War May Be Ending, but Fight Isn't Over for Soldiers in Remote Afghanistan

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COMBAT OUTPOST RAHMAN KHEL, Afghanistan -- Lt. Col. Shawn Daniel, standing in the middle of this dusty little outpost beneath the Afghan mountains, reassured the 70 soldiers gathered close around him that they would be going home soon.

In 2014, "we are getting out of this," he told the circle of expectant, upturned faces he had beckoned near.

The United States is withdrawing all of its combat troops by 2014, but the soldiers at this base are scheduled to leave before the end of the year.

Some of the soldiers stood stiff. Others knelt. All intently watched their 43-year-old commander, a sturdy man with silvery hair from Little Rock, Ark., who had driven in especially from the battalion headquarters to bolster their spirits and their courage.

Until they leave, Colonel Daniel warned them sternly, they have a difficult job to do.

"Afghanistan will have the best chance possible to stand on its own feet," he said. "Until then we have to look after ourselves."

America is preparing to end its longest war. It is already getting ready to draw down its troops so that in two and a half years nearly all will be gone from this country. Back home, the attention of most Americans has long since shifted elsewhere.

But out here in what feels like the edge of the world, in remote eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, the battle is a tough day-to-day reality for these soldiers. They fight to keep one another alive in a war that has already been called off.

Their base, Combat Outpost Rahman Khel, is a couple of acres of gravel, mustard-colored barracks, a gym tent, a medical hut and a fluttering American flag, hedged by tall, gray Hesco blast walls.

The soldiers posted here, one company of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division, have their home base in Alaska. Now, they peer out from shaded watchtowers at miles of flat water meadows where sheep graze and, on the northern horizon, at a low brown mud-brick village with some trees.

In the east are grand hills and a tall, snow-streaked mountain range the soldiers call the Whale.

Sgt. Christopher Keeney was standing in the wind on Watchtower Four holding a pair of binoculars in one hand while he pointed with the other.

These mountains are where coalition forces carried out Operation Anaconda in March 2002 to rout Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from remote valleys, one of the highest profile operations in the early years of the war.

Ten years later, insurgents are still coming down out of the mountains from Pakistan and the Shah-i-Kot Valley, gathering at a shrine in the foothills and using the plain around Rahman Khel as a transit route to head to the fighting farther west.

"It's a breeding ground," said Sergeant Keeney, from Washington State. "At night we see flares and lots of light signals from the villages. It ends up here in the mountains."

There are other worries, too: at one point during his watch, a stray dog wandered onto the base, and Sergeant Keeney climbed down from a tower to shoot it, trying to keep rabies off the long list of challenges here.

The job of the soldiers at this outpost is to patrol a space of land stretching almost as far as the eye can see. They disrupt Taliban supply lines, search for caches of explosives, clear the roads of land mines.

"We've got a pretty big sector," said Sgt. First Class Jacob Nestor, a short, tough man with a sunburned face and rolling shoulders. He was wearing shades as he scanned the hills. "It's from those mountains, 35 clicks out, and 10-20 clicks the other way."

Most days they travel out in convoys of brown armored trucks, posting letters at night in the villages to assure the local Afghans they are there to protect them, collecting fingerprints from would-be mine planters, resolving tribal disputes, meeting elders and trying to gain their trust so the villagers will pass on information when the fighting season begins in earnest.

"We talk to them, we try and see what they need, try to get intelligence about what the enemy is doing," Sergeant Nestor said.

So far, the men here have been lucky. The camp has received blasts of mortar fire from the village across the meadow to the north, but no one has been hurt.

But this is eastern Afghanistan, and luck holds only so long. Around midday, the camp learns that a convoy from an outpost five miles away has been ambushed on a road to the north. It sounds bad: A platoon sergeant from another company in their battalion was shot in the thigh and abdomen.

But then word comes that he will live: He has been airlifted to Bagram Airbase, and on to Landstuhl, the military hospital in Germany.

The camp settles into some kind of normalcy. Its own patrol, in a line of three huge, mine-protected vehicles called MRAPs, rolls in from the surrounding villages. Soldiers climb out, dusty, tired, but safe. Stretching, some get out their chewing tobacco.

As the afternoon wears on, a white civilian aid helicopter of a type the soldiers nickname the Jinglebird descends loudly from the cloudy sky. Soldiers emerge in clumps from the rec room, hoping the Jinglebird has brought them mail from home.

Colonel Daniel tells them they will be replaced at this outpost after they leave. But after that, who knows? He says the next year or so will be about closing posts like Rahman Khel, figuring out where the Afghans are strong enough to take control on their own and where they still need help.

It is going to get tough, he warns.

He is about to leave for another base, and his convoy of MRAPs waits impatiently behind him in the brownish morning light that settles on the camp.

He tells them again the reason he came here in the first place: to plant the American flag on Afghan soil and teach the insurgents a lesson for what they did in New York City, he says.

He says reintegration back in America will be difficult for the soldiers. He recounts his own fights with his wife at home, and the joy of helping his son.

Out here, he promises, he will come to their aid if they need him with all the force the American military possesses. But the fighting is going to intensify before they leave. For these soldiers, the war is still going on.

"We have been very fortunate," he said in an interview. "It will come."

And he told the soldiers: "Some of the things you are going to see are hard."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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