Kalagush in April 2010 to replace the 2-77. The 2-320 took over on May 26, 2010. I have not been able to find useful information about the 3-320 at FOB Kalagush. I did learn it had forces at FOB Joyce in Kunar Province in December 2012. My guess is the 2-320 served at Kalagush and then moved to FOB Joyce, but I am not sure.

1-133 Infantry surprised in ambush: 2012

During late May 2011 FOB Kalagush had received intelligence reports indicating the enemy was planning at attack it.

As a result, on May 25, 2011 two CH-47 Chinooks inserted a scout platoon of about 42 soldiers from the 1-133 Infantry, Iowa National Guard plus 18 Afghan soldiers, two USAF tactical air controllers (TACP), and one law enforcement professional to a small landing zone (LZ) in a canyon near the village of Do Ab. The Chinooks landed about 300 yards apart, and took heavy fire. The LZ was confined, the only flat area in the rough terrain around Do Ab. Several hundred Taliban were waiting for them, surrounded them and prepared an ambush.

The Globe Gazette, Pat Kinney, reported on the fight.

1:133 InfantryDoAb

The Taliban attacked the ground force from all sides as soon as it was inserted at the LZ. The insurgents fired a RPG over one of the Chinooks after it took off. First Lieutenant Justin Foote said after the RPG shot, "The whole (landing zone) erupted into fire. From every point of high ground, from every piece of defensive fighting position the enemy were on, it pretty much rained down, all types of weapons, small arms fire, machine gun fire, RPG fire and enemy mortar rounds … You were taking fire from from pretty much every direction."

The photo shows Pfc. Christopher King, Reconnaissance Platoon, HHB, 1-133 Infantry, scanning his sector after landing outside the village of Do Ab on May 25, 2011.

The soldiers were pinned down for more than an hour by continuous mortar and machine gun fire and in an exposed LZ. A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was on hand to provide suppressive fire. They fought their way to a livestock compound, and provided cover for a second insertion, this time mostly by ANA forces. .

Tactical air controllers called for air. USAF F-16s, F-15s, and AC-130 gunships plus USN F/A-18s and Army AH-64 Apaches and OH-58 Kiowas put the Taliban under intense fire. A USAF MC-12 command and control aircraft with linguists aboard for intelligence intercept duties relayed the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) requirements to the incoming aircraft. Later Chinooks brought in a team of special forces and Afghan commandos.

AC130Firing

By nightfall, the Taliban terminated its attack and the AC-130 with infrared capabilities tracked them and put them under fire. Some 270 Taliban were killed while no friendly forces were lost.

The next morning, early morning during darkness, the 1-133 moved into Do Ab. The insurgents had left it. The 1-133 remained for a few days to secure the village and bring life back to normal for the residents.

While the ambush did not work the way the Taliban had planned, it did cause the Coalition to abandon its attempt to control Nuristan province. The Taliban controlled the province, employing a shadow governor, and about all the Allies could do was conduct periodic raids to reduce the number of Taliban in the province. The ANA I believe came to Kalagush a couple times after the US.

1-12 Infantry returns to Kamdesh: 2012

1:12SoldierKunarCave

Because of Taliban domination ion Nuristan, the US sent the 1-12 Infantry (Light), Task Force Red Warrior, to an area near Kamdesh, in Nuristan very close to northern Kunar Province. Apparently the US strategy had started to shift away from southern Afghanistan and instead reflected a return to targeting Taliban logistics lines and safe havens in the east. This photo shows a soldier from A/1-12 Infantry manning his weapon during a lightning storm at COP Pirtle-King, Kunar Province, on June 8, 2012.

An Army helicopter inserted a company from the 1-12 Infantry on a narrow ridge, Major Jared Bordwell, USA in command. These troops “trudged up to a tiny Afghan army post overlooking icy peaks and plunging river valleys.”

Taylor reported that Bordwell’s plan was, “We’ll get some eyes overhead to check it out. If it’s Taliban, we’ll get a plane up in the morning and drop a bomb on it.” And that is what happened. The morning after the company was in place, that’s exactly what Bordwell did. He called in air attacks. Apache helicopter gunships fired incendiary white phosphorous rockets into caves in the mountainside, forest fires erupted, and a US fighter dropped two bombs on the ridge across the valley. In turn Bordwell’s soldiers fired mortar shells onto the river rapids where it was thought the Taliban had gathered.

If I understand Taylor’s report correctly, there was intelligence indicating some 1,800 Taliban were preparing an attack against this Army company that was perched on a hill. The Taliban had not changed. They did not want any US forces in Nuristan because they had their eyes on a potential attack against Kabul.

FOBBostickGoogleEarth

Lt. Colonel Scott Green, USA, based with this 1-12 Infantry battalion's headquarters at FOB Bostick, shown here, in nearby northern Kunar Province, oversaw US activities in Nuristan as well. He was well aware the Taliban controlled most of Nuristan. Lt. Colonel Rocky Burrell, USA was a mentor to the ANA, and opined that it would take thousands of Afghan soldiers to secure Nuristan. He said the government could not make that kind of investment.

Estimates were the Taliban had about 2,500 Afghan and foreign fighters posted in Nuristan controlling most of the province, largely because US forces had left.

The 1-12 was withdrawn from both Kunar and Nuristan provinces by October 2012. Taylor quoted Lt. Colonel Scott Green, USA, saying, “Nuristan remains for me a challenge, a black hole. My line in the sand stops at the Kunar and Nuristan borders.”

Where are we now?

I'll be candid: beats the hell out of me!

Roggio_Large
Bill Roggio, writing for The Long War Journal, in 2009 said:

“A month after the US pullout the Taliban was governing openly in Nuristan … The Taliban are operating in all regions of Afghanistan and casualties among Afghan police have increased, according to the Ministry of Interior. This directly contradicts overly optimistic assessments by both Resolute Support and the Pentagon.

The magazine
The Economist, wrote inn 2014:

“(Nuristan is) a place so tough that NATO abandoned it in 2010 after failing to subdue it.”

In 2012 Rob Taylor wrote,
“U.S. troops return to Afghanistan's ‘lost province,'" for Reuters. He noted it’s now June 2012 and the Taliban effectively were using Nuristan as a safe haven, and supply depot supporting routes between Nuristan and Pakistan and between Nuristan, Kabul and other provinces.

Taylor explained that Nuristan offered the Taliban routes to conduct a suicide assault on Kabul diplomatic and government quarter. Some 2,500 were thought to be in Nuristan, controlling most districts.

DortransoroGilles
Gilles Dorronsoro, writing “Afghanistan: The Impossible Transition” published by The Carnegie Papers in June 2011, said despite nearly 10 years of war, the armed opposition controls almost the entire Nuristan province and had become a sanctuary for transnational jihadist groups. He said, "Insurgents move freely among Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan in the north, and Paktika, Khost and Paktia.”

Dorronsoro added:

“Across the border, Pakistani army operations in the Bajaur Agency and South Waziristan have had no notable effect on the Taliban presence. Finally, the recent reorganization of U.S. forces in Kunar and Nuristan has led to an insurgent advance. The fact is, the force was too dispersed, and local opposition—the population was allied with the insurgents—led the American command to evacuate the most isolated valleys (Korengal and Waygal) as well as certain border outposts. As a result, fighting shifted to the Pech Valley, where the United States also evacuated its bases, and is intensifying throughout the rest of Kunar.”

He commented that initially the population of Nuristan favored the coalition, tired of the Pakistanis and the Taliban. The Coalition could move about freely from 2003-2004, but by 2011 Coalition methods had aggravated the population to the point where hostility towards it was widespread.

Nazifa Mahbubi and Abubakar Siddique, writing "
Worries Over New IS Sanctuary In Eastern Afghan Province" published on June 4, 2017 by Gandahara. said:

“Lawmakers in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan say Islamic State (IS) militants are carving a new sanctuary in the province by recruiting from parts of the remote mountainous region … Alpine forested valleys in the five districts -- Mandol, Duab, Nurgaram, Waygal, and Wama -- provide an ideal territory for guerrilla warfare.”

ISASfghaistan

Maulvi Ahmadullah Mohid, a parliamentarian, noted:

“Their (IS) activities are gathering momentum every day. IS militants are now virtually ruling the regions outside government control alongside the Taliban … IS is getting stronger in the districts of Duab (Do Ab) and Mandol, from where they want to project power into some neighboring provinces.”

The photo is an IS propaganda video grab of them now deceased Afghan IS leader Hafiz Saeed.

Apparently IS had developed a sanctuary in eastern Jalalabad Province, but persistent military operations have whittled it down significantly. As a result, IS simply moved up to Nuristan.

Javed Kohistani, a Kabul-based security analyst, said in 2017:

“It (Nuristan) will become a rare base for Daesh (IS). It will emerge as the No. 1 security threat for several neighboring provinces … But internal differences and a muddled [counterterrorism] strategy prevent the government from acting to stop or neuter Daesh activities in the region.”

Afghan and US officials dismiss a strong IS presence there.

Scott Worden, The Afghanistan director for the US Institute of Peace (USIP) commented in spring 2017:

“Our objective of a stable, secure and self-defending Afghanistan remains elusive.”

SOFREP said this in 2017:

"Since the pullout of ISAF forces, the battle for Nuristan has pivoted from an aggregated and tacitly coordinated insurgent group effort targeting ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), to a pitched and entrenched battle between the groups for primacy over the valuable havens and routes that sustain important lines of communication between nodes that straddle the Durand line and operate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In a December 2017 report to Congress, the Department of Defense said:

"General Nicholson, Commander of USFOR-A and RS, assesses that the exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan by terrorists and Afghan insurgents remains the single greatest external threat to the coalition campaign … Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from this externally supported insurgency and the highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world. These pervasive insurgent, terrorist, and criminal networks constitute a threat to Afghanistan’s stability. Revenue from drug trafficking, taxation/extortion, illicit mining/agriculture, and foreign financial support continues to sustain the insurgency and Afghan criminal networks. Additionally, extortion and kidnappings by low-level criminal networks continue. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region remains a sanctuary for various groups."

Nonetheless, the report says:

"The hard-won gains in Afghanistan–by the Afghans, the United States, NATO and the international community remain fragile, but are worth defending … As long as the Afghan Government continues to show real progress and make real reforms, we will continue to support them as our strategic partners in the fight against international terrorism. The Taliban cannot win on the battlefield. They must know that their only path to peace and political legitimacy is through a negotiated settlement with the Afghan Government."

The valor of American forces

The preceding assessments are gloomy, especially after American forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for some 16 years. We Americans have to give some thought about what our forces have faced. General McChrystal said early in his tour there, “I felt like we were high school students who had wandered into a Mafia owned bar.”

The number one question I have is, and I borrowed it from Ronald Neumann, former US ambassador to Afghanistan: "Who feels comfortable explaining US strategy and policy in Afghanistan?" My guess is no one. Neumann said that was his experience when asking the question in four lectures.

I wrote in the introduction to this story:

Colonel Michael Forsyth, USA, then the commander of the 2-77th Field Artillery Regiment (FAR), has highlighted why he thinks FOB Kalagush is important to study. He said it was a “microcosm of the entire Afghan War,” all the way from the conspicuous valor of and sacrifices made by US forces stationed there to the debilitating corruption that dogged and often crippled the government, inhibited it from caring for its citizens, and impeded the ability of US forces to do what needed to be done.

US military strategy has bounced between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Secretary of Defense Mattis has recently said the objective was to hold the line. I think the strategy now is simply to stay, set no timelines, and outlast the insurgents while at the same time wait for Afghanistan's people to get their government in order. To me that spells several decades as we wait for young Afghans with higher ideals to take over in government.

AmericanSoldier

In the middle of all this is the American warrior. He and she are what I think about all the time when thinking about Afghanistan.

A French soldier was embedded with an American infantry unit in Afghanistan and he wrote an editorial published by a French newspaper. It has been translated to English and is available at
warriorlodge.com. I found it breathtaking and I will conclude with excerpts from it.

“They are impressive warriors! We have not come across bad ones … Beyond the wearing of a combat kit that never seems to discomfort them (helmet strap, helmet, combat goggles, rifles etc.), the long hours of watch at the outpost never seem to annoy them in the slightest.

SoldierWatchTower

"On the one square meter wooden tower above the perimeter wall they stand the five consecutive hours in full battle rattle and night vision goggles on top, their sight unmoving in the directions of likely danger. No distractions, no pauses, they are like statues nights and days.

SoldierNight

"At night, all movements are performed in the dark - only a handful of subdued red lights indicate the occasional presence of a soldier on the move. Same with the vehicles whose lights are covered - everything happens in pitch dark even filling the fuel tanks with the Japy pump. Here we discover America as it is often depicted: their values are taken to their paroxysm, often amplified by promiscuity and the loneliness of this outpost in the middle of that Afghan valley.

SoldiersRunafterDisembark

“And combat? If you have seen Rambo you have seen it all - always coming to the rescue when one of our teams gets in trouble, and always in the shortest delay. That is one of their tricks: they switch from T-shirt and sandals to combat ready in three minutes. Arriving in contact with the enemy, the way they fight is simple and disconcerting: they just charge! They disembark and assault in stride, they bomb first and ask questions later - which cuts any pussyfooting short.

AmericanFlagOutpost

“Honor, motherland - everything here reminds of that: the American flag floating in the wind above the outpost, just like the one on the post parcels. Even if recruits often originate from the hearth of American cities and gang territory, no one here has any goal other than to hold high and proud the star spangled banner …

MarinesTeam

"And that is a first shock to our preconceptions: the American soldier is no individualist. The team, the group, the combat team are the focus of all his attention.

Humvee50calFire

“The American soldier and Marine … are imbued from early in their training with the ethos: In the Absence of Orders: Attack! Where other forces, for good or ill, will wait for precise orders and plans to respond to an attack or any other 'incident', the American force will simply go, counting on firepower and SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) to carry the day.

“This is one of the great strengths of the American force in combat.

mudbath

"What is hard for most people to comprehend is that … current everyday conventional boring 'leg infantry' units exceed the PT (Physical Training) levels and training levels of most Special Forces during the Vietnam War. They exceed both of those as well as IQ and educational levels of: Waffen SS, WWII Rangers, WWII Airborne and British 'Commando' units during WWII. Their per-unit combat-functionality is essentially unmeasurable because it has to be compared to something and there's nothing comparable in industrial period combat history.

“This group is so much better than 'The Greatest Generation' at war that WWII vets who really get a close look at how good these kids are stand in absolute awe.

“Everyone complains about the quality of 'the new guys.' Don't. The screw-ups of this modern generation are head and shoulders above the 'high-medium' of any past group. Including mine. So much of 'The scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.'

“This is 'The Greatest Generation' of soldiers. They may never be equaled."