U.S. forces spread thin in Afghanistan

Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan (nicearmyguy81, Flickr)

Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan (nicearmyguy81, Flickr)

Our Washington Independent colleague Spencer Ackerman is embedded with U.S. troops on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border through Sept. 19. We’ll reprint his dispatches from the field over the next eleven days.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO – Spartan compared to Bagram, Salerno is a large, no-nonsense base about 12 miles from the Pakistan “border” — more on that later — that houses Task Force Curahee.

Curahee is largely comprised of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, as well as an aviation battalion, a Polish battle group and a handful of the diplomatic-military-development units known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

All told, Curahee has about 5,500 people to control Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Logar, Ghazni and Wardak provinces. This is a battlespace of 25,000 square miles — about the size of West Virginia — with a population of maybe four million people. The Afghan National Army isn’t as competent as it needs to be. But it’s regarded as a more reliable partner than the police force. “The whole thing is economy of force,” said Maj. Patrick Seiber, Curahee’s public-affairs chief, summing up the manpower available for the task force’s mission.

There’s a variety of different responsibilities in an area that has become notably more kinetic — military-speak for “violent” — in recent months, as the Afghanistan war has intensified in general.

Southwest of us, in eastern Paktika, is what Seiber described as “the main area for the border fight.” It’s about 150 miles of straight entranceway into Pakistan — where Taliban, Al Qaeda and affiliated insurgents have free passage into Afghanistan.

The border isn’t actually a border. There are no fences, no walls, no structures dividing one country from another in the part of the world controlled by the Pashtun tribes. The fighters move up from Paktika, attempting to get to Gardez in the north and cut off Khost to the east. Their ultimate destination is Kabul, the capital.

Curahee has only one battalion in eastern Paktika. Seiber noted that, in Iraq, there would be a division devoted to stopping infiltration — the difference between hundreds of soldiers and more than 10,000.

The fight in Khost was quieter in August than it has been recently, something that Seiber attributed to the task force’s success against insurgents and the strength of the provincial governor, Jamal (he uses one name, like many Afghans), who’s a believer in what the major called “conflict resolution.”

But that’s not to say it’s placid here. Three weeks ago, over two days, insurgents attacked Salerno itself, using car bombs and fighters rigged with detonation vests. The casualties were mostly Afghan villagers who work on the base. Seiber and his team remember typing press releases about the attack, only to hear rockets go off in the background, prompting rewrites.

Spencer's route through Afghanistan

Spencer's route through Afghanistan

The base is a target for rocket attacks from the mountains ringing it — and also from inside Pakistan. Seiber said he couldn’t comment on the rise this year in U.S. attacks across the border into Pakistan, but confirmed, “We can fire in self-defense out across the border.”

But the major effort in Khost is the construction of the Khost-Gardez Road. Unlike much of Afghanistan, Khost is a fertile province — Salerno and its environs are notably greener than Kabul or Bagram — with wheat being a major crop. (We didn’t discuss poppy, Afghanistan’s principal export besides violence.)

There’s no reliable way, however, to bring Khost’s harvest to market. That’s where the 98-kilometer road comes in: the LBG Co. won a $101-million contract in April to build a modern road over 20 months. Jamal says that the road will turn Khost into “another Herat,” referring to the prosperous trading center on the Iranian border, because from Gardez, Khost can be linked to Kabul.

Insurgents, accordingly, have shifted their efforts into attacking road construction. Their objective, Seiber surmised, is “to show people the government is not interested in their well-being.”

Seiber is blunt about the force at Curahee’s disposal. “We can’t just put everybody along the border or everybody along the road,” he said. “We have to figure out: where do we assume risk?”

The task force’s answer, hewing to classic counterinsurgency strategy, is within the population centers. But 5,500 soldiers to protect four million people is a daunting ratio. “We’re spread thin,” Sieber said. “That’s the take-home.”

The potential good news is that the Army brigade recently scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan by January will probably come to Curahee’s neighborhood. Seiber cautiously anticipated that the brigade will operate in the Logar-Ghazni area, near the dangerous stretch of highway that connects Kabul to Kandahar.

If it does, that means Curahee will be relieved of about half its battlespace, allowing it to focus on the Paktia, Khost and eastern Paktika hotspots. During this time, however, Curahee will lose its Polish battle-group. The Poles are slated to take control of part of Ghazni around November, so the base will divest itself of about 500 combat troops.

Even if the brigade comes to Curahee’s relief, I asked Seiber, will these roughly 5,000 troops be enough to control insurgent infiltration from Pakistan, guard the road and protect the Afghan population from attacks? His answer: “We’ll see.”

Tomorrow I’m scheduled to visit Gardez, where I should get a better sense of what the so-called “border fight” is like.

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Spencer Ackerman

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