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Afghanistan: Mired in Combat

An interesting pair of stories in the New York Times illustrate brilliantly just how complex the problems facing the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan really are. The first is CJ Chivers’ look at an embattled outpost in Nuristan:

The Americans’ mission is to disrupt the Taliban and foreign fighters on supply paths from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Col. John Spiszer, the commanding officer for the larger task force in the region, distilled how the mission often worked. The American presence, he said, is a Taliban magnet, drawing insurgents from more populated areas and enhancing security elsewhere.

First Lt. Daniel Wright, the executive officer of the American cavalry unit — Apache Troop of the Sixth Battalion, Fourth Cavalry — put things in foxhole terms.

“Basically,” he said, “we’re the bullet sponge.” …

The unvarnished consensus among soldiers here, many of them veterans of the war in Iraq, is that the Pentagon’s efforts in Iraq undermined its efforts in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda plotted attacks on the United States. The military has been reviewing its Afghan strategy. …

For now, the soldiers of Apache Troop absorb and repel attack after attack. Sgt. Michael S. Ayres, a squad leader, summarized the practical mentality: standing watch behind heavy machine guns, the soldiers are waiting for reinforcements so they can change the nature of their fight.

“We need all the help we can get out here, so we can push out patrols and get out of the defensive,” he said.

john mchugh
Photojournalist-blogger John McHugh, being treated for a gunshot wound at the Outpost formerly known as Kamu in 2007. 17 ANA and 7 U.S. troops died in that battle. McHugh's embed diary for the Guardian offers a great deal of insight into the challenges the U.S. faces along the Pakistani border.

They're stationed at King Zahir Shah's old hunting lodge/castle along the Landai Sin River. Combat Outpost Lowell used to be called Combat Outpost Kamu, which means it is in the far east of Nuristan, right along the border with Chitral. As one might guess from these place names, there are a lot of violent men roaming the hills, and their constant potshots have started to annoy (to say the least) the troops standing in their way. Chivers’ article is riveting reading, though like some other stories coming out of the Korengal or Nuristan it isn't exactly representative of the rest of the country. (Earlier this month, Chivers also wrote of this outpost, chronicling the desperate fight to save one of the Afghans working for them on the base; a disquieting slide show is here.)

Keating
A Chinook lifts off from Camp Keating in 2005 to ferry supplies to the newly-built Combat Outpost Kamu (now Lowell). From Soldier's Media Center.

Further south, just across the border from Kunar, Jane Perlez writes of Pakistan's brutal fight against its own insurgency:

Behind mud-walled family compounds in the Bajaur area, a vital corridor to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s tribal belt, Taliban insurgents created a network of tunnels to store arms and move about undetected…

After three months of sometimes fierce fighting, the Pakistani Army controls a small slice of Bajaur. But what was initially portrayed as a paramilitary action to restore order in the area has become the most sustained military campaign by the Pakistani Army against the Taliban and its backers in Al Qaeda since Pakistan allied itself with the United States in 2001.

Ms. Perlez kindly tells us that the trip to Loe Sam, in Bajaur, was arranged by the Pakistani military. So what she reports and sees is not the result of independent investigation. It is, nevertheless, really interesting to see how the militants there have adapted to, say, the use of UAVs and the occasional helicopter attack. The Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps, two independent forces (the FC works for the Ministry of the Interior), have lost 83 men during three months of fighting. They've lost well over 700 since 2004—more than doubling American losses in Afghanistan.

soldier in bajaur
Standing watch in Bajaur. Courtesy Mirror4.

Indirectly, this helps to show why it is so inappropriate to write off Pakistan as not caring, or doing nothing, about the militants in the NWFP and FATA. It's not that it's doing nothing, it's that the Pakistani government can't do much—especially if it wants to maintain a popular mandate and not throw it away by killing off hundreds more troops on a somewhat unpopular campaign.

In either case, both pieces are worth reading in full, on the off chance anyone thought things will improve dramatically now that the U.S. has a new President.

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