Nestled in a lush but mean valley on the banks of the Pech River, Camp Blessing was no longer the sort of place, US commanders decided in February, that warranted the bloodshed of American soldiers.
Instead, the US war effort would benefit from focusing its limited resources on population centers, they concluded, and away from the Pech’s brutal terrain and rather xenophobic citizenry, ready and more than willing to skillfully take up arms against outsiders.
Better, they concluded, to leave this sparsely settled region – where Afghan fighters mustered to make the first successful stand against Soviet occupation – to the Afghan Army.
So soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division towed away the modern toilet trailers and stripped Camp Blessing of its amenities – air-conditioning units, flat-screen monitors, and the covered plywood porch where senior US troops convened to smoke cigars and discuss the news of the day.
In March, they rechristened the base “Nangalam” and turned it over to Afghan forces.
Today, however, US soldiers are back. The conditions at the once built-up outpost are now spartan. Troops bathe with baby wipes and bottled water and sleep on the floors of buildings that, they discovered upon their return in late July, were littered with human feces.
Insurgents had advanced so steadily since March that the Afghan Army could lose the base itself, say a new crop of US commanders.
They see the return as an opportunity to forge a new model for cooperation and mentoring with the Afghan security forces. But while the Pech is admittedly one of Afghanistan’s toughest assignments, the Afghan Army’s failed four-month attempt take the reins of security illustrates its shortfalls – and how far there is to go, US officers say, if NATO is to turn all security responsibilities over to Afghan forces by 2014.
The troops who have come back to this jagged spine of mountain peaks are under no illusions about the difficulty of the task that awaits them. Their code name for this operation: “Hotel California.”
“It’s like the lyrics,” says 2nd battalion intelligence officer Maj. Marcus Wright of the Eagles song: “ ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’ ”
When US forces moved back into Camp Blessing in late July, they were greeted with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, one of which hit the underbelly of a US Chinook carrying supplies for the base. That marked the first shoot-down of a Chinook this year. The pilot was able to land relatively gently without any serious injuries, though passengers were forced to sprint when thousands of rounds of ammunition caught fire and ignited, causing shrapnel injuries and destroying the helicopter.
It was a pattern of hostility repeatedly encountered by US forces. “We really had to reoccupy the base,” says Maj. Glenn Kozelka, executive officer for the 2nd battalion, 3rd brigade combat team of the 25th Infantry Division.
Security had deteriorated rapidly after US forces departed. Within weeks, the Afghan battalion commander at Nangalam could not safely get to meetings in a Asadabad, Kunar’s bustling capital 25 miles east. The Taliban overran and occupied the capital of a nearby district center.
At the same time, insurgents routinely attacked Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol routes. By May, the Afghan commander stationed at Nangalam had abandoned the outpost, along with his top staff.
“It was better before” the US left, says Afghan commander Col. Adam Khan Matin. “When the coalition forces left, the [insurgent] training camps came back.”
Stopping for a moment for some observations on insurgent bases, U.S. commanders (specifically, McChrystal and his staff) might have argued for a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency, but regular readers know that I didn’t. Continuing with the CSM article.
Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, the top US commander at Nangalam, grappled with how to address the regression. His battalion now had responsibility for an area that had previously needed two. His 800-plus soldiers were spread out across multiple forward operating bases and command posts.
Simply holding that ground would be challenge enough. After evaluating the capabilities of the ANA at Nangalam, Col. Tuley came to a conclusion. “We needed to do something else.”
In his idea is a hope central to the American exit strategy: If US troops focused more intently on creating a workable partnership with the Afghans, perhaps the mentoring could make up for the diminished number of US troops and ensure that a decade’s worth of US battles are for not for naught.
So began what Tuley calls a “permanent embedded partnership” – or PEP – an experiment that could hold lessons for the American war effort in Afghanistan.
The PEP will revolve around 40 US troops at Nangalam working with multiple companies of the Afghan Army. Most immediately, with a stronger base here, Tuley hopes US forces “can come in and do operations as necessary,” allowing NATO to extend its reach farther into the valley. Perhaps more long-term, he adds, the PEP “is a great kind of interim phase to get the ANA to where [the transition is] not as abrupt.”
The US platoon will run workshops on basics from marksmanship to first aid – lessons that have been taught before, Tuley acknowledges, but bear repeating.
“If you think about it, this [Afghan commander at Nangalam] never had a partnership, Tuley adds. “It was. ‘Here’s your battlespace.’ ”
The first order of business – and lesson for Afghan commanders – is to bolster base defenses. When the US was here, Nangalam had early-attack warning systems, including towers with cameras that sent images to screens in a base defense center, which allowed troops to monitor the perimeter.
When Tuley returned, no vestige of those defenses remained. “The security definitely wasn’t at the level that I would ever feel too comfortable having my soldiers out there,” he says.
In response, he has assigned a US platoon of about 30 soldiers to patrol the surrounding area, and he stationed a single US soldier with night-vision goggles at each Afghan guard post along the perimeter of the base.
Beyond base defenses, Tuley must help the Afghans carry out their own missions more effectively.
The PEP’s first big test: A humanitarian mission into one of the more isolated and government-averse areas of the country.
PEP teams. It’s permanent now, except that it’s not. U.S. troops will be leaving, and leaving the ANA in a lurch without the cultural framework, logistical know-how, equipment or honesty to run an army. And they don’t understand force protection. Furthermore, historically, only Western armies can field high quality NCOs. And it doesn’t really produce much confidence that a humanitarian mission is the first really big test of the ANA. During the battle of Kamdesh at COP Keating, ANA soldiers were found curled up in fetal positions in bed under blankets. We’ve got larger problems than whether the ANA can pull off humanitarian missions. Continuing.
Afghans also lack equipment, including night-vision goggles. “That’s a pretty critical piece of equipment to provide security,” says Tuley. US officials worry, however, that if they give night-vision goggles to the Afghans, particularly with ANA attrition rates remaining high, they could fall into insurgents’ hands.
Yes, expensive equipment will end up in enemy hands. Said one ANA soldier about his conditions, “Some of the guys wear sandals at the border because their boots have been taken by officers who sell them.”
Finally, the most important part of the report.
For now … the US troop presence at Nangalam is likely only to increase.
As the first week of partnership at Nangalam winds to a close, Tuley is increasingly convinced that rather than the 40-plus soldiers currently taking part in the PEP, he will need closer to 200.
He knows, too, that this plan comes with opportunity costs. With US forces set to draw down across Afghanistan, he can only bolster the American presence at Nangalam by closing a combat outpost or a forward operating base.
After the PEP’s first big mission, though, he believes that expanding US forces here is key to US troops being able to one day go home for good.
This is important enough to bear repeating. He needs more troops (or a higher ratio of U.S. forces to ANA). The only way he can accomplish that is to close COPs or FOBs. I repeat. Marines to Kunar.