Twice in the span of a month, the Taliban has unleashed human waves on one of the U.S. Army’s most isolated Afghan outposts. Twice, the American soldiers guarding the tiny fort have beat back the attackers, killing scores of extremists while suffering no losses of their own.
The U.S. troops’ skill, and luck, have been remarkable. They’re going to need both, as more large-scale attacks seem likely.
The Oct. 7 and Nov. 8 assaults on Combat Outpost Margah, in remote Paktika Province on the border with Pakistan, came almost exactly a year after one of the biggest pitched battles of the decade-long war. An October 2010 attack on COP Margah by hundreds of Taliban foot soldiers wielding rockets and AK-47s resulted in a lopsided tactical victory for the Americans. More than 90 Taliban died in a counter-barrage of gunfire, helicopter-fired missiles and satellite-guided bombs. As in the recent assaults, no Americans died — though the fighting left deep psychological scars.
The sustained fighting around COP Margah underscores the Americans’ battlefield prowess and the Taliban’s continuing ability to mass large numbers of troops despite concerted NATO efforts to seal off the border with Pakistan and thus strangle the Afghan insurgency. U.S. operations in and around the town of Margah, depicted in my video above, are actually ramping up while NATO activities elsewhere in Afghanistan slowly wind down.
By now the 172nd Infantry Brigade, the unit currently occupying COP Margah’s brick walls, chilly concrete buildings and sandbagged bunkers, has a firm handle on the Taliban’s tactics. The enemy uses a crisscrossing network of dry river beds called wadis to sneak within firing distance of the football-field-size outpost. “The intent is to mass 150 or more [fighters] in the wadis and then merge from three sides,” Maj. Joe Buccino, a public affairs officer, tells Danger Room.