The war in Afghanistan has taken a bizarre turn. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under foreign pressure to clean up corruption in his government, has apparently warned that he might just side with the Taliban instead. Meanwhile, down south major NATO combat operations continue to target Taliban strongholds. In the east, stretched-thin NATO troops struggle to build grassroots governance and security without much support from Karzai’s regime. Zach Rosenberg, War Is Boring’s youngest correspondent, heads into this morass to observe U.S. counter-insurgency operations up-close.
by ZACH ROSENBERG
The building at Forward Operating Base Altimur — in Mohamad Agha district, Logar province — that contains the Tactical Operations Center is surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. To contact someone in the building, the unauthorized — interpreters, reporters, contractors — gather outside the gate, waiting for some kind soul with access to whom they can petition: So-and-so is inside, can you please tell him I’m outside?
Most with access will readily agree to ask around on the unauthorized’s behalf; they are used to the routine. If the desired party is not available, as frequently occurs, the kind soul will open the door and step outside, holding the door open, announce the outcome, and duck back in. If not for their ready conduit, some key members of FOB Altimur would never be found, their existence only found through their effect on the battlefield, like a distant planet only known through its effects on its parent star.
Outside the door of the TOC is a special nook for a coffee pot, a wanted poster, a rack for weapons and, above that, a rack for the cellphones that a large sign on the door warns strictly against carrying through. All who enter the TOC pass underneath a samurai sword, pinned unobtrusively above the door: the U.S. Army’s equivalent of mistletoe. The first thing to catch a visitor’s eye is a bank of LCD screens against the opposite wall. The screens display maps containing various nuggets of information, save one that displays a serene picture of a tropical island and a sailboat against a cloudless sky.
Major Stacy Corn laughed when asked about the island picture. He didn’t choose it, but he claimed to like it. Corn is usually the ranking officer in the TOC, and the most active. While the other TOC personnel alternate between sitting still or rushing around, Corn rambles back and forth, constantly ordering, delegating, interjecting, requesting, listening, cursing, laughing, joking, speculating and relating anecdotes. As such he is often the moving center of the TOC; even sitting down he is tracking the conversations around him, laughing and tossing out comments. Once he paused after telling a typically curse-laden story, made eye contact with me, ripped off his name tag and said “my name is spelled ‘F-E-L-L-I-N-G-E-R.’” Then he laughed.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fellinger is the battalion commander. He bears a passing resemblance to John Malkovich, were the actor to shave his head. Though also in constant motion, he moves quietly and quickly. Several times during my evening in the TOC, I was surprised to find him standing next to me, looking intently at a subordinate or computer screen. His presence in the TOC is unpredictable, as he is frequently out representing the battalion at this meeting or that briefing. He speaks with the calm conviction of somebody with ideas, and he has a reputation as a sharp thinker.
One day in late April a riot began outside Pul-i-Alam, the capital of Logar Province in which sixteen fuel trucks were set aflame. The black smoke was visible for miles and hung in the air for hours. The riot began in response to a Special Forces raid the night before in which three civilians were killed; one was a schoolteacher and mullah at the local mosque. Such raids, it must be noted, are considered a potent and necessary weapon by American troops and are deeply unpopular among Afghans. Two companies of Afghan National Army troops were dispatched to deal with the riot. Fellinger’s convoy, originally destined for a press conference with the provincial government in Pul-i-Alam, was instead dispatched to nearby FOB Shank for several hours of meetings.
On his way back to Altimur, Fellinger kept one eye on a broken-down car — were they faking? Could it be a bomb? — and the other on two CH-47s lifting off from Altimur. The CH-47s, escorted by two AH-64 attack helicopters, were headed south towards the town of Charkh, capital of neighboring Charkh district.
Charkh is a town with a significant Taliban presence. The populace there is less helpful towards U.S. and GIROA (“jai-row-ah,” as Americans calls the government of Afghanistan) forces than neighboring towns. On the date in question, Army intelligence officers reported that local families had vacated the town center, a sure sign of a pending attack, and that locals who tend shops at the tiny American outpost there had requested to close their shops due to threats. Charkh is a town known to contain many high-level insurgents.
HUMINT had placed one particularly egregious insurgent at a specific house in Charkh. Thought to play a major role in fomenting local violence, the insurgent has been the subject of a number of Special Forces raids. The insurgent had been kicked out of the feared Haqqani network for his brutality. He had thus far escaped capture, and this had gained him a measure of notoriety among local intelligence personnel.
The CH-47s lifted off with a combined team of Special Forces from Task Force 10 and Afghan National Police that were to dismount nearby, walk to the house, observe and then raid it, capturing the insurgent. The flight time was in single digits; despite the enormity of the country, significant attacks often take place within sight of a FOB or Combat Outpost. As soon as Fellinger arrived at Altimur, he rushed to the TOC.
Orbiting 15,000 feet over the house, a Predator drone beamed a live image of the insurgent’s house to a screen in the corner of the Altimur TOC. The SF/ANP team reported that a man matching the insurgent’s description had gone outside and was pretending to garden. The crowded TOC was glued to the Predator feed amidst a din of speech — conversations, people talking into phones, into radios, commands given and acknowledged. Suddenly a yell cut through from the other side of the TOC:
“Fuck! IED strike on Anvil!”
To be continued.
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