C.J. Chivers shared a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting with other New York Times reporters for their comprehensive and courageous coverage of America’s deepening tactical and political engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the numerous eruptions of instability in the region.
The New York Times – November 10, 2008
“G.I.’s in Remote Afghan Post Have Weary Job, Drawing Fire”
By C.J. Chivers
COMBAT OUTPOST LOWELL, Afghanistan — The small stone castle, sandbagged and bristling with weapons and American soldiers, rises from a rock spur beside the Landai River. Mountains lean overhead.
Once a hunting lodge for Mohammad Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s last king, the castle is home for a year for an American cavalry troop, an Afghan infantry company, a Navy corpsman and two American marines. In the deadly contest for Afghanistan’s borderlands, it plays what might seem a singularly unattractive role. The position lies exposed near the bottom of a natural amphitheater deep within territory out of government control.
Insurgents hide in caves surrounding it and in villages nearby, operating unhindered almost to the castle’s concertina wire and lobbing mortar shells toward it at will. The steep slopes facing the walls are littered with shattered boulders and trees blown to splinters by the artillery and airstrikes with which the soldiers have fought back.
The Americans’ mission is to disrupt the Taliban and foreign fighters on supply paths from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Col. John Spiszer, the commanding officer for the larger task force in the region, distilled how the mission often worked. The American presence, he said, is a Taliban magnet, drawing insurgents from more populated areas and enhancing security elsewhere.
First Lt. Daniel Wright, the executive officer of the American cavalry unit — Apache Troop of the Sixth Battalion, Fourth Cavalry — put things in foxhole terms.
“Basically,” he said, “we’re the bullet sponge.”
That analogy is a measure of the profound and enduring difficulties in the war in Afghanistan, which this year became more deadly for Americans than the Iraq conflict. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to refocus the Pentagon on winning this war, now in its eighth year.
In roughly four months, Apache Troop has taken fire on at least 70 days. The attacks have come by rocket, mortar, machine gun and rifle fire. The troop’s patrols have been ambushed. Its observation posts have been hit by rocket fire.
On one day alone, the outpost was attacked four times.
The fighting is so frequent, and the terrain so rugged and heavily populated by insurgent spotters, that the outpost’s patrols dare not venture far.
On Saturday, insurgents fired on Apache Troop for an hour in the morning with a mix of mortar shells, rockets and large-caliber sniper fire. The soldiers fought back until they thought the attack had ended. Then the Taliban opened fire again.
Fighting broke out again at 1 p.m. During the exchange, a mortar round landed at the base of the castle’s southern wall and exploded with a thunderous crack, shaking the compound. About 15 long seconds later, a radio operator called to the other bunkers over the two-way radios. “Everyone’s O.K.,” he said.
Shortly before 5 p.m., the insurgents struck again with rocket and automatic rifle fire aimed at engineers who were moving equipment near an observation post. After a firefight that lasted about five minutes, they slipped away in the fading light.
Afghan Effort Undercut
The unvarnished consensus among soldiers here, many of them veterans of the war in Iraq, is that the Pentagon’s efforts in Iraq undermined its efforts in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda plotted attacks on the United States. The military has been reviewing its Afghan strategy.
Before Election Day more soldiers had been ordered to Afghanistan to rejoin the fight. They are due to arrive soon. (The Army forbids disclosing deployment dates or troop numbers at outposts.)
For now, the soldiers of Apache Troop absorb and repel attack after attack. Sgt. Michael S. Ayres, a squad leader, summarized the practical mentality: standing watch behind heavy machine guns, the soldiers are waiting for reinforcements so they can change the nature of their fight.
“We need all the help we can get out here, so we can push out patrols and get out of the defensive,” he said.
Many also find they are managing their frustration at taking harassment fire from the heights overhead and ambushes from opposite ridges.
Because of the severity of the terrain, and the insurgents’ quickness, there is little ability to fight at close range.
“I’m just so tired of seeing muzzle flashes at 800 yards,” said Gunnery Sgt. Daniel McKernan, who trains and advises the Afghan Army here. “This is like Vietnam. Hike around these mountains and you never see them. But they are always out there. And they always attack you.”
While the soldiers wait, their days are filled by the routines of life in a hostile land. Soldiers stand guard around the clock. Each soldier is allowed to sleep in brief shifts, in crowded bunkrooms shared with bed bugs, flies and mice, while other soldiers man the guns.
By day the soldiers burn garbage and the stinking waste accumulated in latrine barrels. In the summer, many of their mattresses were so badly infested with parasites that they burned them, too.
At night the soldiers douse the smoldering pile so its red glow does not guide the Taliban’s aim.
The soldiers lift weights when they can, although incoming mortar shells have had an uncanny attraction for the weight room and the plywood hut that serves as the latrine.
Some soldiers exercise or visit the latrines only in darkness, when attacks are less common.
“Did you get the word?” a sergeant asked a reporter last month as they took cover and a mortar round exploded about 100 feet away, beside the latrine. “Stay out of there by day.”
Showers are an occasional luxury, when water is available. The tank above the shower heads is fed by a pipe carrying spring water from the mountains. The Taliban often disconnect the pipe near its source. Sometimes livestock step on it and break it, too. (Early on Monday, as this story went to print, the Taliban struck with mortars again. The second shell destroyed the showers.)
There is no Internet except at the troop’s command center, and no television. Limited electricity means the soldiers have far fewer comforts than veterans recall from other tours.
“We don’t have the same amenities they had in previous deployments, say to Iraq,” said Sgt. First Class Shawn Tiarks, platoon sergeant for the troop’s second platoon. “A lot of soldiers thought it was going to be identical to that, and it was a little shocking to find the environment we have.”
Resupply and troop rotation can come solely by helicopters, because the twisting dirt road to the castle has been made impassable for military vehicles by the destruction of two bridges — one that collapsed and another that was blown up by the Taliban. Barring an emergency, helicopters risk flying here only at night.
The limits on travel have meant shortages.
Several areas of the outpost remain dangerous because the troop lacks the supplies to harden the castle more fully.
“We don’t get enough sandbags, and at the present moment, we are plumb out,” Sergeant Tiarks said.
Foothold and Statement
Colonel Spiszer, the regional commander, said in an e-mail message that despite the difficulties, keeping the Taliban focused on the outpost had advantages, because the task force could mass firepower and fight with less risk to civilians than in other places.
“Due to the remoteness of the area we are better able to use our advantages in fires — mortars, artillery, attack helicopters and close air support — to fight and usually defeat the enemy pretty decisively,” he wrote.
The outpost, he suggested, was both a foothold in the region and a statement. Withdrawing from it, he said, would allow the Taliban to claim it had driven the Americans back, as they did when the task force closed another remote outpost earlier this year.
On Thursday, residents of Kamu, a nearby village, warned the outpost that insurgents were planning a larger assault. Twenty enemy fighters had been seen congregating in one village, one man said, and 40 in another.
The insurgents had at least six mortar tubes, he said, and were being helped by the Pakistani intelligence service, which is a common and unverifiable claim here. Their mortars were being moved into place by donkey, he added. (The man’s name was withheld to protect him from being killed as an American collaborator.)
The soldiers discussed the information. Six mortar tubes would be enough to pound the outpost, they said.
On several recent days, a single Taliban mortar tube, firing multiple rounds, had driven the soldiers for cover and had to be countered with mortar shells, artillery or low-flying fighter planes before going silent. The firing would resume the next day.
During one attack, soldiers took shelter in the castle, waiting to see where each incoming round would strike. “How’s a guy supposed to quit smoking?” said Staff Sgt. Josiah Coderellis, a scout, between explosions.
As intense as the fighting has been, the troop — and when this subject is raised they almost invariably tap on anything made of wood — has suffered only one serious injury since arriving: Pvt. First Class Evan Oshel, who was struck by shrapnel in August. He is recovering in Fort Hood, Tex.
“It’s hard to believe there’s only one,” said Capt. Frank Hooker, the troop commander, shaking his head.
In October, the attacks became more dangerous. On one day, a rocket-propelled grenade severed the right arm and part of the right foot of a local teenager working in the laundry. Several days later, a mortar round killed an Afghan guard and injured an Afghan cook, who remained in critical condition last week.
There were also close calls. One mortar round exploded by the open-air weight room, nearly killing a marine captain and a photographer for The New York Times, who crouched together against a stone wall about 15 feet away. The wall absorbed the shrapnel. The captain suffered a concussion.
Another round struck directly in front of a machine gun bunker, where soldiers huddled as it screamed down and exploded. Pvt. First Class William Solorzano described the unforgettable sound. “It’s a bad noise,” he said.
Then he reconsidered. “Actually, it’s a beautiful noise, if you get to hear it,” he said. “Because if you don’t hear it, that’s because you’re dead.”
Keeping Foe Off Balance
In an effort to keep the Taliban off balance, the troop and the Afghan Army conduct occasional patrols, varying the routine so insurgents will not anticipate them.
On one recent evening, a squad of Afghan soldiers and three American advisers left the castle and slipped out just before dusk. They picked their way up a rocky trail, wondering whether they had been seen.
The answer came quickly. A rocket-propelled grenade hissed through the air from an opposite ridge, passed the patrol and flew by the castle. It exploded in the riverbed with an ear-splitting crack.
A brief firefight ensued. Along the castle’s walls, the soldiers peered through their rifle scopes. A few shouted insults. The troop’s 120-millimeter mortar crew began shelling the Taliban firing position, a cave entrance on a ridge about 1,000 yards away.
First they fired explosive rounds, then white phosphorous, which set the vegetation by the cave on fire, marking it for an F-15 fighter jet that dropped a 500-pound guided bomb.
The detonation shook the valley. Quiet settled on the outpost. On the castle’s roof, voices floated in the darkness, and soldiers’ faces were briefly illuminated when they puffed on cigarettes. They wondered whether the insurgents had been killed.
“I don’t know if he’s dead,” Sergeant Coderellis said. “But he ain’t happy.”
“I think he’s dead,” Sergeant Tiarks said.
“At least his ears are ringing,” a third soldier said.
“They aren’t ringing,” Sergeant Coderellis said. “They’re bleeding.”
Like any other feeling, bravado here comes and goes. At other moments, servicemen were contemplative. They were waiting, they said, for many things.
They were waiting for the Afghan Army to become competent, so it could secure the country with less American help; this, the soldiers said, will take years.
They were waiting for a new strategy and for more American units to arrive, to allow soldiers in forward outposts to perform more ambitious operations; this will take at least several weeks, and probably longer.
Some were waiting for leave, and a chance to see home.
Meanwhile, as the Taliban set the pace, the soldiers waited to see what each hour would bring. Late on one recent night, Petty Officer Third Class Ramon Gavan arranged his rifle, helmet and flak jacket beside his bed, putting it all at arm’s reach.
“Living the dream,” he said, repeating a one-liner often heard here.
“This is where you realize not to take every breath for granted,” he said, and he swung his legs onto his bed, pulled a poncho liner across his face, and fell asleep. The next day, he was back on patrol.