“That house that has that flag on it? There are two individuals, he’s just confirmed,” Horton said into the handset. “But he’s not going to fly over it because he’s pretty sure it’s Pakistan. Yeah, it is. Well, they’re watching us.”
After walking about half a mile, the men from Alpha Company stopped at their objective, a series of bunkered outposts astride the road.
They cleared the rooms out but discovered some strange litter — nice sleeping bags, fleece jackets and uniforms — quite valuable in Afghanistan, and strange things to leave behind. The men were tired, so they established a guard duty while the others pulled out their sleeping bags and crashed on the dirt floor, curled up for warmth.
A chilly dawn drew back the curtain on a stunning view of the valley to the west into Afghanistan and razor wire marking the Pakistan border just 50 yards east. But a stranger sight lay across the dirt road — a concrete building that looked as if a bomb was dropped on it.
But it wasn’t, said one soldier.
“It wasn’t blown up, they abandoned this,” he said. “This was all self-destruction. Like the vehicles that we passed way up there, they just abandoned all these compounds. I’m not sure the reasoning behind it.”
Part of the reasoning has to do with who left this compound in such a hurry — the soldiers all refer to them as the OGA, which stands for “Other Government Agency” and is common slang for the CIA. The CIA declined to comment.
But interviews with Pakistani border guards and U.S. soldiers, and some Pakistani press reports, all suggest that the CIA built this massive base compound more than two years ago. The construction included a road, the helicopter landing zone and several hard structures, including one at the top of the mountain called “Camp Karzai.”
Now it’s all charred and demolished. Up the hill, half a dozen vehicles are jammed together and burned. Another brand-new pickup has had the engine stripped out. An Army generator sits in one demolished building.
The occupants appear to have left in a hurry, though with few signs of battle, other than a floor littered with shells from a belt-fed machine gun.
The sight of hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted doesn’t go down well with the soldiers in Alpha Company, but they’ve got a more personal gripe.
Many of them spent the summer fighting in the valley to the west — killing scores of Taliban and losing some of their own — in an operation called Strong Eagle meant to clear the Taliban out of the area. The “OGA” base at the Ghakhi Pass served to keep the border under control, the soldiers say.
But when this base was evacuated, all the U.S. military assets in this part of Kunar were looking for Norgrove, and there was no time to send anyone to the border.
The soldiers in Alpha Company draw a clear line from the abandoned compounds — what they say was a spy base — the rocket-propelled grenade that hit the Chinook helicopter.
“The [Taliban has] reseeded the valley a little bit — not to the extent it was before when we first cleared it out,” says Billig, Alpha Company’s commander. “The bird [Chinook] came here and took contact, as a result of this position being abandoned.”
The day turns out quiet, and a few of the officers in Alpha Company make an effort at a little international diplomacy. Lt. Ken Kovach clambers down the hill behind the outpost to chat with the Pakistani border guards, who seemed just as curious.
It gets a little testy when one Pakistani tells him, with rough translation by an Afghan interpreter, that he thinks Americans don’t care about Pakistan. “How can he believe that?” Kovach says. “We have our helicopters giving aid for all the flooded areas? How can he believe we don’t want to help them?”
Tempers are soothed quickly, when the Pakistanis bring milky chai, which they pass carefully in white teacups through the razor wire to the Americans.
Billig, the company commander, goes a step further some hours later and strolls with a few of his men down to the Ghakhi border point, where his counterpart on the Pakistani side, Lt. Colonel Ahmed Salim, is.
“Anything we can do for you, you’re just welcome,” says Salim, a tall man with a neatly trimmed mustache.
American officials say the Pakistani army has made gains in Bajaur, the tribal district across the way, but there’s still mistrust. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to cross the border at this point from safe havens inside Pakistan.
There are misgivings on the other side as well: All of the Pakistani border guards have put reflective tape in a cross on top of their helmets — to keep Americans drones from bombing them, they say.
Still, Salim invites the Americans across the border for lunch, pointing them up some steps to his outpost. Several of the U.S. soldiers flinch. On the rooftop are three dozen men with beards, turbans and Kalashnikov rifles. But they’re not Taliban, Salim insists.
“Don’t think they are Talibs,” he says with a laugh. “They are the local Lashgar who are working with us — the local population which is supporting the government.”
Billig accepts the invitation, despite some strained looks from his men, and walks up the stairs to a Pakistani banquet of chicken, mutton, rice, lentils and yogurt. The conversation is friendly, but it starts with a rather pointed question from the host about the empty bases up the hill.
“Why didn’t you tell us they were pulling out?” Salim wants to know, adding that his border guards would have adjusted if they knew the other side was suddenly going to be empty.
Without mentioning the “OGA,” Billig simply nods in agreement, and allows that the abrupt departure came as a surprise to him as well.
The long lunch ends when the Pakistani colonel is called away, and the Americans walk back up the hill. Full bellies, heavy flak jackets, and the altitude at 7,000 feet have everyone moving a bit slowly, but then they get some information from their interpreter that makes them walk a little faster.
The interpreter tells the soldiers that some of the Pakistani commander’s men are spies for the Taliban. “So he suggests we get out of here quickly,” a soldier tells Billig.
Returning to the abandoned compound, the soldiers find Afghan border guards have arrived. They emerge from one of the bombed-out rooms in a cloud of pungent smoke; marijuana plants cover the hills like milkweed.
Some of the members of the Afghan force, who appear to be less stoned than others, talk for a while with the Americans about how many reinforcements they’ll need to hold this border.
But it’s a bit of a fiction: The Afghan border police don’t have the helicopters to resupply this place, and the road from the center of Kunar is far too dangerous for them to travel. And it’s not clear the Americans will be manning it either, despite the strategic importance of the pass.
“I think what’s going to happen here is another two days or so, we’re waiting for Afghan border police. So we’re going to clear it hold it and then put the Afghan border police in here. And if they don’t want to come in here, we’re going to go home. Back to Monti,” he says.
In fact, the men from Alpha Company don’t even stay the night. With dusk comes an order to pack up and march up the hill again to the landing zone, where the broken Chinook helicopter is ready to be hoisted away.
After getting warmed up on the hike, the Alpha guys sit for another several hours in the cold, as choppers come and go, blasting them with dust. Near midnight the Chinook is lifted out like a bundle in a stork’s beak.
Then the guys from Alpha make it back to Outpost Monti in the small hours of the morning, take showers and get ready for more foot patrols in the hills of Kunar.
This exemplifies just about everything that has gone and can go wrong with the campaign thus far. Things are left off of the list, to be sure, but there are many unfortunate examples of mismanagement of the campaign.
First off, as sad as it is that Linda Norgrove was captured by Taliban and allegedly killed by SOF attempting to rescue her, there is absolutely no reason to tie up the forces in Kunar attempting to locate here whereabouts. This is a counterinsurgency campaign, not a corporate-financed rescue operation.
Second, while I am not per se opposed to the use of CIA-financed military operators, in this case it seems that it was wasted effort. They would have spent their time better by studying the inner workings of the Taliban in the area, including the Pakistani collusion with their spies. It would have been effective if the commanders who sat in the meeting with Pakistani forces (and Lashgar) have pointed out to the Pakistani forces that they had Talib in their midst. It would have been better to have said in the meeting that the U.S. was watching them – all of them.
Third, the laughable conversation with Afghan border guards telling the U.S. forces how many of them it will take to secure the border is as irrelevant as their high. It wouldn’t have been remembered the next day. High Afghan border guards are a drain on the campaign. It would be better not to have any at all, thus ensuring that the commanders would think about the need for border security rather than rely on troops that are high on dope.
Finally, the author refers to the strategic importance of the pass. I have argued for the strategic importance of interdiction of forces flowing from Pakistan into Afghanistan and for chasing the insurgents into their safe havens and sanctuaries, but the campaign as currently constituted is population-centric. It is focusing on large population centers like Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad (except for the Marines in Helmand and the Army in Kunar and Nuristan). Strategic importance indeed. But the current commanders don’t see it that way. Thus, the pass will remain open, and the insurgents will continue to pour through it.