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Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, in Afghanistan
I’m sitting at my living room table with the window open, and my cat Squeak is staring out the screen as a Black Hawk helicopter flies over the city.
Did I write that sentence in 2012 or 2022? I won’t leave you in suspense, I wrote it today, October 23, 2022, in Washington, D.C. But I very easily could have written that 10 years ago in Kabul. That sentence sums up many of the days I spent in Kabul from October 2012 through the end of 2014.
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Ten years ago today, I was in Afghanistan’s Logar province on my first embed as NPR’s last Afghanistan-based correspondent. The story I was chasing was one of the most common big-picture stories in 2012: training Afghan forces to take over security as the international community was drawing down its troop presence in Afghanistan.
At the time, the United States and Afghanistan were negotiating/bickering over a security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, which was pumpkin time under the existing agreement. My editor was particularly focused on that story and therefore didn’t want me to spend much time outside of Kabul so I could be in the city if and when the story broke.
Thus, I had less than a week to stomp around Logar and visit different bases to get a sense of what the security conditions were, how the Afghan forces were doing, and what U.S. troops thought about the training mission and the ongoing drawdown of troops.
I flew from Kabul to Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan’s Logar province on October 17, 2012. It was a quick jaunt covering less than 30 miles.
Flying into Shank felt like a scene from M.A.S.H. Despite being far larger than the fictitious base in Korea, the surrounding mountains and the sprawling green tents visible as the Black Hawk descended onto the gravel landing zone evoked the opening sequence of the TV show.
However, on the ground there was no clowning around. Shank was one of the most heavily shelled bases in Afghanistan in October 2012. Rockets and mortars landed inside the base daily — most of the time causing damage only to structures. Soldiers at Shank had gallows humor around it and maintained a sign on the base that mocked a workplace safety sign — the ones that say “275 Days Without a Workplace Accident.”
I believe that when I arrived, the sign said “31 Days in a Row of Indirect Fire,” or something to that effect.
The aforementioned mountains were one of the main reasons for the frequent indirect fire. The base was surrounded by terrain that gave bad guys the high ground and cover to take shots at the base. Shank also happened to be in a pretty strategic area.
Logar borders both Kabul and Pakistan. The Afghan forces described it as a “doorway” to Kabul and the Taliban and Haqqani network had a strong presence in parts of the province. Hence, it was highly contested terrain.
I spent the first couple of days of the embed at Shank bunking in a small plywood pen in one of the tents and interviewing troops about the conditions in the province. In a scene you couldn’t script, during my overview interview with LTC Whit Wright, commander of the 1-91 Cavalry Squadron, and a couple of other soldiers, the base alarm sounded. I didn’t notice it initially and carried on with the conversation, but Wright tapped me and motioned to get on the floor.
A couple of seconds later, there was the thud of a mortar exploding on the base. A minute later, the all-clear sounded and we got back up and resumed the interview. The soldiers shrugged it off and resumed their briefing as if nothing happened. It was a variation of the joke from the Blues Brothers: “How often does the base get mortared?”
“So often you won’t even notice it.”
Except, you did notice it because when it happened you had to dive onto the floor or sprint into a bunker.
Anyhow, the take on Logar province at the time was that security was best in the north of the province closer to Kabul and it got worse as you went south and east. There were various reasons for that. There were more U.S. and Afghan troops in the north. The terrain in the north was flatter and more open and the scattered mountains were barren, so it was more difficult to move through undetected. Also, the quality of the Afghan soldiers and their leaders was better in the north.
Moving south, the terrain grew more challenging, and the Afghan forces were less mature and motivated. U.S. forces could probably pull out of northern Logar at that time and leave the Afghans to handle the fight, Wright said.
I asked him how far south the security bubble needed to extend.
“That's the question of the day,” he said. “We came in here with three charters. One, accelerate the growth of the [Afghan forces]. … Two, expand the Kabul security zone, the bubble you're talking about.”
“… Third one is to disrupt the catastrophic attacks into Kabul itself. Historically, the [car bombs], the spectacular attack materials, all the facilitation where the men meet the materials meet the weapons, occurs somewhere in northern [Logar] … and then move up into Kabul. So, if we can do those three things — geographically speaking that's the northern half of Logar — yes, I think we can achieve our objectives.”
Like many comments and assessments I heard on that embed, there was a hopeful but not entirely confident tone.
I filled my remaining time at Shank interviewing the team that oversaw a mini radio station in a container on the base. U.S. troops referred to it as a “radio in a box.” The Afghans operating the station dubbed it “Unity Radio.”
It started as a U.S. propaganda effort to push out coalition messaging to the local population about opposing the Taliban and supporting the Afghan and international forces. But the U.S. base commander decided he wanted the Afghans to drive the agenda and handed over control of the content.
An Afghan colonel and an Afghan major led the newsgathering and messaging efforts, and a mix of Afghan forces and civilians — including women — hosted the programs. They said they focused on countering Taliban information operations and trying to convince the population to choose peace.
Like many initiatives in Afghanistan, it was a “feel good” story in that Afghans grew the capability to run the station and develop content and programs, but there were no data indicating whether the time and money invested in it were paying any return. Either way, the station wasn’t going to be around too much longer because of the U.S. drawdown leading up to the end of 2014. There had been nine such stations across Logar and neighboring Wardak provinces four months prior, and five had shut down.
From Shank, I flew to Combat Outpost McClain in the north of the province. It sat in a wide, flat expanse close to the main highway into Kabul. There were maybe 70 soldiers at the base.
In 2012, the number of insider, or “green on blue,” attacks in Afghanistan was soaring. On a regular basis, Afghan forces were turning their weapons on their U.S. and international partners. While the Taliban claimed credit for most of the incidents, saying that their men had infiltrated Afghan forces, assessments were that was rarely the case. Most of the time, the attacks resulted from arguments between Afghans and coalition forces or contractors who were training the forces.
Because of the surge in insider attacks, U.S. forces had instituted security measures to guard against such attacks. In cases where U.S. and Afghan forces were collocated, walls were erected to separate them. U.S. forces created “guardian angel” teams that would provide armed security when U.S. and Afghan forces interacted. And U.S. forces loaded their weapons when entering Afghan compounds.
At McClain, U.S. forces were implementing those measures. When I went out on a joint foot patrol one morning, I followed along as U.S. forces loaded up and walked through the gate of the “friendship wall” between the U.S. and Afghan sections of the base.
Then, the Afghan forces led the patrol with the U.S. troops behind them. A sergeant said that was a new procedure. Previously, they would alternate one Afghan and then one U.S. soldier and so forth in the marching order on patrols. But because of the insider attacks, that protocol had become too risky.
That spoke volumes. The United States and dozens of other nations were working to stand up Afghan security forces who could take over security in the country and defend against the Taliban. Yet, things had become so dicey that coalition forces had to take extensive measures to protect themselves from their allies and partners they were training.
No question that most of the Afghan forces were trustworthy and posed no danger, but the risk had grown to the point where U.S. forces couldn’t take the risk in trusting their partners. For all the talk of “shoulder by shoulder,” U.S. forces were increasingly looking over their shoulders.
The patrol marched through dusty farm plots, along the road, and then into a small village where the Afghan forces set up an impromptu security checkpoint. The mud-brick wall of a compound ran along one side of the dirt road and a narrow irrigation stream lined the other side of the road.
Afghan forces stopped and searched passing cars as schoolboys wearing bright-blue UNICEF backpacks and elderly shepherds and their sheep walked by. Some U.S. soldiers posed for photos with the kids and chatted with locals about security conditions. Others kept a close eye on the Afghan forces to observe their tactics running the checkpoints and to watch for signs of danger.
The sergeant I had been speaking with said he wasn’t happy with the checkpoint. He said that by setting it up in a busy area in the village, it guaranteed that if the Afghans stopped a car bomb, the insurgent would detonate it and “kill a lot of people.”
That was not reassuring on a lot of levels.
The sergeant explained that point to the Afghans who nodded and continued running the checkpoint as dozens of civilians passed.
Fortunately for all of us, nothing happened, and the Afghans decided to pack it in and march back to the base. Some children and villagers tagged along as we marched back through the fields, which looked to me as prime land to plant mines or IEDS given that it was near a base.
The only hazard we encountered was a corroded artillery shell — likely from the Soviet war — lying in the middle of a farm plot. It was another reminder of how the country had seen little but conflict for decades.
We returned to the base, and I flew from there to Shank for brief layover before flying to Baraki Barak with Lt. Col. Wright and a small contingent later that day. Despite being only a few miles from Shank, it was too dangerous to travel by road to the tiny outpost.
BBK, as they called it, was a hotbed of insurgent activity. The Afghan forces there were the weakest in the province.
I arrived and dropped my gear on a cot in what was basically a dorm filled with maybe two-dozen cots. The tiny base had a few dozen or so troops who lived there and others regularly shuttled back and forth from Shank and bunked in the transient building.
I joined troops in the operations center to sit in on their evening meeting. It included a call with higher-level commanders to discuss a recent incident nearby. According to local officials, U.S. forces engaged in a firefight with militants and killed four children.
In response, NATO issued a statement:
"The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has completed its initial assessment of the circumstances of the Oct. 20 operation against known insurgents in Baraki Barak district, Logar province. In addition to the insurgents killed during the operation, ISAF may be responsible for the unintended, but nonetheless tragic, death of three Afghan civilians."
In the meeting, troops discussed logistics of sending a delegation to the provincial capital the next day to pay the families of the victims. As I wrote about at the time, it was unclear if the incident happened as either side said. Soldiers told me there was no engagement with the Taliban on the day in question.
However, they had learned that it was better to quietly accept responsibility and make a token payment to families to avoid a public relations problem. Even if the facts were in dispute and there was a good chance that U.S. troops had not killed the civilians — maybe they were killed in an exchange between Taliban and Afghan forces, maybe something else happened — denying it would likely lead to a flap and bad press.
After the meeting, I went to my dorm and quietly entered the dark room where soldiers were already fast asleep. I sat on my cot to get into my sleeping bag, and the damn thing collapsed, slamming to the floor. I was startled and mortified. I was also worried one of the soldiers was going to shoot me thinking I was in infiltrator staging an attack.
A couple of guys laughed as the realized it was the journalist who was the troublemaker. I wanted to say to everyone, “It wasn’t my fault!” In fact, I wondered if someone had punked me.
Either way, I moved to the last remaining cot in the room and was able to go to bed with no further incident.
The next morning, I joined U.S. troops for an early foot patrol through the surrounding villages. It was a typical presence patrol to scare away, and if need be, engage, Taliban in the area. It would also turn out to be the last foot patrol I would go on with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. U.S. forces were doing fewer patrols and trying to get Afghans to do them, and I couldn’t organize any combat-oriented embeds in the next two years.
Anyhow, we walked out of the base and crossed the only paved road in the area. We entered a forest of tall, narrow trees in neat rows. It must have been an old agricultural project, and it was the only forest like it I ever saw in Afghanistan.
The soldiers were wearing the new camouflage that had replaced the controversial “pixelated camo,” and the new uniforms melted perfectly into the scenery.
We marched through a wide, shallow stream of rushing cold water that was just deep enough to flood our boots. We proceeded across a frost-covered farm plot and into another stretch of trees, all the while keeping an eye out for trip wires or signs of IEDs.
We continued across farm plots, some already harvested and dry, others covered with green vegetation. Now and then there would be a strange sound or a soldier would see someone in the distance who set off the alarm and the troops would hit the dirt and take up positions.
Each time, the assessment was that there was no threat and we continued. Soldiers told me that the area was unpredictable, and patrols often made contact with Taliban.
While the surroundings were beautiful and it felt like a scenic hike through farms and forests, it was also the tensest patrol I had been on to that point. It was not a good area, and heads were on swivels.
At one point, some Afghans approached, and soldiers stopped them to assess. As they were talking, a motorcycle approached. Soldiers yelled at and motioned to the driver to slow down. He did not.
A soldier fired a warning shot, and the driver stopped. We all took cover and positions.
It turned out the driver was no threat and simply wasn’t paying attention. He was lucky to be alive. The locals told the soldiers that the area where we were was safe, but insurgents were not far away. That was a variation of the common refrain in Afghanistan — over every hill was a different fight.
We completed the patrol without any further incident, other than encountering a few cows and curious children as we marched through farms back to the base. From there, I flew back to Kabul and to a hungry kitten in my yard.
That embed ended up being one of my favorites in Afghanistan. It had a good mix of informative interviews, which were pretty candid, and time outside the wire where I could see remote villages in insecure areas and “real” Afghans who were not the Kabul elite we spent so much time around.
That was critical as the Afghan and international officials in Kabul were talking up the Afghan forces and promoting the narrative that Afghans were on target to taking over security in the country by the end of 2014. The world needed snapshots that called that into question.
It was a case where the policy was set — the security transition was happening and absent a new agreement, all coalition forces were leaving by the end of 2014. Therefore, officials were in search of facts that helped sell the notion all would be well.
It was clear to me after a few days of marching around Logar — which was far from the most contested province in the country — that Afghan forces were not going to be ready to take over and win the fight.
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